He made the announcement on Instagram this morning: “After 25 seasons of professional hockey 1,680 NHL regular season games, 200 Stanley Cup Playoff games, and hundreds of international games I am proud to announce my decision to retire from the National Hockey League. In doing so, I am honored to return to TD Garden today to sign a one-day contract with the Boston Bruins and officially finish my career with the team that has meant so much to me and my family. There are so many people that have helped contribute to my success, including all of you, and I look forward to properly thanking everyone this afternoon. Thank you, Big Zee.”
In the NHL, his size belied his speed and enormous strength. He played 24 seasons, and when he captained the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, he became only the second European to do so after Nicklas Lidstrom with Detroit three years earlier.
Chara was born in Trencin and first rose to prominence with the Dukla Trencin junior team in the mid-1990s. Because of his size, he was slower to develop and never played at the World Juniors, but the New York Islanders used the 56th selection in the 1996 Entry Draft to select him after no club chose him the previous year, his first season of eligibility.
After the draft, Chara opted to play in the WHL, with Prince George, and he started the following year in the AHL, with Kentucky. But once he was called up to the Islanders, there was no going back. He used his unparallelled size and strength to become a force in his own end, and his incredible power helped him develop one of the most feared slapshots in the league. Indeed, he would eventually win the hardest shot contest at the NHL All-Star Game/Skills Competition five times.
After four years on Long Island, Chara was traded to Ottawa in a deal which saw the Islanders acquire Alexei Yashin. Chara blossomed in Ottawa, becoming more important to the offence, anchoring the power play, and maintaining his impenetrable qualities inside his own blue line. But the Senators had another star blueliner in Wade Redden, and by the end of the 05/06 season they felt they couldn’t afford to keep both. They signed Redden to a long-term contract and allowed Chara to leave, which time quickly proved to be a huge mistake.
The Bruins pounced on the big man, signed him to a 5-year, $37.5 million deal of his own, and gave him the “C”, which he wore for all of his 14 seasons with the Bruins. With a formidable core that included Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and goalie Tim Thomas, the Bruins made deep runs in the playoffs, culminating in 2011 when they defeated Vancouver in game seven to win their first Stanley Cup since Bobby Orr led the team to glory in 1972. They made it back to the finals two years later, losing to Chicago in six games, and 2019, going down to defeat in seven games to St. Louis.
Chara closed out his NHL career with one season in Washington, in 2020/21, and then back to where it all began, with the Islanders, last season. In all, his 1,680 regular-season games in the most by a defender in NHL history, and he added to that total by playing in exactly 200 playoff games. He won the Norris Trophy in 2008/09, only the second European after Lidstrom to win that coveted honour.
Chara was also part of the silver-medal team in 2012, something of a minor miracle with a roster not as deep as the early 2000s. They knocked off Canada, 4-3, in the quarter-finals, then the Czechs, 3-1 in the semis, eventually losing to Russia, 6-2. As great as that tournament was, the indelible image of the event came after the Slovaks received their silver medals. Chara donned the number 38 sweater of Pavol Demitra, who had been one of the victims of the Yaroslavl plane crash the previous September and who had long been a driving force for Slovak hockey. Gone, he was not forgotten, and certainly not by Chara.
Chara dropped his gloves occasionally in the NHL, more often in the early years as players challenged his toughness, far less so in later years when word got around that a fight with Chara was like a suicide mission. He was respected by all, teammates and opponents alike, and despite his size and toughness, he was a sporting player who didn’t abuse his superior power.
The NHL will miss Chara, and Slovakia will revere him for the rest of his life. He was a great player but an even greater ambassador for the game, at home and abroad.