To put it mildly, the Boston Bruins were a complete mess before Zdeno Chara arrived on July 1, 2006.
They were a few months removed from trading their franchise center at the time, Joe Thornton, to San Jose, for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart. Sergei Samsonov, a fellow first-round selection from 1997, departed a few months later at the trade deadline. The dreaded 2005-06 campaign concluded with the Bruins relieving Mike Sullivan and Mike O’Connell of their respective head coaching and general manager duties.
At that time, the proud Original Six franchise needed a culture change. But the Bruins looked at one particular giant option from Ottawa on the free agent market to help establish a new tradition.
Chara signed on the dotted line on the first day of free agency over 16 years ago. Marc Savard, a stout playmaking center, also came aboard following his stint with the Atlanta Thrashers.
Chara, Savard, Sturm, Mark Recchi, Tim Thomas, former GM Peter Chiarelli, and countless others established a cultural foundation, beginning with the 2006-07 season. Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, head coach Claude Julien, President Cam Neely, and numerous cogs came aboard later to build off the building blocks established from the cast above.
Success didn’t come immediately. The Bruins endured a disappointing campaign in Chara’s first season under coach Dave Lewis in 2006-07. Eventually, they established a winning, team-first culture and only missed the playoffs twice in the subsequent years of Chara’s captaincy.
The Bruins became postseason regulars beginning in 2007-08. They sustained three bitter Game 7 defeats in consecutive years against the Canadiens, Hurricanes and Flyers before finally getting over the clinching game hump in 2011, beginning in Round 1 against Montreal.
Finally, the Bruins climbed the mountain just weeks after P.K. Subban and the rival Habs pushed them to the brink. Chara and company faced another stiff test in the Conference Finals against the upstart Lightning before matching up against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks for hockey’s ultimate prize.
On June 15, 2011, Boston’s perseverance paid off on an early-summer night in Vancouver. Indeed, the Bruins, climbed the hockey mountain with their 6-foot-9 captain leading the way.
“Without that, you can’t win. You need to have a culture. You need to have players that want to follow, and it wasn’t just me. It was a team effort. I would have never done it without Patrice. I never would have done it without Brad coming in and following Patrice’s lead. We had guys stepping in, willing to come from other teams and adjust to that culture,” Chara told reporters Tuesday at TD Garden.
“It was not probably easy, and not everybody wanted to kind of change, but it was necessary. I felt it was necessary for this organization and for this team to make a change. We had Cam arrive, we have Don [Sweeney] step in; we have different people coming in and helping change the culture and make it better. Ultimately, we end up winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, and we came close two other times.”
The culture carried on past the 2011 Cup triumph. The Bruins continued knocking on the door to hoist Lord Stanley again, with Final appearances in 2013 and 2019.
Chara’s legacy goes beyond his on-ice accomplishments. His charitable off-ice work and humility resonated throughout Boston. The gentle giant never basked in any singular achievement, always willing to credit his teammates, family, coaches, front offices, and peers for helping along during his 25-year journey in the National Hockey League. And the fans didn’t hesitate to show Chara their respect, notably with the standing ovation before a caged, battle-tested warrior played with a broken jaw before Game 5 against St. Louis in 2019.
He carried his relentless work ethic to his last two stops in Washington and Long Island. But Boston remained home even as Chara concluded his on-ice career elsewhere.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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