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Zdeno Chara changed everything

High marks for a tall man.

Calgary Flames v Boston Bruins

“Oh, here he goes again,” you say. “Another nostalgia piece.”

That’s right, folks! When you hold the keys to the website, you can wax poetic about anything you want — you all remember Slovaktober, don’t you?

Let’s take a trip back in time, back to the summer of 2006. Your esteemed author had just graduated from high school. Life was full of possibilities.

And the Bruins...sucked. Big time.

Depending on your age, you may or may not remember the state of the team back then: the Bruins headed into the 2004-2005 lockout with two consecutive embarrassing playoff flame-outs.

They burst out of the lockout by signing “in their prime” stars like...Brian Leetch and Alexei Zhamnov? Yeah, exactly.

Joe Thornton got traded. Mike Sullivan got fired. The team finished in last place in 2005-2006. Good times.

Summer winds

As June and July of 2006 rolled on, there were inklings of hope: the B’s drafted Phil Kessel, along with two later-round picks named Lucic and Marchand.

They acquired a goalie prospect named Tuukka Rask.

But the biggest, and most shocking, development came when free agency opened in 2006, and the Bruins signed both Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, two of the most coveted names on the market.

It was a shock for a number of reasons, mostly due to the fact that (fair or unfair) the B’s had a reputation for being cheap and refusing to shell out big money for free agents who were actually in their primes.

It was also a surprise that either guy would want to commit big years to a seemingly floundering team, but money talks, right?

As Chara posed up on that stage with his short-lived #44 Bruins jersey and noted Bruins legend Dave Lewis, one couldn’t help but think things might have a shot at turning around.

However, the speed of that turnaround is something few expected.

After stumbling through the brief Lewis regime, the B’s embarked on what one could consider a “golden generation,” to use a soccer term, with a run of success that seemed unfathomable in May of 2006.

So good that it became routine

Chara was the backbone of it all.

He averaged 25+ minutes of ice time per night in his first six seasons with the Bruins. He missed just 15 games in his first seven seasons.

He was the anchor of a team that frequently boasted one of the league’s best defenses and penalty kills. He was always in the Norris conversation, winning once.

Sky posted his RAPM chart in the retirement announcement post, and his numbers are comically close to being off the charts for his prime years.

He was the most intimidating figure on Bruins teams that thrived on intimidation — who can forget the crazed smile and laugh at Brendan Smith back in 2014?

And yet, for all of his accolades, Chara was pretty consistently underrated by hometown fans.

He was one of those rare players who was often more appreciated by out-of-town fans or neutral observers than by fans of his own team.

While no played is immune to criticism and Chara wasn’t perfect, the takes were often silly: Chara’s too slow. Chara doesn’t fight enough. Chara doesn’t play physical enough.

As you look back at his Bruins career through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, you’ll think “nah, Bruins fans loved Chara. You’re making that stuff up.”

Lest you forget, there was a loud contingent of fans who truly believed that towards the end of his Bruins tenure, Chara should have had the captain’s C taken from him and given to Patrice Bergeron — truly one of the worst Bruins-related takes of all time.

Immense, both on and off the ice

Chara didn’t do it alone. He had plenty of help during the Bruins’ golden years, from one of the best two-way forwards of all-time to the best goalie the Bruins have had in decades.

But he was the pillar of the team through its best years, changing the culture of the locker room from his arrival.

His work ethic and training regimen are the stuff of legend, with plenty of stories passed around about his pull-up ability or wild offseason workout routine back in Slovakia.

If your captain and one of your best players was putting in that much off-ice work, you didn’t have much of an excuse to slack off.

Chara was also known as a captain who didn’t allow rookie hazing or any of that other “funny but maybe not really that funny” locker room behavior that tends to pit the news guys against the old guard.

He also spoke about 502 languages and got his real estate license for fun — a modern Renaissance man.

I guess the take-home point here is that if you’re a younger or newer Bruins fan, it’s hard to actually explain how much things changed after Chara’s arrival; if you’re a fan older than me, you likely feel it even more strongly than I do.

Next stop: rafters

Unfortunately, I think we were robbed of the “riding into the sunset” ending Chara probably deserved.

I have no basis for this other than my own opinion, but think that he may have retired had the Bruins won the Cup in 2019, given his health, the state of the team, and where he was at that point in his career.

Instead, we know how that ended, and Chara played his last game as a Bruin in an empty bubble then ended his career by bouncing around in the Metropolitan Division before deciding enough was enough.

His #33 will end up in the rafters before too long, and he’ll end up enshrined in Toronto at some point soon too.

The fact that we can all casually agree “yeah, he’ll have his number retired and be a Hall of Famer” without much fanfare illustrates just how good Chara was as a Bruin.

At some point, you just expected it...elite became routine.

We’ll all have similar feelings (probably even stronger) when Bergeron hangs ‘em up, as he’s really the only one who can hold a candle to Chara in this era.

Brad Marchand, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask are all great was well, but the level of impact just isn’t quite the same.

Chara was a transformative presence, on and off the ice.

We were fortunate to be along for the ride.