Before Zdeno Chara had even signed for the Capitals, the defenseman and Washington coach Peter Laviolette met. They both knew the other from their years in the NHL — one as a player and the other as a coach — and they both live in Longboat Key, Florida.
But those conversations were the first time Laviolette and Chara really got to know each other away from the ice. And when Laviolette finished talking with Chara, he remembers promptly calling Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, raving about Chara’s character and attitude and what he planned to bring to Washington, if Washington wanted him.
Chara became a free agent after 14 seasons with the Bruins. Boston opted to turn over a fresh leaf, moving past the 44-year-old defenseman who helped bring a Stanley Cup to the city. But the Capitals saw a place for the 6-foot-9 blueliner, and Chara has delivered on his end of the bargain.
“He has not dropped the ball at any point with what we’ve talked about,” Laviolette said. “He’s been a terrific player, he’s been a terrific teammate, and he’s all business. He came here for a reason.”
That reason was to play a key role for a team with playoff aspirations. He found that with the Capitals, becoming a fixture on the penalty kill while missing just one game. If he plays at least 12:30 in Tuesday’s regular-season finale against the Bruins, he’ll become the second defenseman since 1997-98 to skate 1,000 minutes in a season at the age of 44 or older.
And Chara was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy on Monday, which is awarded to the player who best exemplifies dedication and perseverance. None of that comes as a surprise to Laviolette, who realized when talking to Chara in Florida what he could bring to the Capitals if given the opportunity.
“I don’t think you could use two better words to describe a player or a person than dedication and perseverance,” Laviolette said. “Dedication for sure. Perseverance to keep pushing and playing the way he does at this point in his career.”
The Slovakia native broke into the league in 1997 with the Islanders, and he played eight seasons combined between New York and the Ottawa Senators before joining the Bruins. He earned the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in 2009. Two years later, he captained Boston’s Stanley Cup-winning squad.
When his time in Boston came to an end, Chara still felt he had more to give. He still enjoyed working out and skating each day. He wasn’t ready to hang up his skates, and another playoff push intrigued him. Washington proved to be a good fit, and those conversations with Laviolette helped bond the duo well before they shared a locker room.
“At the time we met, none of us knew this would kind of happen,” Chara said. “We were talking about hockey in general, but it was more getting to know each other better and getting the families together. So it was really nice to get to know Peter’s family and kind of get to hang out.”
The Capitals secured the No. 2 seed in the East Division, and they’ll face either the Bruins or the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs at Capital One Arena. Chara didn’t indicate if a potential matchup with Boston adds anything extra to that series, although he already scored against his former team this season.
But that’s not what drives Chara. He’s not after revenge from the Bruins for allowing him to leave. Instead, he’s grateful to play such an active role with the Capitals, continuing a 23-year NHL career in a new city and with a new team — yet bringing the same mentality each day.
“I love this game,” Chara said. “This game gave me and my family a lot, and I’ve learned a lot from this game. Obviously, I do my best every day I come to the rink and be a good example on and off the ice and do the things that can improve and make a difference for the team.”