Since the dawn of hockey, we’ve so often been told that the game’s greatest captains are all natural-born leaders. We are meant to think they possess a unique genetic makeup that has enabled them to achieve greatness at the sport’s highest level.
As far as Bruins legend Johnny Bucyk is concerned, only one player in the history of the game has been worthy of being referred to as a natural-born leader.
“Yeah, if you were Bobby Orr,” Bucyk said of his longtime teammate. “I don’t think we’ll see another Bobby Orr. He was a natural.”
The myth of the natural-born leader has led us to believe that the most hallowed captains’ accomplishments merely were a stroke of destiny. In turn, we forget that guys such as Joe Sakic were once wide-eyed, impressionable rookies. We’re left incapable of imagining Scott Stevens without a hockey stick in one hand and a battle shield in the other.
In reality, with the exception of the iconic Orr, there really is no such thing as a natural-born leader. Becoming a great commander of a hockey club is a process that takes time, a superb work ethic and a willingness to soak up as much wisdom as humanly possible from those around you.
Perhaps no one has exemplified this better than Zdeno Chara, the Bruins’ behemoth blueliner who has sported the ‘C’ since he arrived in Boston in 2006 and whose leadership abilities were doubted up until the moment he laid his fingertips upon the Stanley Cup.
While Chara says he was ready to fulfill the role from Day One in Black and Gold, a tumultuous season made his transition from Ottawa a tough one. After coming over as a free agent from the Senators, then a perennial threat to win the East, the 6-foot-9 defenseman had to endure one of the most dismal seasons in Bruins history in his first year as captain. Boston finished the season with just 76 points, placing them 13th in the conference and well short of a playoff spot.
“I think it was a tough transition for Chara when he first arrived in Boston as captain,” said CSN’s Joe Haggerty, who has covered the team throughout Chara’s entire tenure. “His head coach, Dave Lewis, was overwhelmed in that 2006-07 season and only lasted the one year. Chara tried to do too much on the ice to cover for a glaring lack of talent on the roster, and I think that reflected in his stats for that season. Being an effective leader as a team captain is a learning process and that first season was the beginning of the curve for Chara.”
Bucyk, who said he believes Chara was “a little nervous” during his first year at the helm, certainly knows what the big man was going through. Prior to helping lead the Bruins to Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972, the man known as “Chief” wore the ‘C’ for the first time during one of the club’s leanest years, as the Bruins went 17-43-10 in 1966-67.
“It makes it tough when things aren’t going well,” said Bucyk, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981. “You look at yourself and wonder if you’re contributing enough to help the team and you have to get the players going.”
Prior to having the ‘C’ sewn on his sweater in ’66 (a responsibility he later resumed in 1973 after Boston went with three alternate captains for six seasons), Bucyk had the benefit of learning from three different Bruins captains in Fernie Flaman, Don McKenney and Leo Boivin.
Chara wouldn’t say that Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson’s influence on him was immeasurable in Ottawa, where he also played alongside countryman Marian Hossa and a number of fellow Europeans. Instead, the Slovak said the credit goes to a number of individuals.
“Obviously, you try to learn from different players and not just from captains,” Chara said. “Over my years in the league, I’ve learned from different players, even on different teams. You learn different things from different people.”
Haggerty said recently retired forward Mark Recchi, who captured his third Stanley Cup with Boston before riding off into the sunset, had a tremendous influence on Chara.
“(Chara) never came off as the kind of captain that ‘would have a beer with the guys’ earlier in his career,” Haggerty said. “It’s difficult to be an effective leader if you don’t develop personal relationships with your teammates, and that may not have happened as much earlier in his B’s tenure. I think Mark Recchi, who Chara respects so profoundly, really helped Chara fully realize what it means to be a leader of men in a hockey dressing room.
“There’s been a marked difference in Chara’s leadership style since playing with ‘Rex,’ and it was all for the better. Recchi was great at being positive and letting his teammates know that he cared about them, and that earned him the highest levels of respect from his teammates. Chara has learned from that model of leadership after sometimes failing to connect with guys earlier in his career.”
For what seemed like an eternity, the knock on Chara by pundits was that his leadership abilities were to be found only on the ice. Many have long insisted that No. 33 leads strictly by example with his strong play on a nightly basis and his nearly superhuman training regimen and work ethic.
But is the big man really a gentle giant behind closed doors? Does Chara strictly let his play do all the talking?
“I’m more intense, more serious and a more vocal leader,” Chara said. “I know some guys like to lay back and be quiet, and do it a different way. You have to be yourself as well. My personality is more intense, more serious and more vocal.”
Despite Chara’s unwavering support from his teammates, there were factions within the media and throughout the fan base that remained adamant he’d never lead the Bruins to the promised land. Their outcries reached a crescendo early in January last year, as Chara rubbed some the wrong way by not addressing the media after a frustrating loss in Montreal.
Some went as far as to say it was time to bust out the scissors and remove the ‘C’ from the 6-foot-9 rearguard’s jersey, insisting Patrice Bergeron or perhaps even Recchi take over the role.
What all of his critics likely didn’t realize was that they’d just poured a gallon of gasoline onto Chara’s ever-burning competitive fire. He followed that loss to the Canadiens with 12 points in his next 12 games, getting himself back into the Norris Trophy conversation and helping the Bruins get on a roll heading down the stretch.
“It’s the best thing. I think I always respond the best way if someone’s challenging me, and not just me but this team,” Chara said. “You’re always going to have people who believe in you and people who are doubting you. The best way to do it is to just prove them wrong and do your thing.”
Chara’s “thing” — in addition to his fearsome slapshot, as evidenced by his record-breaking 108.8 mph shot in the NHL Hardest Shot competition in Janaury — has long been defensive dominance. No. 33 was brilliant throughout the Bruins’ playoff run in 2011, shutting down one star forward after another, round after round after round.
Yet up until the afternoon of June 15, just hours before the Black and Gold were set to take on the Canucks in a winner-take-all Game 7, there still were those that refused to budge from their belief that the hulking D-man couldn’t get it done. They couldn’t shake the fact that Boston had bowed out of the postseason prematurely for three years running. Maybe they couldn’t help feeling that Chara deserved the blame for the Bruins’ inexplicable collapse against the Flyers in 2010.
But this time around was different. It was a new year, a new set of circumstances and a Bruins team that finally had all of the right pieces in place. But most of all, it was the culmination of the evolution of a leader, one who could rise to the occasion when it mattered most and carry his troops.
“There was the simple issue of needing to play well in big games,” Haggerty said. “He’d never been a great big-game performer in the postseason prior to last season and had a lot of Game 7 losses on his resume. He answered all of those questions last season and put many of his detractors out of business.”
Chara wasn’t ready to lead anybody to glory when he broke into the NHL as a 20-year-old with the New York Islanders in the late ’90s. Even if Boston had all the talent in the world in 2006-07, he might not have been ready then, either. But in 2011, the 34-year-old proved he was. In captaining the Bruins to a championship, a Cup drought that spanned nearly four decades was squashed and the horde of individuals who never thought he could pull it off were forever silenced.
“I’m just happy that we won and it’s a huge honor to be a captain and lead a team to a Stanley Cup championship,” Chara said. “Not many guys can do it. Not many guys can say, ‘Hey, we won and I was the captain of that team.’ I’m not saying it’s me, it’s the whole team, but it’s a huge honor.”
Now, even after accomplishing the greatest individual and team feat of his NHL career, Chara — currently in the first season of a seven-year contract extension — has no intention of resting on his laurels. His drive to hoist the Cup again is limitless. So, too, is his desire to continue to become an even greater leader.
“I just try to do my best every time in every situation. You’re not always going to be perfect, but you try to be the best you can,” he said of his progression as a captain. “You have to use the people around you. It’s not just a one-man show. You try to get some advice from certain people, teammates. Like I said, it’s not a perfect world but you try to make it as best as possible.”
And when all is said and done, after all the flak he took for so long, Chara may one day rank among Boston’s greatest leaders, from Eddie Shore to Bucyk to Ray Bourque, and even the natural one, Orr.
“I would think so, yeah. He’s got a long career to go,” Bucyk said of Chara’s chances of one day having his No. 33 raised to the rafters. “If he stays here for that long, I’m sure he will.”
Should Chara ever achieve such an honor, it won’t be because it was his birthright, his fate or some crazy theory about his hockey chromosomes being superior to others. It will be, simply, because he worked as hard as he could to earn it.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com