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Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo Make a Unique Pair

Nearly 20 years separate the two defensemen on the Bruins' top pairing

by Caryn Switaj @NHLBruins / BostonBruins.com

BostonBruins.com - Brandon Carlo used to be the tallest player on his team. 

 

When the 6-foot-5 defenseman would head out to the ice, the process was as simple as taking the tallest stick from the stick rack. Now, it requires a bit more notice. 

 

Carlo's defense partner these days, standing at 6-foot-9, happens to have a few inches on him. 

 

"Now, I come and I look at all the stick racks, and my sticks, I can rarely find them because they look the same size as everybody else's compared next to his," Carlo laughed. "It's pretty crazy." 

 

Everything these days is pretty crazy for the young blueliner, who has spent his first days in the NHL being paired with Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara.  


Not only does "Big Zee" have a few inches on Carlo, but he also has a few years. 

 

Nineteen years, eight months and eight days separate the 19-year-old Carlo and 39-year-old Chara, who was born on March 18, 1977 and is in his 20th year in the NHL.

 

"We haven't really talked about it or anything," Carlo smiled. "Every conversation I've had with him has basically been about hockey and anything revolving around the league, but that's pretty crazy."

 

"I've seen quite a few tweets that he was drafted in '96 and I was born in '96, so it's pretty cool for me to be around a guy with that much experience in the league." 

 

On June 22, 1996, Chara was selected 56th overall by the New York Islanders in the third round of the 1996 NHL Draft at Kiel Center in St. Louis. 

 

Five months later, on Nov. 26, 1996, Carlo was born in Colorado Springs.

 

"It's exciting to have someone who literally when I started playing NHL, was born, and now, he's on my right side," Chara said with a big smile.

 

Only one other pairing in the NHL even comes close in its uniqueness to start the 2016-17 campaign. The Philadelphia Flyers' Ivan Provorov (born on Jan. 13, 1997) has spent time early in the season alongside Mark Streit (born on Dec. 11, 1977), with the pair having an age difference of 19 years, one month and two days.

 

The tandem of Chara and Carlo is special, and Chara genuinely knows that. 

 

"It's kind of two contrasts - but I like it," he smiled. "I'm trying to obviously help him as much as I can - without affecting his personality or him as a player, because he's going to develop his own status and himself as a player."

 

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Carlo's NHL career officially began on the night of Oct. 13, 2016, when he suited up in the Spoked-B against the Blue Jackets in Columbus at Nationwide Arena. 

 

When Carlo was younger - and stayed up to watch his hometown team, the Colorado Avalanche - he dreamed about making it to the NHL.

 

None of those dreams, however, had included a Stanley Cup Captain standing next to him on the blueline.

 

"Being able to go out there and start the game with him was pretty special for me," said Carlo, who heard his name announced alongside Chara's in the starting lineup prior to his first game. "That's something I'll never forget, absolutely."

 

"And standing next to him with him being 6-foot-9? That's pretty crazy, because we cover a lot of ice. I'm 6-foot-5, and I thought I was big, but then I look over and I'm looking way up to him and I feel small, so it's pretty cool."

 

His family and friends think it's pretty cool, too. His stream of texts since his debut serves as evidence.

 

"They're always like, 'You're paired with Big Zee?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I can't believe it myself,'" said Carlo. "I'm like, 'Yeah, it's pretty crazy, this is nuts.'"

 

"Just really cool to not only go through that myself, but all of my friends and family get to see me out there with such a notable guy in the NHL." 

 

Carlo will get the chance to play with Chara in front of his family and friends when the Bruins face the Avalanche in Denver on Nov. 13, in the rink where he attended his first NHL game.

 

"He makes me feel really comfortable out on the ice," added Carlo, who experienced a moment during his second NHL game, in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, when he knew Chara had his back. 

 

"In the game, I was getting into a little push and shove kind of thing with [Matt] Martin, and he's a pretty tough guy, and Zdeno came right over to help me out, and that was nice."

 

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The NHL was different 19 years ago when Chara broke into the league, on Nov. 19, 1997, when he suited up for his first game with the New York Islanders in Detroit.

 

The sort of relationship between he and Carlo - between a veteran and a "rookie" - was not likely to exist in the same way. 

 

"When I came to the show, to the NHL, obviously the guys are older guys, they're professionals, they have families, they have kids, but it was in some way a little different," said Chara. 

 

"You know, you came in as a young player, the veterans made sure that you had kind of a -," he paused, before continuing, "It was not as easy as it is now."

 

"It was like, 'You are not as welcome as us,' or [you were not] welcomed with open arms like, 'Heyyy, we have a young 18, 19-year-old, yeah, come on in and play!'" he smiled with outstretched arms. "It was a training camp. You got run. Every practice, you got run. Guys were going after you. Everybody was protecting their jobs, their spots."

 

Fights broke out often in practice.

 

"I got into a few scraps my first year in the practices, and you had to fight your way and earn the respect, and after that, it was fine, but yeah," said Chara. 

 

The game is much better now, in that regard.

 

"A lot better," said Chara. "It's way, way better." 

 

Carlo can't imagine what that must have been like.

 

"He definitely doesn't treat me like a child," said Carlo.

 

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Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien has been a witness to Chara's leadership through the years, and he's watched as Chara has tried to show his young defense partner the way. 

 

"I think Zee recognized what [Brandon's] all about, and that's important," said Julien. "And at the same time, I think Zee is enjoying the fact that he can help a young player get better."

 

"I don't know if he's had the opportunity to have that. Maybe he hasn't, and now it's time for him to do the same thing, but he's been good with him."

 

For Chara, his approach was framed by his earlier days playing in Slovakia. 

 

"I don't know, for whatever reasons, when you were a young player on a junior team, I don't know why, but the older players always took some way or some kind of advantage of young players coming in," he recalled. "I told myself I would never do that. I will always include the young players on the team in the way that everybody's equal."

 

"There was discipline on the team, but [I made sure] there was no bullying, there was no taking advantage of young players, there was no calling young players 'rookies' or names or whatever."

 

Carlo shook his head at the possibility of Chara not really talking to him or treating him as well as he has. The duo constantly communicates.

 

"With gaps and on the penalty kill, I know exactly where to be because he's telling me exactly where to be," said Carlo. "Just in general, he's a really good guy as well, and he'll tell me 'good job' after a shift, which is nice and reassuring, too."

 

"The way he communicates, it's been a really big part of our game together, just being loud and communicating. It's pretty awesome that I get to experience that."

 

Before each game, he and Chara sit down and go over the opponent's lineup.

 

"Anytime there's a chance I can help him out before a game, talking about the different players' tendencies that I gained over the course of 20 years, I think it's pretty valuable," said Chara. 

 

 

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Playing on the top defensive pairing with Chara means playing against the NHL's elite. 

 

In Carlo's NHL debut, he was tasked with shutting down Columbus' line of Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson for most of the night. Two nights later, Auston Matthews presented a different challenge.

 

Facing Detroit's speed and going up against veterans like Henrik Zetterberg quickly taught Carlo patience. Steven Stamkos and his linemates did the same. 

 

"He will learn a lot, by just playing against top lines, and it's not easy, because every night, you have to be really focused," said Chara. "Every night, the team is depending on you to do your job and obviously not every night's going to be a night you will succeed, but you're going to do your best to do it, and when you do, it's fun."

 

Playing with Big Zee also means playing big minutes. 

 

Through his first 15 NHL games, Carlo was leading all NHL rookies in time on ice, playing an average of 22:26 per game. He was one of only four rookies who were averaging 20 or more minutes a night. (Writer's note: apologies to the Captain, for using the term "rookie" here.) Carlo also had his first two NHL goals and two assists, and led all rookies with 31 blocked shots - a mark good for second on Boston behind Chara (34).

 

Video: BOS@TBL: Carlo denies Kucherov's wrister with block

 

Carlo is doing it all with the Bruins' captain guiding him. 

 

Both he and Chara posted a plus-11 rating through the first 15 games of the 2016-17 season. Carlo's plus/minus led all rookies (by a plus-5 margin), and he was listed in the top-10 among the entire NHL. 

 

"It's an accomplishment after every game, when you know that the line didn't score, or you minimized their chances, and that means you're increasing the chances for your team to win," said Chara, before adding with a slight smile, "And a lot of the time, it's overlooked."

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Chara learned through much trial and error when he was Carlo's age.

 

Unlike Carlo, though, he didn't start out his NHL career facing top lines right away. 

 

The first game in which Chara remembers facing a top line was on Jan. 7, 1999, in his second season playing in the NHL. He and the Islanders were in Philadelphia to face the Flyers. 

 

Two nights prior, the right side defenseman on his team's top pairing - Rich Pilon - had suffered an injury.

 

With a game against the Flyers on the line, Chara remembers Mike Milbury coming up to him and asking him a simple question: "Can you play right D?"

 

The left shot D-man had never played the right side. 

 

"Of course I said 'yes,'" Chara recalls. "Because that was my chance." 

 

Chara laughs when he thinks about that day - how he spent the entire morning skate pivoting over and over again on the right side to make sure that he was ready.

 

That night, he played the game alongside Kenny Jonsson on the top pair, facing "The Legion of Doom," with John LeClair, Eric Lindros and Keith Jones coming at him in waves.

 

 

Chara went on to face many more top lines, and the nights were always accompanied by many mistakes. He learned by experience. It is not easy to go up against the best players every night, especially as a young defenseman. 

 

"I think what's impressed me the most is when [Brandon] does get into tough positions or plays and mistakes are made, he goes out there next shift and he plays the same way," said Chara. "You know, some players get affected…but that's a very valuable thing, that he can park it, and go out there, and approach it as a new shift."

 

As a defense pairing, Chara and Carlo's greatest strength has been this shared mentality. 

 

"If he notices something that he thinks that I could have done better on a play, he'll definitely share his feedback with me, but overall, I feel like he knows when I noticed that I made a mistake there, or vice versa," said Carlo. "Our communication's been great - it's about not getting too frazzled and just kind of moving on to the next shift, because hockey's a game of mistakes."

 

"And the coaches have expressed to me and Zee that I can make mistakes out there and still have a good game - and to just try and limit them as much as you can."

 

"You have to do that; you can't be thinking about last shift, or two shifts ago, or a mistake, or a giveaway, or whatever," said Chara. "And it's the same way if you do something good. You do something good, you take the play away or block a shot, you come back and reset, and reset, and reset, and next shift, and next shift. You have to do that sometimes 30 times a game. You have 30 shifts, you have to really kind of always be thinking, 'new shift, new challenge.'"

 

Not every player thinks that way, and especially not a dozen games into the NHL.

 

"And the players that do have that, they survive," said Chara. "They find a way to get over obstacles or challenges."

 

 

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Chara's and Carlo's journeys could have taken them down very different paths.

 

Just as countless factors could have kept them from ever meeting or becoming a pairing for the Boston Bruins, there's an endless amount of circumstances that made such an occurrence possible. 

 

The first notable date, as mentioned previously, is Nov. 26, 1996. 

 

On that day, 20 years ago, two lives were on winding roads that - if the hockey gods had anything to do with it - would one day converge.

 

In Colorado Springs, Angie and Lenny Carlo welcomed their third son, Brandon. 

 

About 1,500 miles to the Northwest, in Kamloops, British Columbia, a 19-year-old Chara laced up his skates that night with the Prince George Cougars, preparing to face the Blazers. This was Game No. 31 of his first and only junior season in the Western Hockey League. It was also his first season away from his native Slovakia.  

 

Three games prior, Chara and his teammates had faced the Tri-City Americans, the team that Carlo would join 16 years later and play three years with before graduating to the pro game and getting his shot with Boston. 

 

By the time Chara had played his first NHL game (Nov. 19, 1997 in Detroit), and scored his first NHL goal (Jan. 29, 1998 against the Coyotes), Carlo was barely more than a year old. 

 

Years passed.

 

Though Carlo's older brothers played football, and he even played running back, he would soon fall in love with hockey. He would go to his first Avalanche game and become mesmerized by Rob Blake. 

 

By the time Carlo was 10 years old, Chara would have already signed with Boston as a free agent in July 2006.  

 

A couple of years later, Carlo started skating with the Colorado Thunderbirds, where he would play Pee Wee, Bantam and U16 hockey before being drafted 214th overall by Tri-City in the 10th round of the WHL Draft on May 5, 2011. 

 

That night, Chara was in Boston enjoying a 3-0 series lead over the Philadelphia Flyers and getting ready to sweep them the next evening at TD Garden en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Chara was 34. Carlo was 14. 

 

By the time Chara led his team back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, Carlo had just made his WHL debut with Tri-City.

 

That Fall, on Oct. 4 2014, the Bruins received three draft picks, including a 2015 second rounder, from the Islanders in exchange for Johnny Boychuk. 

 

The pick originally belonged to the Flyers, and when they finished 24th in the league at the end of the 2014-15 season, they were given the 7th overall pick (Provorov), and the 37th pick, which belonged to Boston. 

 

When the Bruins went to make their selection on June 29, 2015, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., Carlo was still on the board. They snatched him. 

 

"Are you looking forward to meeting Chara?" Carlo was asked right after being drafted.

 

"Absolutely. He's had an unbelievable career, and obviously he's the captain and a great leader as well, so I look forward to seeing him and being around him," Carlo had said. "I feel like I can really take a lot of notes off of that guy."

 

That 18-year-old version of Carlo had confidence in his play, but could not fathom being in the NHL a mere 16 months from that day.

 

In September 2015, Carlo attended his first training camp and was star-struck by the talent surrounding him. 

 

He was given the chance to play a preseason game alongside Chara, on Sept. 24, 2015 against the New York Rangers. He was thrilled. 

 

But, as fate would have it, Chara was injured early in the game and Carlo barely played a shift with him. Chara would not return to action until a week into the regular season. 

 

Carlo was locked in, though. The Bruins signed him to an entry-level contract a day later on Sept. 25.

 

After another year with Tri-City, he reported to Providence on March 24, 2016, and made his pro debut on April 1. He played seven regular season games with the P-Bruins and one in the playoffs. 

 

Video: Bruins Academy catches up with Brandon Carlo

 

Carlo's play was enough for Big Zee to take notice. 

 

"Honestly, before we started playing with each other, I heard a lot of good things about Brandon from the people that were scouting for the organization and some players and then last year when they were in Providence, he handled himself well, he played well," said Chara. 

 

The Captain wasn't at the start of training camp, due to the World Cup of Hockey, so Carlo began camp with John-Michael Liles.

 

Even when Chara reported on Oct. 3, he and Carlo weren't paired together right away. When two right-shot defensemen - Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller - were sidelined by injuries at the end of the preseason, that process was accelerated. 

 

The idea seems simple: pair a veteran like Chara with a young defenseman like Carlo, and just like that, you get a defense tandem with a player who is willing to teach, and another who is willing to learn. 

 

It wasn't just about a learning process, though; it was about filling a need. 

 

"After the World Cup, I came and we literally had a few days of practices together and I noticed that he's not shy to speak on the ice; he wasn't intimidated," said Chara. "He was not scared to call for pucks and I like that, I really enjoy when I have a partner that is communicating and talking a lot on the ice."

 

Chara and Carlo played their first full game together on Oct. 8, in the Bruins' preseason finale. They have been paired together for every game since that night.

 

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The strength of the pairing does not exist without both Chara and Carlo embracing it.

 

Their coach sees that. 

 

"Brandon's an easy person to like," said Julien. "He's very respectable and very easy-going and just an easy player to like, so I think Zee's taken to him and really wants him to succeed for his own sake and for the pair's sake, and I think he's been a good teacher for him, and Brandon is cherishing his moment there with him, because it's not too often that a young player like that gets to play with a player like Zdeno and learn from guys like that that have had good careers."

 

Chara has been able to follow Carlo through his first NHL moments. It makes him smile, and remember his own.

 

"When he scored his first [goal] in Winnipeg, I was obviously happy for him. He was thrilled. He was screaming [in the huddle], 'Give me the puck! Give me the puck!' - 'Of course we're going to give you the puck!" Chara smiled. "All of the firsts are very special."

 

He recalls his first NHL goal like it was yesterday. One day, Carlo will do the same. 

 

But for now, Chara will do the reminiscing, while Carlo does the dreaming.

 

"That would be really cool [to go back in time]. I'd love to see him as my age," smiled Carlo. "I've seen a couple of pictures when he first game into the league, and it's pretty funny because it's so long ago, you know? It's crazy how he's made such a good career - and still manages to help a young guy like me in so many different ways."

 

Video: BOS@WPG: Carlo buries first NHL goal off iron and in

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