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Chara has no plans to retire, eyes second Stanley Cup title with Bruins

Veteran defenseman stays hungry at 42

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It was last year, last spring or summer, that Zdeno Chara reached out to Nicklas Lidstrom. 

He wanted to understand the issues that the former Red Wings defenseman weighed as his career neared its end, the reasons that ultimately made him decide his time in the NHL was over. 

Lidstrom wasn't the only one. Chara also contacted former teammates Mark Recchi and Jaromir Jagr, doing his research, trying to understand his own future through their pasts.

The decisions, for anyone contemplating leaving the only career they've ever known, are never easy. Lidstrom bowed out when he was 42, at the end of the 2011-12 season after 20 years and 1,564 games in the NHL. Recchi left when he was 43, after winning the Stanley Cup at the end of the 2010-11 season with 1,652 games under his belt.

Chara turns 42 on Monday.

"I want to play," the Boston Bruins defenseman said. "I want to continue to play. I believe that I have a lot left and I have a lot of passion for the game. I love competing. I love doing all these things, coming to the rink, talking to the guys, doing the routine, working out in the summer, going through that grind.

"There's something about it that you get so attached to it, it becomes your life. And I've been playing for so long that it is my life."

And he's not ready to give that up.

Video: BOS@SJS: Chara blasts shot past Martin

Though Chara's contract -- a one-year, $5 million deal he signed last March 28 -- expires July 1, there is an understanding between him and the Bruins that if Chara is interested in playing beyond this season, the sides will sit down to explore a new contract. 

But Chara, in an interview in early March, made it clear what he wants.

"I believe that I can play the game," he said. "I still love the game. I have a lot of passion for it and still want to obviously stay."

For the moment, Chara is more focused on the day to day, on getting through the end of the regular season, on the game on Tuesday against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum (7 p.m. ET; SNE, SNO, MSG+, NESN, NHL.TV), on preparing himself to go through the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- a run that he hopes could bring him his second Stanley Cup championship. The Bruins are in second place in the Atlantic Division, four points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The future is on the backburner. For now.

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But Chara's calls to Lidstrom and Recchi and Jagr show that the defenseman is mindful that his career -- like everyone's -- will eventually come to an end. Chara is contemplating a future in which either his mind or his body could betray him, in which the desire to play vanishes, or in which his physical abilities no longer support his NHL plans.

"I told him that I kind of ran out of gas," Lidstrom said. "My drive that I've had for so many years that made me be able to play til I was 42, that drive, I didn't have that anymore."

The Red Wings had lost in the first round of the playoffs that final season, to the Nashville Predators, and Lidstrom told management that he would take a month before deciding what to do. 

He started working out, trying to see if he could rediscover his fire.

"I just had lost that," he said. "I didn't have motivation. I didn't have what it took to train hard all summer long, to prepare for an 82-game season before the playoffs, and that was my deciding point. I still loved playing hockey. I still had the love for the game, but the drive wasn't there anymore."

His body hadn't given up on him. His mind had.

The decision was incredibly difficult.

"It's always a tough call," said Recchi, now an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "You love the game so much and I know how much he loves the game. When you play that long it's such a big part of your life. I think the biggest thing is just I knew it was the right time for me to go. Regardless of whether we won or lost, I knew it was that time."

The summers had been getting more difficult, motivating himself to get ready to play becoming more of a grind. That was what Lidstrom felt as well, that it was harder on him mentally than physically at the end, that there was never enough time in the offseason, as the desire to put in the work started to fade.

"It's a real struggle to make that decision," Recchi said. "When I retired, it was hard. I'm not going to lie to you. I wasn't really doing anything. I was just hanging out with my kids. All of a sudden I didn't have a routine every day, and it was hard. It's not always easy. I went through some times after you retire, just trying to find yourself again."

He ponders now if he should have tried again the following season, perhaps called the Bruins to see if they could use a late-season acquisition, as the Predators did with forward Mike Fisher in 2017-18.

He kicks himself sometimes. But he also remembers how it all caught up to him in the Eastern Conference Final that season, all the work and the grind and the heat of Tampa in the summer making him hit a wall. As he put it, "Your body is going, what the [heck] are you doing to me?"

Recchi had made his decision by then. That experience cemented it, and still he wonders.

Chara does not want to have any regrets, though there is no guarantee of that - - not even going out with a Cup, as Recchi did.

"I think Zee will handle it," Recchi said. "I could see him doing a triathlon, training for something like that. Just the way he is, he's so driven. He'll do something. He's got a young family now too. I think that always helps, help keeps you busy."

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In the past, Chara has chafed against any limits on his play, on being told to rest for games, on being treated like he was in his mid 30s and late 30s and, now, 40s. He would much prefer to skip practices or morning skates to save his body for the stretch run, for a playoff chase that he hopes will go into June.

That said, he understands why those decisions are made. He just doesn't like them.

"I want to continue playing," he said, of the final 10 games of the Bruins season. "I'll tell you the reason. In the past we did that, with [former coach] Claude [Julien], and I told him that I don't like [sitting]. He didn't give me any choice, but I felt so awful the first two games in the playoffs every round."

With days off and travel days and the winnowing of time on the ice at the end of every regular season, Chara felt like he had too many consecutive days off ice, too little time to stay in the rhythm that he needed. As the years have gone on, coaches across the NHL have seemed to practice less, to make more game-day skates optional, all in an effort to keep their charges fresher.

That, Chara can get behind.

"Instead of … resting guys during games, that's a great opportunity," he said, of missing some morning skates. "Like, to tell the guy, we're going to skate, but you don't need to skate today. Just play the game."

Or taking maintenance days instead of practicing.

"That would be ideal for me," Chara said. "Ideally, you want to have some guys get that rest. ... Because after 70-something games, you've practiced enough."

And though Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy would not commit to allowing Chara to play out the rest of the season - - especially depending on whether home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference First Round remains up for grabs - - he clearly is willing to listen to his team's captain.

"He doesn't want to come out of the lineup," Cassidy said. "He prefers to stay in, stay sharp. So for him, if that's what gets his body and his motor running every night, I respect his decision on that. He's been around a long time. … Otherwise, it's more about his minutes, not stressing him."

Video: BOS@TOR, Gm3: Chara scores from the goal line

This season, Chara is averaging 21:02 per game, the lowest of his 21-season career, save his first full year, when he played 18:54 in 1998-99. His minutes have been trending downward for years, after peaking at 27:58 in 2006-07, his first season in Boston. He played at least 24 per game through 2015-16, save for 23:21 in 2014-15. But the last three seasons have seen averages of 23:20, 22:54, and this season's 21:02.

That has been a conscious decision by the coaching staff, to keep him going, to keep him fresh, and has coincided with a sharp decline in his power-play time, from 2:40 per game in 2011-12 to 2:06 in 2014-15 to 1:34 in 2015-16 to 3:45 total this season.

Of course, all those numbers tick up in the postseason, with Chara soaring to 28:46 in the playoffs two seasons ago - - albeit in four overtime games, including one that went to double overtime in a six-game first-round loss to the Ottawa Senators -- and 23:36 last season.

So there's still a reason for Chara to be rested heading into the playoffs.

"It would be a conversation with him, and I think I know where that conversation is going," Cassidy said. "But if it's best for the team at the end of the year, where he looks tired, then we'll do it. That's where our opinion matters too. If your game is starting to drop, then we've got to look at it. But if your game stays consistent, then he's got a valid argument."

He has made some changes in the past few years to compensate, to acknowledge the time and the aging that are inevitable. He revamped his diet 19 months ago, eliminating meat and dairy and limiting his gluten intake. His meals now consist of mostly plants, with beans, lentils and chickpeas as some of his main sources of protein, plus chia seeds, nuts, and avocados.

Other than that, he has not bowed much to the passage of time.

"Honestly, I do feel good," he said. "I'm still doing the same stuff I've been doing when I was 30. Still love coming to the rink. Still [putting] in my time before practice to make sure I'm going through the routines of stretches, plyometrics, maintaining my range of motion, strengthening, power, all that stuff."

There have been tweaks to accommodate the changing NHL, his changing body, and the changing demands on it. But not much has been altered over the past decade.

"If you learn how to, let's say, cook your grandmother's recipe for cake, you are not going to be watching Rachael [Ray] and all of a sudden change the whole cake ingredients," Chara said.

Because he believes his recipe is the right one.

"That's my job and that's what I work really hard for, to be fit, to be ready to play and play every game," Chara said. "To miss games, I just don't think it's for me personally. I don't like it. The other guys might like it, but I like to play. I like to play games."

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When Chara talked to those who had come before him, to Recchi and Lidstrom and Jagr, he saw the threads running through their decisions. He also knew he wasn't there yet.

"They were telling me similar things," he said. "They were waking up and they didn't feel the same. They felt like, ugh I have to do this and I don't feel like it and I should start working out but I'm going to take another week off or so on and so on.

"I don't feel it. Can't really guarantee that it won't happen, but as of now, I feel hungry. I feel that I'm excited to do this and continue to do this."

Twenty-one years in, Chara does not have any major goals to check off before he decides on retirement. He knows he is past the point of winning a second Norris Trophy. He would love another Stanley Cup victory. He does not care about his career points or his games played. But there is one small thing he would like to cross off the list.

Goal No. 200. He stands at 199.

"I promised my dad that I'll score that 200th goal before the end of the season," Chara said, laughing. "My dad is rubbing on me, like every other day, when you going to score that 200th goal? I'm like, Dad, I know. It's not like it used to be, I go 5-on-3 power play and then everybody would feed me for one-timers."

His teammates know about it, assure him every night is the night. He nearly got it on Thursday, a shot from Chara that Charlie Coyle tipped past Connor Hellebuyck in a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. But still, Zdenek Chara needles him.

"'You've got to shoot, you've got to shoot,'" Chara said his father tells him. "I'd shoot but everybody is in the fricking lane now. You should see it -- all these people buzzing around. It's not like it used to be."

He smiles, frustrated.

And there, for the first time, he sounds his age. It's not like it used to be. Nothing ever is. But though he can still play, while there are still Stanley Cup Playoffs ahead for Chara, while retirement is something still to contemplate for the future, he's going to do his best to keep the years and the doubts at bay.

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