By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Mere moments after the Bruins' season ended in heartbreaking fashion in double overtime on Monday night, the conversation on the television broadcast immediately shifted from the dramatic Lightning win to the potential end to a Hall of Fame career.
"I hope you don't mind I shift gears from hockey to humanity," said play-by-play announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick. "The humanity that this guy has over his span of time in Boston, he's reached out to oppressed groups, he's made donations of time and food and clothing, as a lot of guys do. But if he were coming to your home tomorrow night for dinner, he'd want to talk about you and his family and not himself. He's a good soul, and you'll always see other people greet him for that reason. And a gallant who did win a championship for Boston in his time."
That commentary, combined with some comments earlier about Chara not wanting his Bruins career to come to an end, made this loss seem like a farewell to the man who's captained the Bruins since 2006.
The 43-year-old Chara was asked after the 3-2 double-OT loss if he's made a decision on returning to Boston next year.
"I haven't made that decision," Chara said. "I obviously just finished the game. I'll be open-minded."
Chara just completed playing under a one-year contract that paid him just $2 million, with another $1.75 million to earn in incentives. Given what he's meant to the Bruins as one of the longest-tenured captain in the near-100-year history of the team, it would seem as though the team would be willing to offer similar contracts for as long as Chara wants to play.
It's that latter question that seems to be unanswered at this point in time. Chara did not appear to quite be moving like his normal self during bubble play this summer, though he was still logging over 19 minutes per game before skating over 26 minutes in the double-OT marathon.
Yet another layer of uncertainty -- and this one is quite large -- is the general unknown of what a 2020-21 NHL season can even look like. The NHL and its teams worked hard to ensure that the bubble system could work, but a regular season involving travel around the continent during an unpredictable pandemic that's yet to go away offers no certainty whatsoever.
With that uncertainty looming over Monday's season-ending loss, Chara's status was a major talking point among the members of the Bruins who spoke to the media. Unsurprisingly, they all had quite a bit to say about their captain.
"I've said it all along -- grateful to have an opportunity to coach Zee," head coach Bruce Cassidy said. "It was early in my NHL career, so to speak. Later in his playing career. So he helped me a lot. ... Zee's probably helped me more than I've helped him."
"He's an icon in Boston," Brad Marchand said. "It's been, who knows what's going to happen? But it's a pleasure to go to the rink with him every day and see the dedication that he has to the game and has had for the game for so long. It's difficult to do what he has done, day in and day out, and the way he prepares and the way he still cares so much. He is one of the most, if not the most driven person I've ever met. And he's going to be a Hall of Famer. He's one of the best defensemen, one of the best players to ever play the game.
"So, I mean, it's been a real honor to play with him," Marchand continued. "Obviously we have no idea what's going to happen. But he's an incredible teammate and captain and leader, and I don't have enough good things to say about him. He's unbelievable."
If Chara has indeed played his final game for the Bruins, he ought to go down as one of the most durable, dependent and consistent leaders the team has ever had. Chara played in 1,023 of a possible 1,114 regular-season games from 2006-20, a stretch that included playing in 602 of a possible 622 games from 2006-14. He's also played in 149 playoff games for the Bruins, ranking him second in Boston history, behind only Ray Bourque.
That the Bruins only needed to endure a five-year gap between the captaincy of Bourque and Chara shows just how fortunate the Bruins have been to have a rare level of leadership on their blue line for a very, very long time.
The complete Chara career retrospectives can come whenever his final decision is made. For now, he enters an offseason without a contract for the first time since he signed the deal that changed his life and changed Bruins history. From leading the Bruins to a Cup title, to playing through a broken jaw, to logging tens of thousands of minutes while playing in all situations, to lasting through his age 43 season on the best team in hockey, Chara's Bruins career has been nothing short of incredible.
It may continue, or it may not. But if it's over, it's fair to say the Bruins and Chara himself got everything they possibly could have imagined out of their relationship over one of the strongest stretches in Bruins history.
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