By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – In the world of sports these days, there's not a tremendous amount of sympathy to be found for the city of Boston. This is understandable.
With a Super Bowl trip every year, a quartet of World Series trophies and some sporadic championship appearances and victories for the two winter teams, the sports teams of Boston have hoarded far too much success in the 21st century. Everyone in the rest of the continent is no doubt sick and tired of this trend, and frankly, any events that might bring about that conclusion would be welcomed from coast to coast.
Yet, even with that being understood, consider this a plea on behalf of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who is currently dealing with a broken jaw during the Stanley Cup Final.
The man is worthy of your sympathy.
Obviously, sports don't often tend to invoke such emotions in fans, especially when a much-hated team is involved. And with much of North America being mad at Zdeno Chara for being big and strong, Monday night's puck to the face likely had the opposite effect, as fans of the other 30 NHL teams saw Chara hit the ice in a bloody puddle and then likely shared a collective huzzah as Immediate Onset Schaudenfreude kicked in and started pumping some endorphins. (Sports are so bad, aren't they?)
And, look, again, I get it. Chara is humongous, and he is strong, and he is tough. If you love some hockey team with all of your heart, there's a very good chance that Chara has inflicted some level of pain on your favorite players over his 21 years in the NHL. With his 6-foot-9 frame, whenever he partakes in any of the standard rowdiness of NHL hockey, he looks like a big old bully. Why does HE get to shove guys around? Shouldn't he be picking on someone his own size?
Well, there aren't many folks who have been his size, and when they've shown up, he's bullied them around, too.
Leaving that part of it aside, the current predicament Chara finds himself in is, quite simply, unfair. Sports are rarely fair, and hockey can be cruel, but this current situation goes beyond the pale.
Zdeno Chara is 42 years of age. Despite logging more than 1,600 games in the NHL, despite being the second-oldest player in the NHL this season, Chara still averaged over 21 minutes of ice time this season in a top-pairing role for a championship-caliber team. He is not a bit player on a bad team, nor is he the captain who's hanging on too long. He's not the dominant defensive force/perennial Norris candidate that he was during his prime, but he's still very much a top defenseman for a top team.
That does not happen by accident. As Chara has shared with the world over the past couple of years, the man has dedicated his entire life to fitness and health, all for moments exactly like this one. Despite having a Stanley Cup victory on his resume, despite being a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame, despite bringing great pride to his family and his native Slovakia over two decades, Chara has never once succumbed to what has proven to always be the ultimate career killer: satisfaction.
Chara has continually tamped down any urges to feel content with his career accomplishments. Instead of living the life of a successful millionaire enjoying retirement in his early 40s, Chara has chosen to spend his summers enduring rigorous workouts in dingy gyms in Eastern Europe.
Excuse me, but ... what in the Sam Hell is this??
Here's Chara, a month or so removed from having his season ended by the Lightning, dragging every single weight owned by the Bruins.
The Bruins likely had to purchase some more weights after that video went public.
Chara's not completely crazy, though. Here he is kicking back and enjoying a nice family vacation last June:
Anyway, yes, of course, obviously, for sure, every NHL player works out in order to stay in shape. The point with Chara, though, is the all-in, 24/7/365 buy-in that he's shown in order to maintain his level of play through age 40 and beyond. That dedication to fitness, plus a revamped plant-based diet, has allowed Chara to continue playing the game that he loves.
Throughout all of that, Chara's balanced the other parts of life, clearly seeking to become a well-rounded human being. He's managed to attend Harvard Business School classes, learn nine different languages, be a family man, enjoy the company of a miniature horse, tap in to the philosophical tenets that guide him through every day of his life, and also display his remarkable endurance and toughness on a regular basis. He's a regular renaissance man.
All of which serves as the long and winding road to the point, which is this: Zdeno Chara has simply worked too hard and for too long to let an errant puck remove him from some of the most important hockey games of his 21-year NHL career. After logging tens of thousands of minutes in the NHL, including a three-year stretch when he was playing nearly half the damn game every single night, the fates choose now to send a puck into his jaw to cause serious damage?
That's just remarkably cruel.
And you saw it during Game 4, as the stoic Chara chose to sit on the bench for the third period, full shield protecting his suddenly fragile face, unable to speak yet still saying plenty with a sullen, worried look on his face. Of all the things that could have kept him off the ice, it was a deflected puck? And of all the damage it could have inflicted -- a black eye, some broken teeth, a dented nose, a bloody ear, etc. -- it had to cause the one injury that can keep a player off the ice no matter how great his pain tolerance may be?
Now, Chara being Chara, there remains a possibility that he may find a way to play through the injury. Perhaps it can be done. If so, then, well, we've all wasted a few precious minutes of our lives here.
But Chara has already missed two periods of a Stanley Cup Final game, and he appears very likely to miss more time. Sitting out for Game 5 would be excruciating for him; missing the remainder of the series would be nothing short of devastating.
He's not the first player to get injured playing hockey, he's not the first veteran to be forced out of action late in a postseason, and he's not the only athlete who dedicates his life to health and fitness all in the name of peak performance.
Still, we are all aware of what it's taken for Chara to be on the ice as a major contributor at his age. We know the long list of injuries he's managed to play through without having to miss time. We know that for as many worldly pursuits the man has sought, it is always hockey at the center of all of it.
Now, the NHL's longest-tenured captain is now facing the prospect of being forced to be a spectator in a Stanley Cup Final that is tied at two games apiece. In what may be his final chance at lifting the Cup, he may have to watch the game while seated among media members who are stuffing their faces with candy and popcorn while scanning Twitter and checking emails.
Just three weeks ago, Chara did not play in the clinching game of the conference finals, but he nevertheless got dressed in full equipment late in the third period to partake in the postgame ceremonies. Chara felt so strongly about being with this teammates in that moment, and in shaking the hands of a beaten opponent, that there appeared to have been little doubt in his mind that the ice surface was where he needed to be. Likewise, despite the broken jaw on Monday, there was nobody who was going to keep Chara from at least being on that Boston bench.
So, if indeed Chara is forced to watch Game 5 of the Cup Final from the ninth level of the TD Garden, you should all feel free to root heartily against the Bruins. The people of Boston understand.
But somewhere deep down in that cold sports heart, you ought to find a way to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for a player who's poured everything he has into putting himself in position for this exact moment, only to have it ripped away from him by a fluky bounce on a play he's been involved in hundreds of thousands of times before. That is a raw deal for anyone to be dealt, especially at this time of year, and especially with someone who's dedicated nearly 40 years to playing the sport of hockey in order to be playing in these games.
He'd never ask for your sympathy, but he nevertheless deserves it.
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