Chara embraces journey to 1,600th NHL game when Capitals visit Islanders

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Zdeno Chara‘s appreciation for becoming the fifth defenseman to play 1,600 NHL regular-season games when the Washington Capitals visit the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG+, NBCSWA, NHL.TV) will be more about what’s gone into his journey than the culmination of it.

“It’s always nice to reach milestones, but once you reach them it’s just a short moment of kind of celebration or enjoyment,” Chara said. “But the process to get to those milestones, it takes time. It takes years, days away from family and I always enjoyed that whole process going after those, reaching those goals.”

In his 23rd NHL season, Chara will join Chris Chelios (1,651), Scott Stevens (1,635), Larry Murphy (1,615) and Ray Bourque (1,612) as defensemen to play 1,600 games and be the 13th player to reach the mark. He’s gotten this far with a meticulous commitment to his training and healthy diet, a love of the game and a life-long determination to prove doubters wrong. 

The League’s oldest player at 44 years old, Chara hasn’t forgotten that youth hockey coaches in his native Slovakia tried to convince him — a tall, lanky kid who grew to 6-foot-9, 250 pounds — to try basketball instead.  

“I was kind of the guy who wasn’t supposed to make it, first and foremost,” said Chara, the tallest player to play in the NHL. “I was cut by many teams at a very young age and that kind of gave me a huge motivation.”

Fittingly, Chara will play his 1,600th game against the Islanders, who selected him in the third round (No. 56) of the 1996 NHL Draft. Chara played 231 games in four seasons for the Islanders, 299 games in four seasons with the Ottawa Senators and 1,023 games in 14 seasons with the Boston Bruins.

The 2009 winner of the Norris Trophy voted as the top defenseman in the NHL, Chara was Bruins captain when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. In his first season with the Capitals after signing a one-year, $795,000 contract Dec. 30, Chara has played 46 games and shown no signs of letting up, averaging 18:23 in ice time while fitting seamlessly into their locker room.

“I love everything about that kid and mostly the way his teammates feel about him,” Chelios said earlier this season. “You’re never going to hear anyone say a bad word against this guy. He’s just a real professional, beginning with his work ethic. He’s the ultimate team guy. I’m glad he’s playing. I love to see it.”

Stevens remembers Chara as a raw talent when he broke into the NHL who never stopped working to improve. He witnessed it up close at the 2003 NHL All-Star Game in Florida. 

“He stayed after and he was working out. And this is an all-star break,” Stevens said. “Most guys are in and out of the rink and they’re gone, and he was doing the extra, putting in the extra time in the weight room.”

Chara has made a similar impression in Washington.

“He’s an extremely talented player and he’s allowing himself to continue playing by the condition that he keeps himself in,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “I also think that as you get older, not always but, I don’t want to say you lose the passion or lose the flame or lose the fire, but it takes more to keep that burn going, and he clearly has that burn.”

That burn contributed to Chara’s decision to leave the Bruins after they offered him a reduced role. It’s worked out well for him and the Capitals, who are first in the eight-team MassMutual East Division, one point ahead of the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. The top four teams will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I had a vision and a goal as well to have a certain role and I just try to do my best every night and be a good pro and help my teammates and my team to do as best as we can,” Chara said. “So that’s still my goal and, obviously, we are not done. There is a lot more to do.”

When asked how long he plans to continue playing, Chara said, “We’ll see how everything works out after the season.” He’d have a chance next season to break Chelios’ record for games by a defenseman of 1,651.

“It’s not easy,” Stevens said. “The game’s changed since Chelios and myself played. It’s more of a speed game, north/south. But I think he can do anything he wants. He’s a smart guy, and if he wants to, he can do it. You can play as long as you want when you have that size and dedication that he has playing the game.”

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