“I don’t think of it like that, you know?” said McAvoy, 19, of his 40-year-old defense partner on the Boston Bruins. “He’s just a hockey player.”
That is true. For 20 seasons, Chara has been one of the NHL’s most dominating and intimidating defensemen — a 6-foot-9 man mountain who won the Norris Trophy in 2008-09 and was a finalist for the award on four other occasions. He has a pterodactyl’s wingspan and velociraptor’s comportment, with 1,800 career penalty minutes.
It’s also true that he is, you know, old enough to be Charlie McAvoy’s father.
This is a topic that makes the rookie visually uncomfortable, something he’d rather not explore. That’s because despite the age gap, they’re NHL teammates. The years between them are just a number, no less intimidating to McAvoy than Chara’s career games played (1,369) or the odds that the Bruins captain will make the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, which are quite good.
“A lot of those guys [in the room] are superstars, and you look up to a lot of those guys,” said McAvoy, “but I think everyone’s on the same keel here.”
Young NHL stars like McAvoy — who has 10 points in 19 games, and is skating an NHL rookie-leading 23:16 minutes per game — need to get over being star-struck. It’s something every player who is a student to a veteran teacher has to work through. Even ones who are destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“When I came in, Brad Park was that guy for me. Really took my under his wing, taught the game a lot,” said former Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who was inducted into the Hall in 2004. “The kid who gets over that fast is in a better position to succeed.”
A humble student is vital in this mentorship dynamic. But so is a great teacher, and few are better in this role than Zdeno Chara.
After being paired with veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg for a good portion of his stellar career in Boston, Chara has since partnered with the freshest faces on the Bruins blue line. He’s a defensive rock, allowing these young defensemen to grow beside him like flowers blossoming through a mountainside.
Last season, a 39-year-old Chara skated alongside 20-year-old rookie Brandon Carlo, who is holding his own on the Bruins’ second pairing this season.
Now, McAvoy is Chara’s student.
“He’s obviously a skilled player. Skates well, moves the puck well, sees the ice well,” said Chara of McAvoy, the 14th overall pick in 2016 out of Boston University. “What do I like best about him? That he’s quickly able to adapt to our system and our game. We saw it in the playoffs [last season]. He stepped in and gave us a contribution right away. He didn’t seem to be nervous, or caught in a situation where he’d be distracted.”
That’s not to say that McAvoy undervalues Chara. “He’s an unbelievable hockey player and a future Hall of Famer,” McAvoy said. “Every night, he plays to his capabilities, to his level. When I play with a guy like that, it makes my life so much easier.”
Does a 40-year-old veteran have any trouble connecting with a rookie who has 25 games in the totality of his NHL career?
“We communicate,” said Chara. “If there’s something we need to talk about, we do.”
Chara gets it. After all, he was that rookie back in 1997-98. And Scott Lachance was the guy doing the talking.
Lachance has a favorite Zdeno Chara story.
A few of the New York Islanders, the team for whom both played in the late 1990s, decided to catch a movie during their down time.
“Remember ‘Life Is Beautiful?'” asked Lachance. “A few of the guys went to see it in the theater, but the place was packed. Couldn’t get a seat. So Chara walks in, and he can’t find a seat either. So where does he sit? The only place he can find a seat is in the front row, in front of everyone. It’s an Italian movie, and he could barely speak English. This giant skyscraper, sitting in the front row.”
Life wasn’t particularly beautiful for the Islanders at that time, as they were mired in the midst of coach Mike Milbury’s reign of incompetence that would eventually see Chara traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2001 as part of the infamous Alexei Yashin deal. The Islanders were a young team, so a 25-year-old Lachance played mentor to a 20-year-old Chara.
“Back then, he didn’t speak a ton of English, but he was all ears. Willing to learn. The work ethic was tremendous. He did what he needed to do. And he was the same humble guy that he is now,” said Lachance. “At that time he was real awkward. He wasn’t a finished product. We were all wondering what everyone saw in him, because he was a third-round pick. But it didn’t take long to see it. He was tough. He didn’t back down from anybody. But he also held himself accountable and got ready for games. You knew that he was going to play, but you didn’t know he was going to be the player that he is today.”
Or the leader and teacher he is today. Chara learned from players like Lachance, and he’s using those lessons to mold and shape players like Hamilton, Carlo and McAvoy.
“You wanna make sure they’re comfortable before the games. Make sure they don’t have to overthink things,” said Lachance. “The way that he’s mentoring Charlie, he’s had that role as the defensive guy for so long. It’s a leadership role and a role you want to take on. And help these kids develop into top four defensemen.”
Much like Lachance watched Chara grow.
“He was a great kid back then, and now he’s a great man,” he said.
What’s the best thing about playing with Chara?
“Gosh, so many different things,” said McAvoy. “The way he controls the game is just awesome. There aren’t many people who can do it like that. When he gets the puck, it’s [calming]. He’s so strong defensively. I know he’s going to win his battles. Just being on the ice with him, you know it’s going to be good.”
Good and … safe.
This is the ancillary benefit of playing with someone who can take out opponents with one punch. For example, when Hamilton, now with the Calgary Flames, played alongside Chara in January 2013 against the Winnipeg Jets.
Blake Wheeler went a little low with a hit on Hamilton in the corner, and Chara went on a seek-and-destroy mission across the ice to demolish Wheeler, his former Boston teammate, with a hit in the neutral zone.
“I saw that and … instant smile,” said Hamilton at the time. “I just wanted to play good for him after that.”
McAvoy has been targeted this season, too. Not just as the new kid on the ice, but as one that isn’t afraid to throw a few booming hits of his own — witness his check on Tyler Ennis of the Minnesota Wild, and Ennis returning the favor:
– CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 7, 2017
“He’s targeted, because he’s hit a few guys himself. He’s 19 years old. I saw Tyler Ennis … look, he’s been the League. What is he? Thirty years old? He doesn’t like to get drilled. No matter how big or small you are, you have pride. So that’s part of it,” said Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “There’s payback along the way. He has to know that people are coming for him. And I think he’s fine with it.”
And if Chara’s not fine with it, he’ll let the other guy know. It’s the Han Solo philosophy: You can get away with plenty when Chewbacca’s standing next to you, ready to pull some assailant’s arms out of their sockets.
Here’s the thing about being the freshman paired with Zdeno Chara — your assignment means that someone else has graduated.
In other words, Charlie McAvoy’s gain was Brandon Carlo’s loss. And Carlo is feeling that loss.
“I loved it. Playing with Z was a great learning experience. Having that shield walking into the league in my first year. Being with a guy who has so much experience,” said Carlo, 20, who was paired with Torey Krug after leaving Chara. “I’ve had conversations with him off the ice, and you don’t get that kind of opportunity with many guys to learn different things outside of the game of hockey. He’s a great teacher, in all aspects.”
Cassidy has tried to make Carlo understand that moving off the Chara pairing isn’t a downgrade.
“He should look at it as a compliment. He’s bringing something to a different pair. He had his tutelage under Z, and they still will be paired up from time to time. You could look at it as a demotion, but I don’t think his minutes aren’t much different than where they were, and his role hasn’t changed,” said the coach, who is in his first full season with the Bruins.
Actually, his role has changed: Carlo is now the big-bodied, stabilizing force in a defensive pairing, like Chara was for him last season. He learned from the best. Now Carlo gets his chance to strike out on his own, as McAvoy undoubtedly will at some point too, post-Chara.
Bourque said that’s the most satisfying thing about being the veteran teacher to a young defenseman.
“It’s about tutoring the young guy. Trying to make him feel confident, to make sure he has all the tools he needs to have success,” he said. “And that’s the fun part, getting to tutor a young player and then all of a sudden watching him become the player that he’s become. Then it’s his turn.”
These hockey sons of Zdeno Chara. They all grow up so fast.