Zdeno Chara sat on the boards alongside the Islanders bench, looking up and allowing himself to smile.
The Islanders, who lost 6-4, were still one goal short and their season was about to come to an unceremonious end, but that didn’t matter right now. UBS Arena was chanting his name, and for once in a career that spanned 24 seasons, Chara had no choice but to let the moment be about him.
He didn’t say afterward whether Friday night was his last NHL game — only that he would go home and be with his family before making a decision — but if it was, then he didn’t. there’s no better way out.
For only the second time this season, and the first at home, Chara scored a goal to cut the deficit to 5-4, with what he would later call “an OK shot”, one intended to produce a rebound, making his way past Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Islanders still lost, but that wasn’t the point.
The lasting memory of the evening, for all in attendance, will be Chara’s name chanted from the rafters as everyone on the ice – the Islanders, the Lightning, the umpires – shook her hand. As the night drew to a close, he skated alone on the ice, his hand on his heart, and waved to the crowd.
“I’m so happy,” he said afterwards, smiling throughout his press conference. “It’s just overwhelming. I never wanted to do anything to myself.
At 45, Chara has just completed a season in which he played 72 games and challenged Islanders coach Barry Trotz’s midseason assertion that he would likely rest for at least a few in the streak as the team played at a breakneck pace. Chara is not one to rest. He never was.
Even this season, as the Islanders played a schedule that took its toll on every person in the locker room, even as Chara felt the wear and tear of long road trips and COVID-19-induced makeup games at the end of the year, he managed to stay on the ice.
That’s what earned him the kind of respect he showed on Friday.
“I’ve never seen this in 20 years of playing,” Trotz said. “Zdeno didn’t say anything about his retirement, neither to us nor to anyone else, but the other team after the game, came and said: Can we shake his hand? That tells me to how much respect this player has gained throughout the league.
The scene, Chara said, was unexpected, bringing chills. His family wasn’t there to see him, instead to watch from his home, but that didn’t diminish him at all.
“It was a spectacular moment,” Chara said. “I will cherish this for the rest of my life.”
A few weeks ago, when asked about how he felt towards the end of the season, Chara took issue with the line of questioning. On Friday, there could be no objection, as there could be no other line of questioning.
“I always thought it was a team game,” Chara said. “It’s always about the team, and when it starts to get that crowd involved and the fans really show their appreciation, the players give you pucks, it’s a little uncomfortable to be honest with you.”
As uncomfortable as that may be, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting ending.
New York Post