It’s the go-to excuse on par with “the dog ate my homework” and “the check is in the mail.”
When things go south with the Bruins — and even sometimes when things go right, like last night after a 6-0 drubbing of Ottawa – we hear “strip the C from Chara.”
I understand why Zdeno Chara gets booed in every enemy building he visits. No one roots for Goliath, and as the man tasked with shutting down that fan base’s top scorer, everyone’s going to do what they can to get under his skin.
But why Chara is belittled and criticized endlessly in his own hometown is a mystery to me. Attempting to solve it might be like trying to prove ghosts exist.
This whole “strip the C” concept is fairly new to Boston, and it’s kind of unique to this town. I believe it dates back to the ’04 playoffs, when Boston Globe Hall-of-Fame writer Kevin Paul Dupont made the suggestion in regards to the Bruins and Joe Thornton.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with Dupont, at least he had a list of legitimate reasons why he thought it was time to take the letter from “Jumbo Joe.” Thornton’s decision to skirt media duties between Game 6 and 7 of a playoff series with Montreal finally pushed Dupont over the edge and forced him to write his famous piece “It’s Time for Thornton to Get Hook as Captain.”
After Thornton left town, the Bruins left the captaincy vacant. Little did they know that decision would drum up less controversy than handing it to their new free-agent acquisition the following summer. While nothing was ever signed or even promised, there’s no doubt that one of the many reasons Chara chose Boston over some 18 suits in July 2006 was because there was an opportunity to become the captain.
If Chara were one to let what others say and write about him bother him, he might have declined the opportunity to wear the Bruins’ C’and gone about his business as a periphery leader of the team. The “strip the C” crowd is on his case regardless of how the team is faring. A captaincy crushing moment like Thornton’s from April 2004 hardly has occurred with Chara.
The only two times in my recollection that he has stiffed the media are last Saturday night in Montreal and after his game-losing giveaway in Game 3 of the second-round playoff series in Carolina in ’09. Both times he used the same excuse about being too emotional to speak and being afraid to say the wrong thing. Now, even if you believe that failing to address the media is a sign of poor leadership, you have to acknowledge that if it’s not in Chara’s approach to the role to spew venom immediately, that’s his right — just like it’s anyone else’s prerogative to criticize him for it. Everyone has a different concept of how to show leadership. Not everyone has to be a Patton or a MacArthur, or even a Mark Messier.
Beyond the two incidences of media neglect, I cannot name one thing Chara has done to convince so many people he’s not a sufficient leader. He works harder than anyone, maybe in the entire NHL. He showed up to last fall’s training camp and promptly cranked out a million pull-ups, or whatever number that fish story details now. Unless I was asleep on the job, there has yet to be one detailed occurrence where a Bruins player, current or former, with attribution or without, has claimed Zdeno Chara is not the right captain for the Bruins. Plenty of people outside of that dressing room have claimed it, but inside where it counts there have been nothing but commendations for the work Chara does as captain on and off the ice.
It seems that everyone who wants Chara to relinquish the C has a different person they’d like to see wear it. There’s the Shawn Thornton camp, the Mark Recchi camp, the Patrice Bergeron camp, and others. All are solid leaders. For varying reasons, based on place on the depth chart, salary and length of contract with the Bruins, they may or may not make a great captain. Recchi and Bergeron get to wear the A. Last season, one A was rotated and several different players possessing different personalities and leadership styles got a turn. There was no bigger introvert, at least publicly, than Marco Sturm. No one demanded he give up his month as an alternate captain.
You can glance at the list 30 NHL team captains, including the captain-less New Jersey Devils, and find a potpourri of different players who received the letter for different reasons. Some teams wanted to get jump on making a young player the focal point of the club, like in Los Angeles (Dustin Brown) and Chicago (Jonathan Toews). Some gave the C to the team’s best player like Washington (Alexander Ovechkin). And then you have clubs like Colorado (Adam Foote) and Florida (Bryan McCabe) that went with complementary players who have been around a while and know how to find their leadership niche.
Maybe the notion that Chara doesn’t fulfill his duties as captain comes from a misunderstanding of what a captain should do. The Bruins, and a lot of teams in the NHL these days, aren’t built to have everyone sit and wait for the captain to tell them what to do. Over the years, the various aspects of the team’s leadership duties have been taken on by multiple players – be it Aaron Ward serving as a quote machine for the media, Stephane Yelle or P.J. Axelsson taking young forwards under their wing or Shawn Thornton providing the comic relief for everyone that crosses through the dressing room. There aren’t enough letters to go around.
In Chara, and Bergeron, the Bruins have leaders that play and practice as though they’re still trying to make the NHL or maybe even their junior team or star on the pond at home. They’re both leaders by example. They can speak up at times, but you can’t wait all your life for them to say something so profound it’ll bring the Stanley Cup home.
At the same time, they both take pride in wearing the letter. This is a tradition, almost exclusive to hockey, that might’ve seen it’s time pass. No one can tell me that the Red Sox are the only team in baseball with a strong “captain” because Jason Varitek wears the C. While some C-wearers are great leaders of men, others wear it the same way Queen Elizabeth wears her crown and jewels. It’s a ceremonial perch not meant to determine the fate of a nation, or a sports team as the case may be.
Remember, the last two times the Bruins won the Cup — 1970 and 1972 — no one wore a C. Sure, it’s widely acknowledged by players and sports writers that Johnny Bucyk was the de facto captain, especially since he was the one that raised the Cup after the triumphs and had worn the ‘C’ last. But there were only A’s sewn on the sweaters. Wow, if talk radio had only been invented then. “Give Bobby the C” might’ve been a rallying cry.
You can sew a letter up on anyone’s jersey. It’s the player’s actions, not his uniform decoration that counts the most. And if you want to keep your “sacred” C tradition alive in the sport, fine. I’d be all right with taking all the letters off all the sweaters.
But until someone with firsthand knowledge tells me or another media member that Chara committed a heinous act of “anti-captain” proportions, he should keep his C and everyone should just accept him for what he is. Because with him signed for another seven years, and the Bruins’ brass publicly committed to him as both blue-line mainstay and captain, Chara is going to end his run in the Hub as one of the longest-tenured captains in franchise history.
So you might as well get used to him.