Zdeno Chara was sitting on the boards along the Islanders’ bench, looking up and letting himself smile.
The Islanders, who lost 6-4, were nevertheless down a goal and their season was about to end unceremoniously, but that didn’t matter in the moment. UBS Arena was chanting his name, and for once in a career that covering 24 seasons, Chara had no choice but to let the moment be about him.
He did not say afterward whether Friday night was his last game in the NHL — only that he will go home and be with his family before making a decision — but if it was, then there are few better ways in which to go out.
For just the second time this season, and the first on home ice, 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 its way past Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Islanders nevertheless lost, but that was beside the point.
The lasting memory of the night, for anyone in attendance, will be Chara’s name being chanted from the rafters as every single person on the ice — the Islanders, the Lightning, the referees — shook his hand. As the night wound to a close, he would skate alone on the ice, hand to his heart, and give the crowd a salute.
“I’m just so happy,” he said afterward, grinning by his press conference. “It’s just overwhelming. I never wanted to make anything about me.”
At 45, Chara just completed a season in which he played 72 games and defied Islanders coach Barry Trotz’s midseason assertion that he would likely rest for at the minimum a few down the stretch as the team played at a breakneck speed. Chara is not one to rest. He never has been.
already this season, as the Islanders played a schedule that took a toll on every person in the dressing room, already as Chara felt the use and tear of the long road trips and the COVID-19 induced makeup games late in the year, he managed to stay on the ice.
That is what’s earned him the kind of respect showed on Friday.
“I’ve not seen that ever in 20 years of the game,” Trotz said. “Zdeno’s not said anything about retiring, either to us or anybody else, but the other team after the game, coming over and saying can we shake his hand? That just tells me how much respect this player has garnered throughout the league.”
The scene, Chara said, was unexpected, bringing chills. His family wasn’t there to see it, instead watching from home, but that didn’t diminish it in the slightest.
“It was a spectacular moment,” Chara said. “I will cherish that for the rest of my life.”
A few weeks ago, asked about how he felt towards the end of the season, Chara objected to the line of questioning. On Friday, there could be no objection, because there could be no other line of questioning.
“I always felt this is a team game,” Chara said. “It’s always about the team, and when it starts getting to the point where you’re getting that crowd involved and fans are really showing their appreciation, players are giving you pucks, it’s a bit uncomfortable to be honest with you.”
Uncomfortable though it may be, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting end.
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