Zdeno Chara still thinks that he has his old navy blue Islanders jersey featuring teal, grey, and orange waves on the shoulders and at the bottom adorned with lighthouses on the shoulder patches; along with the team’s distinctive circular “NY” crest with Long Island in the background.
The crest was a way for the franchise to appease the multitude of angry fans who saw the team’s shocking rebrand in the mid-1990s bring on the famed “fisherman” logo — an orange, silver-bearded man holding a hockey stick.
The jersey Chara is referring to is the very first NHL jersey he ever wore after the Islanders selected him in the third round of the 1996 NHL Draft. Twenty-five years later, the 44-year-old will once again be putting the Islanders’ colors back on — though now it’s their traditional royal blue and orange.
No, not as a coach or an advisor, but still as the steady, gargantuan defenseman who has been one of this generation’s best.
The Islanders announced that they signed Chara to a one-year deal on Saturday, 20 years after trading him to the Ottawa Senators in an ill-fated move that saw the Czech blueliner evolve into a Hall-of-Fame blueliner, mostly during a 14-year stint with the Boston Bruins.
“It’s kind of a full circle,” Chara said. “Who would know that it worked out the way it did after 25 years? I’m very honored and humbled to be an Islander again.”
Chara’s time in New York was spent on some of the most dysfunctional teams in Islanders history that were headed by inept management that refused to develop its young talent; instead, trading them away for veterans who never met their full potential.
After four years with the Islanders in which he barely scratched the surface of his potential, the 6-foot-9 then-24-year-old was traded away in a deal that brought back Alexei Yashin and sparked the franchise’s best two-year stretch since the 1980s.
“I was very grateful for the opportunity to play for the Islanders,” Chara said. “It was my first NHL team… we were going through some different phases at the time.”
Upon leaving the Islanders, Chara went on to appear in six All-Star Games, win the 2009 Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, and captain the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup. Among active NHL players, Chara ranks first in plus/minus (+293) and second in games played (1,608). His 481 points with the Bruins (148 goals, 333 assists) rank third among defensemen in franchise team history, behind the legendary Ray Bourque (1,506) and Bobby Orr (888).
The Islanders that Chara is returning to two decades later is far different as Hall-of-Fame executive Lou Lamoriello and future Hall-of-Fame head coach Barry Trotz has led the team to two straight Stanley Cup semifinal appearances.
“The organization went through some transitions over the last 20 years but we all see the progress and the positivity that the team is at,” Chara said. “It’s a very solid group with strong leadership and a strong core of players that have been together for a long time. A great coaching staff if not the best managers in the league.”
Chara comes to New York after one year with the Washington Capitals as he now prepares for his 23rd season in the NHL and is poised to set an Islanders franchise record as the oldest player to ever suit up for the team. So what keeps him going?
“I love the game. I have a passion for the game and I still think I can play the game,” Chara said. “You don’t need to say much besides having a love for the game and passion for it and wanting to win.”
Now, he will have the rare opportunity to answer the question of ‘what if?’ asked by many Islanders fans over the years to see if he can help the club win a Stanley Cup for the first time since 1983.
“You never know how your career will evolve and how it will end up,” Chara said. “Nobody can really imagine being in a position to go back where they start. It just worked out that way and I’m glad it did. I’m happy to be an Islander again. That’s just the way it works sometimes.”