BOSTON (CBS) – My first reaction last month when I heard the Bruins were going to let Zdeno Chara leave the team to carry the Slovakian flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics on Feb. 7 was, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Obviously competing in the hockey tournament for one’s country is an honor that should not be turned down. Some would even call it a duty. And not only is a player’s country counting on him, but the NHL is also counting on the publicity the game and players will get during much-watched Games.
But participating in the opening ceremonies at the expense of missing a couple regular season games seemed like a step too far. Even the Bruins’ initial statements, from general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien, in support of letting Chara leave for Sochi early did little to persuade me. Both Chiarelli and Julien talked about how it was only right to let Chara have this honor because of all he’s “given” to the organization and the team. Last time I looked, Chara has made around $7 million per season since he decided to bolt the Ottawa Senators and join the Bruins in the summer of 2006. Nothing’s really been “given.”
Nonetheless, I’ve since changed my tune about Chara’s upcoming absence, which starts with the Bruins’ visit to face the St. Louis Blues on Thursday and finishes Saturday at TD Garden against the Ottawa Senators. I have two main reasons for accepting the idea that missing games for a ceremony is kosher.
First, Chara has made it clear that before he ever accepted the honor, and before he ever talked it over with the coaching staff and management, he took the situation to his teammates. And had they expressed a desire for him to stick around rather than go, it sounds like he would’ve honored their wishes.
But, of course, the players were mostly in his corner.
“I think it’s great. When I heard about it I thought it was great news,” center Patrice Bergeron said. “I thought it was well-deserved. It’s something he’s going to remember for the rest of his life. It’s a huge honor to carry the flag for his country. It’s special and I’m very happy for him.”
As for missing Chara, Bergeron admitted it will be a big loss but that he and the Bruins need to “step up as a team and do the job. He always does that for us, so we’ve got to do the same thing.”
The second reason has to do with the Bruins’ big-picture situation. I doubt that if the Bruins were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, or were in a dog fight for a wildcard spot, that they’d be willing to left their captain and leader in ice time take off for two games. Nor do I think a Bruins team that hadn’t been to two Stanley Cup finals in three years would be as willing to live without Chara for two games.
But the Bruins have blossomed into an elite organization. They won the Cup in 2011, returned to the finals last June and have made the postseason every year under Julien. They’ve become a destination for free agents (even a Hall-of-Famer like Jarome Iginla was willing to come here on an incentive-laced deal) and have had several players agree to stay in Boston for less than market value rather than even testing free agency.
As they head into St. Louis, they have a solid grasp on first place in the Atlantic Division. Even if they miss out on those four points this week, the odds are strong they’re going to finish top two in the Eastern Conference and head into the playoffs with nothing worse than a conference finals berth as their goal. Potentially trading four standings points for the goodwill they’ll earn with Chara and other players they might want to retain or acquire, is worth the risk.
As an elite organization, the Bruins also have the utmost confidence in their depth and their system. They’re not scared to play a top team like the Blues with Johnny Boychuk and a bunch of guys who just started sprouting facial hair in the defense corps because they’ve proven time and again that the system is strong, the players all believe in it and themselves and, most importantly, they know that a couple of losses in February are not going to come back to haunt them in April, May or June.
Elite status has its privileges. And allowing their best all-around defenseman to accept his once-in-a-lifetime honor is one of those things that the best teams are able to do.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
MORE SPORTS FROM CBS BOSTON