By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was a battle for everyone involved, in what turned out to be the last games with NHL players for a while.
A back injury limited Swedish star Henrik Zetterberg to one game played and would lead him to have surgery later that winter. As he made his way back to North America, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara spotted an injured Zetterberg struggling with his bags in the airport.
After helping Zetterberg get his equipment checked in, there was no way Chara was going to let Zetterberg carry what remained in the shape he was in. Chara and Zetterberg were on the same flight, so Chara carried Zetterberg’s bag.
The off-ice connection between them never extinguished the competitive fire between the two superstars, who as recently as last season were engaged in numerous battles in the corners and in front of the net during Bruins-Red Wings showdowns.
As helpful as Chara was to Zetterberg back in Sochi, though, he couldn’t help the 37-year-old avoid what was announced Friday. Zetterberg is no longer able to play because of a degenerative back condition.
When the third of Boston’s three on-ice practices ended Friday, Chara and some of his teammates retreated to the locker room where they saw the news on the big screen that was tuned to the NHL Network.
“Well it’s pretty unique. He’s been and he is such an elite player and it’s very unfortunate that he cannot continue,” Chara said. “The things he’s done for the Detroit Red Wings, for the organization and for the community, it’s pretty remarkable. I’m sure he’s going to always be remembered. … As players we always feel that those are the type of exits that you don’t want to see players have, leaving the game because of injuries. Hopefully he’s going to fully recover and have an amazing after-hockey-career life and he’s going to continue to improve his health status.”
Chara, who at 41 is the second-oldest player in the NHL after Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen, has endured his share of injuries the past few years. But considering his age and the physical nature of the way he plays, Chara has been fortunate to not miss large chunks of playing time. He missed 19 games in 2014-15 but has missed two, seven and nine games each the past three seasons, respectively.
After battling through a shoulder and hand injury through the end of Boston’s second-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay, Chara healed up through rest without surgery. He’s 100 percent healthy now at the outset of training camp.
“Health, as we all know, it’s the most important thing that we have,” said Chara, who’s 77 games from 1,500 for his NHL career. “A lot of times we overlook that, we take it for granted until something happens, and then we appreciate it more and more. So I’m very grateful and blessed that so far I’ve been, for the most part, healthy and continue to try to do my best to stay that way. It’s a physical game, it’s a game that people do get hurt, but you want to avoid it as much as you can and prepare yourself for when those things occur or comes, you prevent those injuries.”
Hopefully for Chara and the Bruins, no one will have to help him with his bags any time soon.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.