By Joe McDonald
Nov 4, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
As a young hockey player growing up in Czechoslovakia and later in Slovakia, Zdeno Chara was hazed and bullied. Acts occurred that he does not want to discuss in detail, but he decided then that he would never treat anyone in a similar fashion — ever.
That’s one reason Bruins newcomer Cameron Hughes did not skate a lap or two on his own at the start of the pregame warmup Monday night, something that has become a rookie ritual on many teams in the NHL. Not in Boston. As funny, juvenile or harmless as it may seem, Chara believes it’s unnecessary.
“I’ve been through some stuff and had to do certain things as a young player, and I didn’t like it,” Chara told The Athletic. “Right then I made up my mind if I was ever in control of that kind of environment and could make a change, I would do it.”
Regardless of age, accomplishments, status or titles, Chara believes in the one-team mentality. The 42-year-old Bruins captain, Stanley Cup winner and future Hall of Famer respectfully describes newcomers as “first-year players.”
“I don’t use the word ‘rookie’ because it just doesn’t sound right,” Chara said. “Little things go a long way and make a big difference for these young men who are trying to stay and establish themselves in the league. If we can help them out in any way, then that’s great.”
Public incidents of hazing have declined across the major sports in recent years, as the culture at large has begun to shift its feelings on the uglier forms of the practice. But in most quarters, the “harmless” types of hazing like the solo skate still persist. The reality is, however, sending a newcomer onto the ice by himself doesn’t help the nerves he’s already dealing with when making his NHL debut before family, friends and thousands of strangers. Chara believes younger players appreciate the professional culture in Boston.
“How can you expect something out of a young player on the ice when you treat him differently off the ice?” Chara said. “I believe in certain acts or behaviors, and it’s a standard for me that we’re not going to be using anything against anyone.”
Once every player in the room buys into that philosophy, it usually translates onto the ice. The Bruins have seen a stream of younger players make their NHL debuts the past few seasons, including Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk, Karson Kuhlman, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Sean Kuraly, David Pastrnak, Connor Clifton and now Hughes.
Entering a new environment, players need to learn what is expected of them, and that’s when leadership can help make that transition relatively seamless.
“You want to help these people so they can do good things for the betterment of the team,” Chara said. “I just believe that’s the humanity of teams.”
Every single player has been treated the same, and that’s one reason the team reached the Stanley Cup final last spring. It’s also why the team is considered a perennial contender.
Hughes, 23, a native of Edmonton, informed his parents of his pending NHL debut on Sunday, and they were in attendance during Boston’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday night at TD Garden.
Knowing the culture on and off the ice for the Bruins, Hughes was able to concentrate on the task at hand and not worry about one silly hazing ritual or another.
“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome,” said Hughes, who had to explain to his dad that the Bruins do not participate in any of those ridiculous practices. “They make you feel comfortable, and that’s how it should be.”
Hughes has a great example to follow in Chara — in more ways than one. After suffering a serious facial injury during September’s Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, N.Y., Hughes experienced a lot of discomfort during the rehab process. Chara, who broke his jaw during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final against the St. Louis Blues last spring, approached Hughes during training camp and gave the young player a box of leftover protein shakes to help keep up with his nutrition.
“That just goes to show you that he truly does care about everybody in the lineup, everybody all the way through,” Hughes said. “It’s a pretty cool culture they’ve got built, and it makes it easier.”
Chara’s message goes beyond the professional ranks.
With the high school hockey season quickly approaching and many schools already holding captains’ practices, these players should heed Chara’s advice and actions, because humiliating a younger player could have a lasting effect.
“It’s not necessary,” Chara said. “It’s better and easier to share good moments than remembering certain people for the rest of your life by certain acts they did to you. It goes a long way if you’re just a good person and helping someone instead of being a guy that uses his leverage over a young player or young person in the wrong way.”
Chara is proud of the culture he’s helped create in Boston, and the captain hopes it continues after he’s no longer playing.
“Hopefully the younger players now do the same when they’re older players,” he said.