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COMMENTARY

Zdeno Chara on Ralph Krueger, evolving in his 40s and ... Tom Brady

BOSTON – Boo Zdeno Chara all you want. Folks at KeyBank Center aren't the only ones who do it.

When you're 6 feet, 9 inches – before adding skates – you're going to be a lightning rod for catcalls around the NHL. But for many years now, the boos also include a modicum of respect for a larger-than-life player.

Chara has been one of the biggest visiting villains in Buffalo for many years. His dustup with Paul Gaustad at the final buzzer of Game 5 of the 2010 playoffs was one of more electric moments in recent Sabres history.

(It spawned this Lindy Ruff classic: "I liked the fact that we had one guy grabbing around the knees, one guy grabbing around the waist and the other guy grabbing on the neck, and the big man went down.")

But here's a message for Sabres fans from the Boston Bruins' captain and resident sage they they won't boo: In Ralph Krueger, Jason Botterill got this coach-hire thing right.

Chara should know. He was a key member of Team Europe, the collection of players-without-a-country that Krueger led on a stunning run to the final against Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

It was a textbook study of team building, and Krueger aced it. Botterill wasn't the only person in the hockey world who noticed.

"I think Ralph is a huge motivator and a great communicator. I think he's going to do an amazing job in Buffalo," Chara said this week when asked for a Krueger scouting report. "It was a pleasure to have him as a coach with Team Europe, and I really enjoyed that tournament and the time I spent together with him. I'm sure he's going to do well."

Team Europe, remember, did not start that tournament well. It gave up nine of the first 10 goals in two exhibition games against Jack Eichel and Team North America. According to Chara, Krueger never panicked. He simply told his team to remember the pride of representing their small nations and to stick to a game plan.

"We had maybe one practice before those exhibition games and it's always easier to put nations together," Chara said. "A lot of times, those guys have played together on the same team or on national teams. Ralph had to put together 25 guys from eight countries with hardly anyone playing or coaching together. We were all new to each other, and it took a few days.

"Those first few games were not great but we established the way we wanted to play and how we establish different situations. We were patient. We improved each day. Ralph had us elevating our game the whole tournament. We bought into what he said about playing as a team in all situations, creating great chemistry. It was a lot of fun."

Chara is having plenty of fun again playing in his third Stanley Cup final with the Bruins in the last nine years. At age 42, maybe he has slowed done some, but he's still second on the Bruins in playoff minutes at 22:21 per game. And he already has signed for next year at a team-friendly cap hit of $2 million.

Chara's offensive numbers are well down (career-low five goals and 14 points this year) but he has managed to stay relevant through fitness and evolution. The game has changed quite a bit since he debuted for the New York Islanders as a 20-year-old in 1997.

"You have to be ahead of the game seeing the players coming into the game, how skilled and fast they are," he said. "You have to see systems, how guys are being coached. I sensed where the game was going and tried to work really hard in the offseason on the ability to read plays better and not be caught in the wrong position and on the wrong side of the puck.

"I want to use my size to my advantage, but it's pretty obvious the game got a lot faster than the late '90s. If you continue to work on your game, you can play for a long time."

Blues coach Craig Berube was on that 1997-98 Islanders team when Chara made his debut and remembers the gangly Slovakian's entry into the league well.

"He was a kid, a rookie, but his work ethic was unreal at that point," Berube said. "A tremendous worker, great character, there's a lot of good things to say about him at his age. He's a determined guy. Obviously his size, he plays the game on his brains a lot now. He's a smart guy, he's been around a long time, he uses that long reach and gets in the way. It's just his determination more than anything and his work ethic. It's why he's still playing."

For his part, Chara hates the word "rookie." He doesn't use it to describe any Boston teammates, some of whom are half his age. Since he began his playoff career in 2002 with Ottawa, Chara has played nearly 1,000 more minutes in the postseason than any other NHL player, and he qualified in 15 of the last 18 seasons.

When he took the ice Monday in Game 1, he became the second-oldest defenseman in Cup final history behind only 43-year-old Doug Harvey of Montreal. The Hall of Famer's opponent in that series? Also St. Louis.

In Game 4 of the first round at Toronto, Chara became the oldest defenseman in history to score a game-winning goal in the playoffs and the third-oldest player overall behind Mark Recchi and Teemu Selanne.

In the twilight of his career, Chara knows not to take anything for granted. He's aiming to be just the fifth player to win the Cup at age 42 or older, joining a list that includes former Sabres standout Dominik Hasek (Detroit, 2008, age 43).

"I appreciated things the same way as before and not just because of your age," he said. "It's because it's not something that happens every year. For some guys, it's happened more than the others. You have to appreciate how hard it is just make the playoffs. And then with the new format, you'll face very good teams early on so you can't think it's going to happen every year."

Chara has even gotten with the times and made himself quite a presence on social media. His good friend there? Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who narrated a one-minute hype video on Chara's Instagram page.

View this post on Instagram

Still here....... #MADEFORTHIS

A post shared by Zdeno Chara (@zeechara33) on

The Bruins would like to see Brady be the pregame banner captain at some point in these playoffs.

"I think that would get 'Z' going, for sure. It looks like they've got a little bromance going," forward David Krejci joked Wednesday morning.

"We all admire Tom, what he's been able to accomplish, and the whole Patriots organization," Chara said. "They've been doing this for a decade or more, being on top of their game. As far as Tom, it's no secret he's one of those athletes everyone looks up to."

Lots of people look up to Chara. And not just because of his height. Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour couldn't say enough good things to him in the handshake line after the Eastern Conference final, an exchange broadcast on NBC that has gone across social media.

Sabres fans have to hope Chara's words on their new coach prove prescient as well.

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