Not long after the Islanders announced the signing of Zdeno Chara over the weekend, the veteran defenseman was asked about coming back to the organization that drafted him in the third round of the 1996 NHL Draft.
“It’s kind of a full circle,” said Chara during a Zoom meeting with reporters on Saturday when he agreed to a one-year deal just days before the start of training camp. “Who would know that this would work out the way it did after 20 years?”
Full circle is a good way to put it, but it’s not 100 percent accurate for the 44-year-old-Chara who is set for his 24th NHL season.
It would be the understatement of the year to say that Chara is returning to an Islanders organization that is greatly different than the one he left a little more than twenty years ago. The Islanders had the 2nd overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, but new owner Charles Wang was looking to make a splash after the team did not make the playoffs in 2000-01. So, on that day, Islanders General Manager Mike Milbury engineered two blockbuster trades.
He acquired Michael Peca from the Buffalo Sabres and he also sent Chara, the 2nd overall pick in the draft and forward Bill Muckalt to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Alexei Yashin. The trades injected life into an Islanders franchise that had been through ownership drama, the fisherman jersey, declining attendance and some pretty bad teams. Chara was not yet an elite player with the Islanders but blossomed into an all-star defenseman in Ottawa and then went on to spend 14 seasons as Captain of the Boston Bruins including a Stanley Cup title in 2010-11.
For Chara, it’s back to Long Island where his NHL career began, but it’s not exactly full circle because this is not the same Islanders organization that drafted him.
“I’m very honored to be an Islander again,” said Chara. “The organization went through some transitions over the course of twenty years but I think we all see the progress and the positivity the team has had.”
There wasn’t much positivity around the organization on June 22nd, 1996 when the Islanders selected Chara in the third round (56th overall) of the NHL Draft in St. Louis. Think about the condition that the Islanders franchise was in when Chara was drafted and what where the organization is 25 years later…It’s apples and oranges. So, while the term “full circle” is appropriate in terms of Chara potentially finishing his career with the team that drafted him, he is set to re-join a franchise that was a laughing stock in 1996 but is a Stanley Cup contender right now.
“I was very grateful for the opportunity to play for the Islanders,” said Chara. “It was my first team and my first NHL experiences. We were going through some different phases at that time but I learned a lot from that.”
When the Islanders drafted Chara, the franchise was being run by a management group hired by then owner John Pickett. The group, nicknamed the “Gang of Four” by irate Islanders fans, was responsible for the change to the fisherman logo and it continued a downward spiral for the franchise. Later in 1996, the team was sold to John Spano who turned out to be a fraud and Pickett would re-assume ownership of the team in 1997.
Pickett then sold the team to an ownership group led by Steven Gluckstern and Howard Millstein but their only positive contribution to the team was bringing back uniforms that resembled the traditional Islanders look albeit with a darker blue. That group would eventually the team to Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar with Wang ultimately buying out Kumar years later. In 2014, Wang sold a minority interest in the team to a group led by Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky and then two seasons later, Malkin and Ledecky assumed majority ownership.
Over the last three seasons, the Islanders have turned into an elite NHL franchise with the hirings of President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello and Head Coach Barry Trotz, three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs including back-to-back appearances in the NHL final four and the construction of the team’s new home UBS Arena which will open up in November.
What does Chara think about the current Islanders?
“Very structured, very discipled, very organized and very professional,” said Chara.
A far cry from where this franchise was when they drafted him and when they traded him.
But even though Chara had been away from the Islanders, he still held on to the memories from his five seasons in the Isles organization. On Saturday, he posted of photo of him wearing one of his old Islanders jerseys with another one hanging behind him.
“One was the white one and the blue was always back then the away jersey,” said Chara. “Those are the jerseys I kept from the years I played on Long Island. I think I have one more of the fisherman. Those are the jerseys I kept from my playing days (with the Islanders).”
And now he’s an Islander again…an actual current Islander who once wore the fisherman jersey.
“Nobody could imagine to be kind of finishing where they start but it just worked out that way and I’m glad it did,” said Chara. “I’m happy to be an Islander again.”
Zdeno Chara has, in a way, come full circle as he returns to the team where it all began for him in the National Hockey League. But this time around, the Islanders are actually functioning like an NHL team and a really good one. Chara has been back to Long Island many times as a visiting player and adding in his years with the Islanders from 1996 to 2001, he’ll be familiar with the surroundings.
But he may have to pinch himself when he puts on an Islanders jersey for the first day of training camp on Thursday because the current New York Islanders have very little resemblance to the team that he played for at the start of his NHL career.
Full circle? More like a whole new world!