Zdeno Chara, 44, returning to Islanders on 1-year contract

Sports

FILE- In this April 17, 2021, file photo, Washington Capitals’ Zdeno Chara controls the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Saturday, in Philadelphia. Chara is returning to the team he started his career with after agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with the New York Islanders. It will be the 44-year-old 24th NHL season. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola, File)

Zdeno Chara pondered his future, talked to his family and decided a blast from his past was the right choice for where to play a 24th NHL season.

Chara agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on a one-year deal Saturday, returning 25 years later to the organization that drafted him, to chase the Stanley Cup one more time at age 44.

“It’s kind of full circle,” Chara said. “Who would know that this would kind of work out the way it did after 20-some years?”

It worked out with the Islanders after Chara ultimately decided not to hang up his skates and picked them over other interested teams. Playing on Long Island allows Chara to be somewhat close to his family in Boston and contribute for a contender that has been on the verge of reaching the final the past two playoffs.

“It’s a very solid group with strong leadership and strong core players that have been part of the Islanders for a long time,” Chara said. “It’s a well-structured and cultured team now, and for sure they’ve been making a lot of noise around the league.”

Chara was a third-round pick of the Islanders in 1996 and made his debut with them the next year before being traded to Ottawa in 2001. He still feels grateful for that opportunity.

“It was my first team, my first NHL experiences,” Chara said. “We were going through some different phases at that time, but I learned a lot from that.”

The big Slovak defenseman will look to win the Cup again just over a decade since hoisting it as Boston’s captain. The Bruins let their longtime captain leave in free agency last fall following 14 seasons, and Chara went to Washington to play for a year with the Capitals.

Chara showed he still had gas in the tank by averaging more than 18 minutes a night and playing 55 of the 56 games on the condensed, shortened schedule. By continuing his career, Chara could play in the Olympics for the fourth time, but he said training camp and the NHL season are his focus, not the chance to go to Beijing.

But what actually persuaded him to keep playing?

“I love the game,” Chara said. “I have passion for the game and believe that I can still play. Those are the things you need. I think you don’t need to say much besides having love for the game and having passion for it and wanting to win.”

Far removed from winning the Norris Trophy in 2009, Chara gives New York valuable veteran depth on the left side of the blue line. The Islanders reached the semifinals each of the past two seasons, losing both times to eventual champion Tampa Bay.

It has been a summer of deft salary cap management by 78-year-old general manager Lou Lamoriello, who traded Nick Leddy to Detroit for Richard Panik, added Zach Parise after his buyout by Minnesota and re-signed Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas and Adam Pelech.

The Islanders start the season on a 13-game road trip before opening their sparkling new arena at Belmont Park in November. Assuming Chara is in the lineup for at least one home game and plays at Seattle during the Kraken’s inaugural season, those arenas will be the 43rd and 44th different NHL arenas he has played a game in.

Chara still has a few jerseys from his first stint with the Islanders, a different era under previous ownership, and knows the franchise has taken major steps since. Coming full circle allows him to experience those changes firsthand and try to bring the Cup back to Long Island for the first time since the early 1980s glory days as the only player on the roster who was alive then.

“You never know how your career will evolve and how it will end up, but obviously nobody can really imagine to be kind of finishing where they start,” Chara said. “It just worked out that way, and I’m glad it did.”

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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