The mask of Z

BOSTON -- There have been very few times Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara has allowed the outside hockey world to see him smile.

Twice during the 2010-11 season, he showed us a glimpse. During the team's annual media day that year, which is usually the day before the regular season begins, all the players were in a large room with a giant black curtain around the perimeter. Before most of the media entered the room, Chara hid behind the curtain. An unsuspecting television reporter and his cameraman were standing directly in front of the captain's station. Suddenly, like some sort of Halloween prank, Chara screamed and emerged from behind the curtain. The 6-foot-9, 255-pounder scared the hell out of the reporter, to the amusement of others. It was a smile-worthy moment.

The other time Chara showed us he is human was after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup by beating the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the finals on June 15, 2011, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. He was smiling and ecstatic. He was even drinking alcohol, which is something he rarely does.

Chara hasn't celebrated like that since, but he would like to -- perhaps at the end of the 2013-14 season, which opens when the Bruins host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden.

This will be Chara's eighth season with the Bruins and he's experienced it all in Boston.

The strong Slovakian originally was interested in playing for Boston for a few different reasons, but one of the main attractions was that the Bruins did not have a captain at the time and he was a free agent. He wanted to wear the "C," and that was negotiated before the Bruins signed him on July 1, 2006. It became official when the organization named him the 18th captain in team history on Oct. 3, 2006.

His captaincy has been called into question several times by fans and the media. It could be because most of the time, Chara remains relatively quiet. When the locker room doors open after a game or practice and reporters pepper him with questions, his answers are brief, his tone is soft and he hardly deviates.

But once the doors are closed, his leadership emerges.

He is one of the few players who can speak candidly with team president Cam Neely, general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien. There have been a few occasions when the players had concerns and they voiced them to Chara, who handled them in a timely fashion.

On the ice, there's no denying Chara's impact and leadership. His statistics speak for themselves. He's played 1,055 regular-season games, including 129 playoff games. A six-time All-Star, Chara has won the Stanley Cup (2011), Norris Trophy (2008-09) and the Mark Messier Leadership Award (2010-11).

But his presence means more than just numbers and ice time.

If an opponent takes liberties with one of his teammates, Chara will selectively handle the situation. During his time in Boston, Chara has added his own stamp to one of the biggest rivalries in hockey against the Montreal Canadiens.

Last season, in the midst of the Bruins and Canadiens battling for Northeast Division supremacy, the two teams were playing on March 3 in Boston. The Bruins held a 3-2 lead in the second period when the Canadiens' Alexi Emelin cross-checked then-Boston teammate Tyler Seguin in the ribs. Seguin fell to the ice. Chara did not see the initial hit, but he tracked down Emelin and began to pummel him in defense of his teammate. Chara received 17 minutes in penalties and Montreal eventually won 4-3. But no one on the Bruins, including Claude Julien, had an issue with how the captain handled the situation.

Earlier in the season, Chara was publicly criticized for not responding in similar fashion when teammate Shawn Thornton suffered a concussion during a fight with the Buffalo Sabres' John Scott. But that situation was completely different from the one with Emelin. Going after a Buffalo player who averages three minutes a game wasn't worth Chara losing extended ice time.

The fact is, Chara's teammates know that, when needed, their captain will protect them.

After playing in all 48 games of the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, Chara logged a career-high in ice time during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He's not perfect and the Blackhawks proved it last spring.

It was like a scene from "Rocky IV" when Rocky Balboa threw a punch and cut his Russian opponent, who seemed invincible, and his manager said: "You cut him. You hurt him. You see, he's not a machine, he's a man." ( No, Chara's not from Russia, but you get the point.) The Blackhawks did to Chara last June what Balboa did to Ivan Drago.

During Game 4 of the finals, Chara was on the ice for five of the six goals during Chicago's 6-5 overtime win at TD Garden. After that game, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews publicly declared he and his teammates were not intimidated by Chara's presence. It was a rallying cry for Chicago and one of the turning points of the series, as the Blackhawks won three straight and hoisted the Stanley Cup after their Game 6 win in Boston.

Like most of his teammates, Chara was playing hurt. He never used his injury as an excuse, nor did he fully disclose what was bothering him during the finals, but his shot totals drastically declined and he was on the ice for 10 of the 12 goals Chicago scored in Games 4, 5 and 6.

After a brief but productive offseason, Chara returns with that Stanley Cup in mind.

At age 36, he doesn't appear to be slowing down. He's in the third year of his seven-year, $45.5 million contract with the Bruins. Boston's original investment has paid serious dividends and he will likely end his career here.

In order to keep Chara fresh and healthy for the remainder of his current deal, Julien hopes others on the blue line can step up and contribute more in order to reduce Chara's workload.

"I don't know if I'd call it 'pull back the reins.' He's always in great shape, so that's never an issue," Julien said. "What we have to do, in order for our team to progress, is start putting more trust in other players, too, and give them more responsibilities and that's the way we're going to get better. What that will allow is other players to grow in those roles, but it will also allow Zdeno to be better."

That means Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski will have more responsibility.

"If [Chara] plays a little less, he's going to give us more," Julien said. "That's a small adjustment, but that doesn't mean he's going to go from 24 minutes to 19. There are going to be games where you might see him get as much ice time, but we're certainly going to keep an eye on that for him."

On June 16, 2011, Chara carried the Stanley Cup off the team charter when it returned from Vancouver. It was one of those moments that will be forever etched into this city's sports lore. As satisfying as it was for the captain and his teammates, the Bruins wanted more. They came agonizingly close to another championship last spring, and it still stings four months later.

The Bruins expect nothing less than another run at the Stanley Cup in 2013-14.

"Every team is going to play us hard and give us their best," Chara said. "We have to be ready for that."

Chara's words are just another example of a simple statement from a no-nonsense captain in Boston.