Zdeno Chara stands alone.
The New York Islanders blueliner set a record for most games played by an NHL defenseman when he skated in the 1,652nd game of his career Thursday, a 4-3 Islanders shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks. Chara registered one shot on goal over 16:26 time on ice in the contest.
Hall of Fame defender Chris Chelios had held the previous record since 2010, when he retired after 26 seasons in the NHL. Chara, who turns 45 next month, is also tied now for having played the seventh-most games ever at any position in the league. Midway through his 24th pro campaign, Chara is putting in 18:31 average time on ice this season and has eight assists in 44 games.
Chelios couldn't attend the game in San Jose because of work commitments, but he pledged to be at the rink when Chara is honored back home at UBS Arena. Out of deference to Chelios and what he accomplished, Chara did not speak publicly on the impending milestone until it officially passed. But Chelios was the first person Chara mentioned after his record-breaking night.
"It's such an honor and privilege to be in the same group as many great defenseman, but obviously passing Chris, he's set such a high standard for many of us and many generations," Chara said. "It's been very inspiring and a huge motivation, and I want to thank him for that, because he was a tremendous player, an amazing leader and he's such a legend."
Chara might have been in an opponent's arena on his historic night, but he still received a resounding standing ovation from the crowd at SAP Center during the game's first period. The Sharks also prepared a video message featuring Patrick Marleau, the NHL's leader in games played, sharing his congratulations.
And in true Chara fashion, he also engaged in a second-period scrap Thursday with San Jose forward Jeffrey Viel. It was the 76th fight of Chara's career, and when the short bout ended, Chara made sure to give Viel a hug and affectionate tap to the helmet before they parted for the penalty box.
The gathered hockey fans loved it, as did Chara. The support Chara felt during the game and leading up to it wasn't lost on him either, and there was a long list of people to thank for helping him reach a lofty career pinnacle.
"I'm very grateful, and I've been very lucky to have had many great teammates, coaches, trainers, friends," he said. "But none of that is more important than the support of my wife and my children. I wouldn't be sitting here if it weren't for them allowing me to still play the game and do what I do and help my teammates every night."
Checking in at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, Chara has been a force patrolling NHL blue lines since day one. A native of Trencin, Slovakia, he was drafted in the third round, 56th overall, by the Islanders during the 1996 entry draft and made his NHL debut on Nov. 19, 1997. Over the course of 24 years, Chara has played for New York, Ottawa, Boston and Washington, amassing 207 goals and 674 points. He sits 32nd overall in that span with an average time on ice of 23:34.
The most celebrated phase of Chara's career, though, was the time he spent in Boston.
In July 2006, after years with the Islanders and Senators, Chara became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Bruins, who immediately named him the team's captain. He would hold that mantle through the next 14 seasons in Boston, through years filled with individual and collective success.
Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2009 as the NHL's best defenseman, after posting a career-high 19 goals in the 2008-09 regular season. It stands as his only Norris win to date, amid six nominations for the award.
In 2011, Chara and the Bruins defeated Vancouver to win the first and only Stanley Cup of his career. Chara became the first Slovak player to captain an NHL club to a Cup victory and joined Nicklas Lidstrom as just the second European skater to accomplish that feat.
Chara would return to the Cup Final in 2013 and 2019, with Boston falling to Los Angeles and St. Louis, respectively. By July 2019, Chara was the oldest active player in the NHL, and in November of that year he became the 21st skater in history to appear in 1,500 games.
In a video posted to the Bruins' Twitter account Thursday night, captain Patrice Bergeron shared his own message about Chara's accomplishment.
"I'm so proud of you," Bergeron said. "I'm not surprised that you're still doing this at such a high level. Your dedication, your perseverance, your competitiveness is unmatched, and I'm so proud of you again. Congratulations. I hope you had a good one and you enjoy this accomplishment because it's very special."
Brad Marchand was also featured in the video, telling Chara, "I learned so much from you along the way. ... So happy for everything you've been able to accomplish. Watching you as a teammate, I have a whole new understanding and appreciation for what you've accomplished. There's no one else that deserves it more, to have your name at the top of that list."
When his contract in Boston expired after the 2019-20 season, Chara opted to join Washington on a one-year deal in December 2020. His career came full circle when Chara rejoined the Islanders on another one-year pact in September 2021.
Whether this year will be the end of the road for Chara remains to be seen, but it's unlikely to produce another postseason run. New York entered Thursday's game with a 19-20-7 record and sitting seven points back of a wild-card spot. In addition to his 1,652 regular-season appearances, Chara has skated in 200 playoff games.
"I'm very lucky and grateful to still be playing the game," Chara said. "I've had many amazing people around me for [the last] 25 years."