Zdeno Chara is not formally retired as of now, but at this point his NHL days are all but officially over. At 45 years old, it’s been an unparalleled career for what is the physically most unique player in hockey history. At 6’9 and 250 pounds, Chara put 1,680 games under his belt, with legendary stories about his conditioning and the shape he’s been able to carry himself in to maintain such a storied career.
Chara’s NHL career started in 1997-98 — a full seven years BEFORE the NHL even had a salary cap. It’s incredible to think how long and how much staying power he had. Chara played in the NHL (for two seasons) while Wayne Gretzky was active. Chara also played this past April in a game against 2021 first overall pick Owen Power. Power was born in November 2002, Chara had an NHLPA pension secured from before Power was even born.
With all that history in mind, it’s not hard to find some great moments over the years against the Penguins.
Younger fans might truly not understand just how physically dominant Chara was in his prime. Ryan Whitney has said more than once on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that Chara should have been given the Lady Byng trophy for the league’s most gentlemanly player during every single season he played — simply for showing enough restraint to not literally dish out permanent bodily damage to an opponent on any given game. That sounds ridiculous on the surface, but given that we’re talking the biggest player in NHL history and surely the most muscular and strongest pro hockey player that has ever existed, it’s not that wild a concept.
With this in mind, let’s go back to January 2001. Chara is but 24-years old at this moment, a mere pup. He was still mostly a novelty in these days — a gargantuan defender, but not in his Norris Trophy final form at this point as one of the best defensemen in NHL history. After all, the Islanders would decide to trade Chara just a few months after this moment, along with the No. 2 overall pick (which became Jason Spezza) to Ottawa. NYI’s return for this king’s ransom? Alexei “Cash in” Yashin. Mike Milbury, ladies and gentlemen, truly one of the worst managers in NHL history.
Anyways, back on point, let’s set the scene back in January 2001. Mario Lemieux had just returned from retirement mere weeks ago, immediately walking back into the NHL and re-establishing himself as one of the best players in the game. The Penguins were in a somewhat perilous position overall with their arena and financial situations, but embarking on what would be a charmed run over the course of the rest of the season.
Enter Matthew Barnaby. For our younger audience, I guess the best way to quickly describe Matthew Barnaby would be: “imagine how Brandon Tanev plays, but no funny media picture faces and also if he tries to fight about 20 times a season, or as many times as someone will drop the gloves and go with him”. Yeah, super exciting and the type of player that doesn’t even exist any more in the modern game.
The context of this game and fight is astounding too. The Pens are winning 4-2 and there is 1:19 left in the game. This contest is over, and there’s no reason except to keep it moving and skate it off towards the win. But...for some reason, Barnaby picks a fight with Chara. Barnaby, listed super generously at 6’0 and 188 pounds, doesn’t even look like he’s messing with a much older brother, it looks like a young kid trying to fight against his father for some unknown and highly unnecessary reason. (Only in this instance, it’s not a father or anyone who would have fond feelings to him).
Chara obliges, Barnaby hangs on to survive about four or five right hands and then is able to take the mountain of a man down when he gets off balance. This is about the absolute best case scenario for Barnaby to get out of this scrap with all of his faculties in place.
Hilariously, but also reasonably, Barnaby would be assessed an instigator penalty and pick up a game misconduct. (This also put the Pens in a penalty kill, and they would give up a goal to NYI but escape the game with a 4-3 win with time running out).
Deep down, there was a method behind the madness. Barnaby scored 12 goals and 24 points in 64 games during the prior season of 1999-2000. For this season, Barnaby only scored one goal and added five assists in 47 games in Pittsburgh, dealing with a sharp decline in role and importance on the team. With Mario back, the Pens were gearing up to try for a run. Barnaby was showing something to demonstrate his gumption and what he had to keep his spot.
Though very courageous to fight Chara (or just kinda dumb in hindsight and a non-emotional view of the risk vs. reward aspects of the situation), it wouldn’t be enough for Barnaby. Two days after this PIT/NYI game, in separate trades Pittsburgh would add Kevin Stevens and also Krzysztof Oliwa to the team on January 14th, 2001. Oliwa was 6’5, 245 pounds and known as the “Polish Hammer”, an enforcer whose only purpose was fighting and protecting teammates, with a much more intimidating frame than Barnaby. Stevens was in the twilight of his career, but had the obvious connection with Lemieux and would be another winger in the way of Barnaby’s spot on the roster.
Moves like these don’t happen in a vacuum. When Mario had very recently made his return to great fanfare, it was very obvious right from the get go that Lemieux still had “it”. Surely Barnaby on some level — either conscious or subconscious — knew there would be changes to the roster and additions being made to the team. Moves that would only push him further to the margins.
At the trade deadline, the Pens sent Barnaby to Tampa in exchange for checking line center Wayne Primeau. Barnaby was superfluous to the team, despite his best efforts.
In time, Barnaby and Chara would fight on the ice three more times. It would generally get worse for Barnaby, with Chara becoming much more sophisticated as a fighter and adding the ability to tie his opponent up with his reach and left hand, all the while delivering short left jabs and then coming over the top with the vicious right hammer.
Whether it was just “crazy” or “crazy like a fox”, this fight from over 20 years ago still stands out as a measure from a bygone era for a player willing to do almost anything to make a mark and lay it all on the line for the Penguins. It’s also something of a fond farewell for Chara, who will go down in history as the most physically imposing player that the NHL has ever seen.