Wayne Gretzky Recalls First Encounters with Zdeno Chara and the NY Islanders

New York Islanders v Toronto Maple Leafs
New York Islanders v Toronto Maple Leafs / Graig Abel/GettyImages

There have been few forces to ever grace NHL ice as imposing as Zdeno Chara. Making his NHL debut in the 1997-98 season with the NY Islanders, his 6’9” frame was jaw-dropping to even the best players.

During last night's nationally televised game on TNT between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, the crew of Liam Mchugh, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Wayne Gretzky, spoke with Victor Hedman following the Lightning’s 3-1 victory. 

Gretzky joked that defensemen like the 6’6” Hedman and the 6’9” Chara were why he retired. Mchugh then asked 'The Great One' what he remembered about matching up with Chara.

“The very first game I played against him, I watched him in warmup and remember thinking ‘wow’” Gretzky said. “I went into the coach's office, and I don’t really say a whole lot, and I said to Coley [Colin] Campbell (the NY Rangers head coach during the 1997-98 season), I said ‘listen, every time that number 3 is out there, get me out there.’ The first year he was a little bit like Bambi. By the second year, I said, ‘Every time he’s on the ice, be ready, I’m coming off.’ It took him six months and he figured it out and became one of the best defensemen we’ve ever had.”

The first time Chara and Gretzky faced off against one another was at the tail end of the 1997-98 season, with both teams bound to miss the playoffs in the same season for the first time. The Islanders went on to win the game 3-0, but that was far from the story of the night, as the third period turned into fight night at the Coliseum. Chara dropped the gloves with Darren Langdon, receiving a 10-minute misconduct along with his 5-minute major. The brawl included both teams' goaltenders facing off against one another as Dan Cloutier reigned fists down upon Tommy Salo before challenging the entire Islanders bench.

Gretzky went scoreless on the night but recorded a goal and an assist 11 days later when the two rivals faced off again.