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Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, two of the Bruins’ pillars of strength, pulled up their Black-and-Gold stakes Tuesday and officially joined new teams — Chara going to Prague in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League and Bergeron to HC Lugano in Switzerland.
While the National Hockey League remains dark, its training camps and arenas closed because of a lockout, top talents such as Chara and Bergeron have decided not to wait around while league owners and union bosses dither over crafting a new collective bargaining agreement.
NHLers who defect to other leagues all can return immediately to their NHL clubs when/if a new CBA is crafted, but for now, their version of “Game On!” means a plane ticket across the Atlantic.
Chara, the Boston captain, likely will play this weekend for HC Lev Praha, according to his agent, Matt Keator. Bergeron, who also had offers to play in Finland, according to agent Kent Hughes, will have far less travel in Switzerland than had he signed with a KHL club. He will rejoin ex-Bruin Glen Metropolit on the Lugano roster.
“Patrice wanted to keep his game in shape, and at the same time he was intrigued by the idea of getting to see a beautiful country,’’ said Hughes, who closed the deal with Lugano, a seven-time league champion, late Tuesday afternoon. “The offer from Finland was attractive, too, but all in all the Swiss experience just looked more appealing.’’
Chara was scheduled to fly out of Logan Airport Tuesday night. According to Hughes, Bergeron will drive to Boston Wednesday from his home in Quebec City and then fly overseas Thursday or Friday. He likely won’t suit up until late next week.
According to Keator, the 35-year-old Chara wanted to be in Prague, in part, because it’s not far from his home in Slovakia and the defenseman holds fond memories of the city dating to when he left home as a teenager in hopes of catching the attention of NHL scouts.
“It’s a comfortable fit for Z,’’ said Keator, speaking by phone from his office in Wellesley. “He loves Prague. He knows some of the guys on the team, like Jiri Novotny and Marcel Hossa [brother of the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa].
“So, good city, good guys, and a way for him to keep his game at a high level so he can step right into it when the NHL gets back in business.’’
Chara and Bergeron aren’t the only high-profile Bruins to bolt across the Atlantic with the lockout now having spanned a second month on the calendar. Only days after signing his six-year extension with the Bruins, worth $5.75 million per season, young star winger Tyler Seguin agreed to play for Biel, Switzerland. He’ll now be going head-to-head against Bergeron when Biel and Lugano face off.
A handful of other Bruins also have headed overseas or said they will do so in the near future.
Negotiations between the NHL and the Players Association remain at a standstill. The league is expected later this week to start canceling regular-season games, including the scheduled opener that had the Bruins in Philadelphia next Thursday.
Chara grew up not far from Prague in Trencin, Slovakia, which Keator estimates is only some three hours from his new team. He last played in Prague when the Bruins began their NHL season there just 24 months ago, a season that culminated in Boston winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972.
In 2004-05, a season lost to the NHL’s second lockout, Chara played in the Swedish Elite League, collecting 25 points in 33 games with Farjestads BK Karlstad.
He not only used the season to keep his game tuned, but also learned to speak Swedish fluently. Chara also speaks Czech, Slovak, Russian, and English.
This is the Prague team’s first year in the KHL. Formed two seasons ago, it played the first two years in Poprad, Slovakia.
“He had a few choices, including other KHL clubs, one of them in Siberia,’’ said Keator. “But it’s sort of home for him, and the competition is top-notch.’’
Lugano, Bergeron’s new city, is located in southern Switzerland and is closer to Milan than Geneva. Ex-Bruin Landon “Of the Lost’’ Wilson played there for two years, 2006-08. The travel in the Swiss League is far less than what Chara will experience in the KHL.
“That was a big factor to signing there for Patrice,’’ said Hughes. “He liked what he heard of the team, the city, the lifestyle there, and also the travel is far easier to manage.’’