This article appeared on NHL.com on July 17, 2006
By James Murphy | NHL.com Correspondent
Ask anyone who has had the chance to work with new Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara
and you realize there's a lot more to him than just being the best defenseman in the NHL.
You also will learn that "The Big Z" as he known by teammates and friends, didn't just gain that status by being the biggest player on the ice or by pure talent alone. Chara's career has been a work in progress and now as he enters his prime at the age of 29, many believe the Bruins may have struck gold when they signed the 6-foot-9, 261 pounder to a five-year deal July 1.
Northeastern University head coach Greg Cronin was an assistant coach for the New York Islanders from 1998-2002 and worked closely with Chara during his four seasons on Long Island. Cronin watched a tall, lanky player grow into an imposing, skilled defenseman and off the ice saw a kid become a man.
"I remember watching him when he came into the league and he was nothing like he is now," Cronin said. "Here's this tall, awkward, gangly kid who just turned pro and he stood out on the ice like a sore thumb. He was so big, that, of course, opposing players were going to target him, which they did, and he didn't know what to do.
"But then you'd see his work ethic off the ice and in everything he did and that helped him mature from this shy, pensive kid to a confident athlete and young man off the ice."
Chara came from a very strict, hard-working athletic family and Cronin could see that in Chara's off-ice work regimen and the way he approached everything he did.
"He may have lacked confidence at first, but his family background helped and his work ethic were a great snapshot of athletic psychology," Cronin recalled. "His father was a Greco-Roman wrestler and very strict with Zdeno's athletic development. You could see this in him. So when he started to get bigger and gain confidence mentally you could see that on the ice."
When Chara was introduced to the Boston media, Bruins Assistant General Manager Jeff Gorton and head coach Dave Lewis agreed that one of the main attributes they expected Chara to bring to the table was "leadership and for him to set an example for others."
Based on what he saw of Chara in New York, Cronin doesn't think that will be a problem.
"He holds himself to a very high standard of excellence and this was evident from day one," Cronin said. "When he was playing for us in New York, this was a very young, talented, but undeveloped, group we had. We're talking the likes of Tim Connolly, Roberto Luongo, Oli Jokinen and more. So Chara, with the way he trained, became a role model for those kids and now look at what they've all become. He was an animal on the weights and you can see now from the shape he's in now.
"I think that's probably what the Bruins saw in and expect from him. He's not going to be your loud vocal leader, but he'll lead by example. He will be excellent for their young players."
As Cronin pointed out, Chara is very dedicated to keeping fit, but he also is an extremely gifted athlete. Chara recently competed in a triathlon in Sarasota, Fla., helping his co-ed relay team win its division in the Publix Family Fitness weekend triathlon series over Father's Day weekend. Chara competed in the 14.2-mile cycling portion of the event and earned the fastest time in the division.
Cronin remembers pushing Chara to compete in another sport, while Chara was in the midst of a contract dispute with the Islanders that led to a holdout and eventually the trade that sent him, the Islanders' 2001 first-round pick (Jason Spezza) and Bill Muckalt to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin.
"Part of our pre-season workouts for our draft picks and young players was boxing and Chara loved it," Cronin recalled. "But during the holdout, he couldn't train with us anymore, so my partner, who worked under Bill Parcells for the Jets at the time, suggested to Zdeno that he try out for the Jets as a tight-end. He laughed it off, but I'm telling you, he could've made it. He was a fast-runner and just good at everything he set his mind to."
While Cronin watched Chara evolve into a dedicated athlete he also saw that young kid who showed up in New York shy and fragile develop into a mature, smart and humble man.
"One thing that stood out to me about Chara was while he was a force on the ice he remained a gentle giant off it," Cronin said. "He's sensitive and humble and I saw this with the way he approached what goes on behind the scenes with a hockey team. He treated trainers; stick boys and anyone who made the team go, the same way. He has a depth to him that's very likable."
Chara said he "hopes to bring a playoff team back to Boston and later a Stanley Cup Champion." Needless to say, Cronin is very confident "The Big Z" can do just that.
"He'll do great here," Cronin said. "When he sets out to do something, he does it."