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Captain's Honor

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins - "Here's Slovakia, and the Captain of the Boston Bruins carries in the flag."

Zdeno Chara, laden with Team Slovakia gear, emerged into Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, leading his country's delegation of athletes.

He was beaming.

Walking into a stadium of more than 40,000 people for the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on Friday, he was the proud face of Slovakia.

The announcement was heard by those all across the United States, tuning into NBC's broadcast.

The genuine happiness in his smile, his steady walk and his reverent glance at the flag said it all.

"Well, there are probably more athletes or people who would deserve to carry that flag," the always effortlessly understated Chara had said, prior to leaving for Sochi.

"I can't even describe the feeling," he had smiled, when imagining what the experience might be like. "The closer I get to that ceremony, and to that day, it's getting more and more exciting, so I'm kind of waiting, for myself, how it's going to be."

There will be no need for words upon his return; his expression told its own story.

"It's one of those things I honestly never even thought about it," said the Bruins' Captain, who will also be the Captain of Slovakia's hockey team for his second straight Winter Olympics, and his third time playing.

"You're never kind of realizing that there's actually a chance you could attend the Opening Ceremony, and because of the amount of games over here, because of the schedule."

The Bruins easily made it a reality.

"I wouldn't even think about selfishly to decide this honor without asking for permission," he said, after getting the go-ahead from Bruins' ownership, management and teammates, to head over to the Games early, missing two games as a result.

"When it was presented to me, I have to be honest, I was really skeptical about it, and then when I got the news I was able to go, it was so exciting."

"So happy and obviously humbled and honored to do that."

While he was proud of the honor, there was also someone watching the ceremony that night, who was likely more proud: his father.

A former Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, Zdenek Chara's final competition came at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the year before Zdeno was born on March, 18, 1977.

But the stories he told, from an achieved athlete to an aspiring one, always stuck.

"He's very proud, very excited," said Chara, who has spoken many times through the years about the discipline and work ethic his father helped him achieve.

"It's something that when I was young, and he was talking about it, it was very motivating and inspiring. So now, when I talk to him and told him about the privilege to carry the flag, he was very emotional."

"He said that he always dreamed about it, and now I got to do it, so he was obviously very happy for me."

The pride wasn't just coming from Zdeno and his family. His teammates, and friends in Black & Gold, understood the weight of the honor.

Patrice Bergeron only caught bits and pieces of the Opening Ceremony, but he made sure to tune in for one specific part.

"I saw Slovakia walk out and it was nice to Zee carrying the flag," said the alternate captain who has joined 'Zee' as a leader of the Spoked-B since 2006. "I was very proud and very happy for him."

"There are some things in life that are more important than maybe Game 57, 58 of the season," said Shawn Thornton, in his seventh season as a Bruin with Chara.

"I know his teammates always had his back, but it's nice to see that they let him go over there and respond to that huge honor. He's earned it, he's worked very, very hard his entire life to put himself in this situation, so I'm very happy for him."

That hard work started decades ago in former Czechoslovakia.

And it led to Chara, sitting in his locker room stall in Wilmington, Massachusetts, days before leaving for Sochi, as the third Slovakian-born captain in NHL history, who had led his team to a Stanley Cup and two Final appearances in the past three years.

"Some 30 years ago, a young Zdeno Chara was born…" I had started to say, wanting him to reflect back to that time, long before his long list of accomplishments.

Chara took a pause, and laughed upon the remark.

"I was just thinking," he smiled. "Yeah, 30 years ago, minus six!"

It's never lost on the 36-year-old Captain, though, how those first six years and beyond spiraled into what he's now achieved, and is still working towards after close to 18 years in the NHL.

"You know what, I have to say, I had a really good childhood, I had really great memories growing up in Slovakia and everything I've done, I wouldn't probably change it," he said.

"Honestly, it was difficult at times, and different, but at the same time, it made you a better person, and obviously the player that I am today."

Thirty years ago, he skated for the first time at the age of six -- but it took much more than just skating for him to get to this point and he eventually had to leave the country that shaped him, to attain his goal.

After flying to the 1996 NHL Draft, Chara stayed in North America, and soon began his journey through the NHL. Because of that, his time back in Slovakia is limited to mostly summers now. But there's always a piece of that 'young Zdeno' with him.

"I still have the same friends and family back home, so I always go back after the season and try to spend as much time as I can with them."

"And I still believe I was the same guy as I was before."

In Sochi, with millions watching, that 'same guy' may not have been back home, but he looked plenty at home carrying his nation's flag.

"I'm just very excited that I've been able to play this long and be able to make the Slovak national team," he had said. "It's exciting, it's a huge honor, and I'm just happy I can participate and compete."

Bruins fans in Boston and beyond will naturally be cheering on Team USA or their home countries over the course of the next two weeks. But there's also no doubt, that they too felt a strong sense of pride when they saw their Captain, and heard his name.

As Slovakia has embraced Zdeno Chara, his second home has embraced him just the same.

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