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Bruins' Chara driven to be the best

by Larry Wigge
When Zdeno Chara speaks, you better listen.

If you don't, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Boston Bruins captain is liable to do you bodily harm. And that would hurt.

For years, there was a stigma that National Hockey League teams never would consider a European player for the captaincy. But that kind of thinking went out with the hula hoop and left-wing lock. There's definitely nothing lost in the translation when the 31-year-old Trencin, Slovakia, native, speaks or leads by example on the ice.

"Z definitely set the tone for everything we do," Bruins center Marc Savard said. "I've played for some good captains. Scott Mellanby was a great captain in Atlanta, Brian Leetch in New York. It makes a huge difference when a guy like that goes out and does what he does. I look back at captains like Mellanby and Leetch. They weren't both the loudest guys, but when they said something, you listened. It always made sense what they said. Z is the same way as them."

Chara became the third Slovakian-born player to wear a captain's 'C' for an NHL team, following Peter Stastny with the Quebec Nordiques from 1975-80 and Stan Mikita, who was a co-captain of the Chicago Blackhawks with Pit Martin from 1975-77.

"Zdeno's leadership qualities have been apparent from the time he joined our players after we signed him as a free agent in 2006," Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said. "He leads by example, both on and off of the ice, and he has earned the respect of everyone in our dressing room."

"When he arrived in Ottawa, it was work, work, work. No one worked harder than 'Z.' He would run up steps in buildings, lift weights, mountain bike -- all to build up strength. But his footwork got better and better with all of the lateral stops and starts, quick-twitch exercises he did. Now, he's a contender for the Norris Trophy each year."
-- Former teammate Marian Hossa

"A player like Z gives you a presence that is irreplaceable," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, who wasn't in Ottawa when the Sens let Chara go to free agency and the Bruins in July 2006. "He has toughness, size and great mobility. He is a fitness fanatic. He can play 20 or 25 minutes a game. He's one of a kind. His leaving was pivotal."

The rest of the Chara story is one of him growing into one of the best defensemen in the NHL -- a candidate for the Norris Trophy as the League's best defender this season -- while overcoming more obstacles than you would face in the world's toughest maze.

Now, there are no more growing pains for Zdeno Chara.

In fact, he hasn't had a major growth spurt since he was 17 -- shortly after he grew six inches in a two-year span. He no longer has to hear coaches tell him maybe he should try basketball or some other sport. He's no longer a big joke to some teammates, who watched him clumsily skate around the rink and laughed behind his back until he was about 22 and the rest of his body caught up with his height. Equipment comes custom made for Chara now; he no longer has to play with skates held together by tape and glue and screws, and no longer do trainers have to sew extra material from old sweaters onto the bottom of his jersey to cover his hockey pants.

"I wasn't supposed to make it. I was too tall, too awkward, too everything," Chara said, shaking his head. "I couldn't make anyone in Slovakia believe I could play ... so I had to leave home."

That was in the spring of 1996, after he played on four teams in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and his career seemed headed nowhere.

But Chara is no freak of nature. Not even close. He's just a big man who plays a man's game with the size, strength and skill that no one else has.

"When he arrived in Ottawa, it was work, work, work. No one worked harder than Z," said Marian Hossa, now an All-Star in Detroit, who once starred for the Senators and grew up three blocks from Chara in Slovakia. "He would run up steps in buildings, lift weights, mountain bike -- all to build up strength. But his footwork got better and better with all of the lateral stops and starts, quick-twitch exercises he did.

"Now he's a contender for the Norris Trophy each year."

"He's so strong," San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, himself 6-4 and 235 pounds, said at the All-Star Game. "If we had a strength contest here, he could ..."

Following a pause, I suggested to Thornton that maybe Chara could bench press a house for the fans here.

"Yeah," nodded Thornton. "That's close. He can just neutralize you with that reach and strength of his."

Said Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis: "With two or three strides, his reach pretty much covers the width of the rink. It kind of feels like you are going a block outside your way to get where you are going when you see him trying to defend you."

It's not hard to miss that kind of skill coming in such a formidable package. But it was close in 1996, when the New York Islanders received a couple of crude game tapes of Chara from a contact they had in Slovakia. Chara's movement -- not just his size -- piqued the team's interest. Marshall Johnston, an Islanders scout at the time, liked what he saw. But he needed to know more about this giant risk/reward prospect before he would consider recommending that his team draft Chara.

"The size was obvious, but he seemed to play with a passion that caught my eye," Johnston told me a few years later. "I asked to interview him before the draft and his character and determination to prove he could play just jumped out at me."

The Islanders selected the tallest player in NHL history in the third round (No. 56) of the 1996 Entry Draft. But the connection with Johnston didn't end there. After Chara came to North America and played junior hockey for Prince George of the Western Hockey League, he had five rather non-descript seasons in the Islanders' organization.

That's when Johnston, then the general manager in Ottawa, rescued him once again, asking for him from the Isles in a deal in June 2001 for center Alexei Yashin. Ottawa also received the Islanders' 2001 first-round pick (second overall), which they used to select Jason Spezza.

It was a steal of a deal for the Senators.

John Muckler, Ottawa's general manager before Murray, remembers Wayne Gretzky telling him when the two were working for the New York Rangers and Chara was just breaking into the NHL that the landscape was beginning to change for his 30-something body.

''I remember Gretz coming over to the bench and saying, 'Having to play against defensemen like that, guys built like basketball players, is the reason I'm quitting,''' Muckler said.

Chara clearly is a late-bloomer. He didn't begin skating until he was 7.  But he had some up-close-and-personal help in turning such an imposing body into such an imposing defenseman. It started with Zdenek Chara, Zdeno's father, who competed in Greco-Roman wrestling for Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Olympics. He was the national champion, in fact, for 11 years running. Wrestling, cycling and training came from his father's genes.

The will and determination, however, were all Zdeno.

"Everywhere he went back home, he couldn't get anyone to believe in him and his hockey skills," Vancouver Canucks forward Pavol Demitra, also from Trencin, once told me. "He needed a break ... and he got it when he went to Ottawa."

And now Chara has a new challenge -- helping the Bruins, who have had the best record in the Eastern Conference for a while now, make their first long playoff run since they went to the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals.

Today, Chara can't remember exactly when it was he felt he belonged as an elite NHL player.

"For my mental well-being, maybe it started in the spring of 1999, when Slovakia finally asked me to play in the World Championships," he said. "But that was just a perk for me. The trade to Ottawa, the confidence I got from having coach Jacques Martin play me against the best offensive players on every team ...

"For me, it was a long process."

Never in hockey history has a player this big been this good, as evidenced by Chara's runner-up finish to Scott Niedermayer for the 2004 Norris Trophy and a career-high 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) last season.

Why is Chara such a dominant defenseman? Consider this sort of training regimen: Each summer, he has spent a week or more following the mountain stages of the Tour de France. He will cycle either one day ahead or behind the tour riders, pumping up the same mountain passes.

He started out as a waterboy for his father when Zdenek ran a sports academy in Slovakia and trained all sorts of athletes ... with cycling as a must for everyone.

Chara has read Lance Armstrong's autobiography, "It's Not About the Bike."

"I like cycling because you are totally by yourself on the bike," Chara said. "There is no one to help you. You can train your mental strength -- how much pain you are willing to take -- on the bike."

The pain usually is reserved for opposing forwards.

"The sound of bone on bone is real, when Z hits someone," said Hossa, wincing at the thought.

But this story isn't just about hockey. Chara is a driven person. He won't accept rejection -- not without a fight, anyway. Off the ice he likes to read biographical history books, such as the ones he's devoured on Armstrong. He also likes movies -- and lists Shawshank Redemption and Dances with Wolves as two of his favorites because of the great panoramic shots of life.

Chara also has planned for his life after hockey by going through a certified financial planning course at Algonquin College in Ottawa for three years with his fiancée, Tatiana.

"Professors tell me that is sort of a fast track for a course that usually takes four or five years," said Chara.

So, you see, Chara can do just about anything he sets his mind on.

The best advice he ever got?

"My father would say, 'If you do something, do it right. Don't do it halfway. Don't be average,'" Chara said. "No one gave me much of a chance because of my height, but my dad told me, 'If I could master the basics of gymnastics and acrobatics, I could master hockey as well, because it's all about being mobile, being able to make use of my explosive power in combination with my height.'"

Chara's obsession with fitness is the product of a single-minded determination to overcome his height, which was a serious disadvantage as a young hockey player.

"I remember clutching my legs because of the growing pains," he said.

Chara hates being asked how tall he is, or how tall is father is (he's 6-1) or his mom (she's 5-8) or his sister (who is 6-feet). Whether Big Z liked it or not, by 17, at 6-9, he became an oddity on the ice.

"My father would say, 'If you do something, do it right. Don't do it halfway. Don't be average.' No one gave me much of a chance because of my height, but my dad told me, 'If I could master the basics of gymnastics and acrobatics, I could master hockey as well, because it's all about being mobile, being able to make use of my explosive power in combination with my height.'"
-- Zdeno Chara

The impression of Chara inside the hockey world began to change first when he paid his way to St. Louis for the 1996 Draft and was able to cajole his way to interviews with at least a half-dozen teams.

The rest is history.

"He told us the best place for him was the Western Hockey League," Johnston told me a while back, "because he wanted to learn how to play on the small ice surface and learn how to defend himself and his teammates so that he could be ready to play in the NHL sooner rather than later."

That started with more advice from Zdenek Chara, who hung a punching bag beneath a tree in the garden of their home and taught his son boxing, self-defense and the martial art of Aikido -- stressing short, powerful punches.

By the time Chara reached Ottawa, the initial strides had been made to make this giant of a man a huge success on defense.

"We were lucky. He had gone through his growing pains already with the Islanders," said Martin, now GM of the Florida Panthers. "We could see the improved skills and wondered what the upside was on his ability to move the puck at the speed of our offensive system. Playing with more skilled players like we had was the perfect fit for Z.

"He won't win any dance contests, but he's not bad on his feet. I wasn't afraid to use him in any situation. There is no doubt in my mind that, in his case at least, bigger is better in the way he seems to neutralize a lot of the best players we played against, especially when the games got physical.''

Dance contests?

Now, no one wants to dance one-on-one with a player with the size, strength or skills of a Zdeno Chara, whether it's with Chara’s fists or brute size and strength on a rush.

Every shift, every game and every season, Chara shows that size of heart, passion, determination and skills are just as great as the impact of his body.

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