|Zdeno Chara's finesse skills are fed by his great mobility, hockey smarts, patience with the puck and a good range of shots, including a heavy wrist shot that is as deadly as some player's slap shots.|
by Karl Samuelson | NHL.com correspondent Feb. 14, 2006
Zdeno Chara is not the first Olympian in his family. That distinction belongs to his father, who competed for the former Czechoslovakia at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. And like any kid growing up in Slovakia, Sweden, Saskatoon or Salt Lake City, a father's inspiration can be a lasting one.
"My father was in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal," says the 28-year-old defenseman. "Unfortunately, he didn't place very well because he got injured and finished eighth in his category of Greco-Roman wrestling. He was a thick guy, about 6-1 and 240 pounds in his prime. He still competed until he was 47, so he was a big competitor. He has been professionally active for over 30 years. My Dad always taught me to be a good example, work hard, do your best and to give 100 percent every time."
The lessons passed on from father to son are clearly evident. Chara is entering the prime of his career and through hard work and perseverance he has emerged as a dominant defenseman, both in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators and on the world stage for Team Slovakia.
"He demands a lot from himself and from everyone in the dressing room," says Team Canada defenseman Wade Redden, one of Chara's teammates in Ottawa. "There isn't a harder worker than Zdeno Chara and it's impressive to see how far he has come as a player. I don't think a day goes by when he's not doing something to improve, whether it's working out, staying in shape or slapping the puck in practice. He pushes a lot of guys just by the way he works. Besides his size and strength, Zdeno is one hell of a player who can handle the puck and has an incredible shot. He is a pretty rare commodity."
Team Slovakia has a number of rare commodities, especially when you consider their highly skilled attack with the likes of Marian Gaborik, Peter Bondra, Pavol Demitra, Marian Hossa, and Marek Svatos. But Chara won't be difficult to spot in a Slovakian uniform. The hulking 6-foot-9, 260-pound defenseman is the biggest player in NHL history and will log loads of ice time in Torino just as he does in Ottawa, where this season he has already seen more than 30 minutes of ice time in a game on 10 separate occasions.
"Zdeno is a 30-minute guy on our team and plays against the best players on the other team all the time," says Ottawa head coach Bryan Murray. "Besides his physical presence, he has become a little quicker getting the puck out of his own end. That's very important for a defenseman. He is just a great player. I would think that if he's not the best player for Team Slovakia he'll be very close to it."
The 2004 runner-up for the Norris Trophy enjoys the opportunity afforded him by Murray to ride shotgun with some of the most accomplished offensive players in the NHL. He will be given the same chance to put points on the board at the Olympics.
"If there is a chance to join the rush I'll take it," says Chara. "I like to help the offense. In the NHL the key is to keep putting the puck on net and let the forwards go for the rebounds. Our Olympic team looks good. In every tournament we have very skilled guys and all we have to do is just come together and play as a team. Hopefully we can achieve some good results.
Demitra remains friendly with several Czech Republic players, although the country is Slovakia's biggest rival since the 1993 separation that split the two nations.
Chara's finesse skills are fed by his great mobility, hockey smarts, patience with the puck and a good range of shots, including a heavy wrist shot that is as deadly as some player's slap shots. Yet he remains first and foremost a defensive bulwark capable of stopping players dead in their tracks.
"He holds the defense together for us in Ottawa," says Senators winger Chris Neil. "Zdeno is a big, solid defenseman who is so hard to get around. Every night he goes up against the other team's top players and for the most part he shuts them down. And that's what he's there for, to shut down the great players. I think he's one of the most underrated players in our sport."
A solid contribution from Chara in Torino will raise the profile of "Big Z" and give him the recognition he deserves as one of hockey's true stars. For his part, Chara feels perfectly comfortable being handed the mantle of leadership in Torino.
"Leadership is something that I really take as being important," says Chara. "I enjoy it. Being a leader is not easy, but I like that challenge. The Olympics is a top event for any athlete. It's exciting. I feel that it is a great honor to play for Slovakia. But of course I think that every team we play against in the Olympics will be a really huge challenge for us. It doesn't matter who you are up against, the competition will be huge."
Chara will help form the backbone of the Slovak defense by playing a heads-up, aggressive style of game that will give his teammates confidence and keep opponents on their toes.
"The main thing is you have to play hard and keep moving your feet to be in the right position," says Chara. "That's what it's all about, being in the right place at the right time. You can't be running around and looking to outmuscle guys all the time. If there is a hit, you take it and you try to make it count. But first you have to pay attention to the puck because the game is so fast. Every game in Torino will be a very high-tempo affair."