by brian wright o’connor | November 19, 2014 | People
Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara defies the odds, aims to score, and carries a very long stick.
Zdeno Chara, seen in the Bruins locker room, is determined to return the Stanley Cup to Boston.
When Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara raises his eyes to the rafters of the Boston Garden, he sees the number stitched on his black-and-gold jersey hanging from the beams. That “33” belongs to another 6-foot-9 legend of Boston sports—Larry Bird, former captain of the Boston Celtics. Different sport, but a symbol of what a sports hero means to this town, and a reminder of what Chara dreams of becoming here, too.
Chara listens politely to talk of retired jerseys and championships. But the sweat dripping from every pore after a bruising practice signals a more immediate concern: the work needed this day, this week, and this season to bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston.
The 37-year-old Slovak star, who joined the Bruins in 2006 and was named captain the same year, is not just the tallest player ever to compete in the National Hockey League; he’s also perhaps the hardest-working. “I think I have abilities to push myself really, really hard,” says Chara, “even beyond some levels of exhaustion, even to passing out.” Chara’s record of routinely staying on the ice for more than 30 minutes a game—nearly unheard of in hockey, with top players averaging about 15—secures his role as a leader, taking and meting out punishment in a sport in which fisticuffs, body checks, and pucks flying more than 100 miles per hour can make the arena resemble a combat zone.
Chara holding up the Stanley Cup after the Bruins’ 2011 title win.
His endurance stems a work ethic that began as a teenager in the ancient castle city of Trencin. His father, a Greco-Roman wrestler, schooled him in that grueling sport, but Chara’s passion was hockey. “I always enjoyed wrestling,” he says. “But I loved playing hockey. Maybe it was the adversity that pushed me even more—because so many people said you shouldn’t play hockey, you’re too tall, or you’ll never make it out of Slovakia.” He would prove them wrong, leaving Central Europe behind to bring hockey glory back to the long-suffering cabal of Causeway Street and winning the coveted James Norris Memorial Trophy in 2009 as the best defender in the NHL.
But the trophy that counts is the cup. Bruins fans will never forget the sight of Chara, seven feet tall in skates, raising Lord Stanley’s chalice after the team shut out the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, breaking a 39-year championship drought stretching back to the days of Bobby Orr.
Boston Herald hockey writer Steve Harris recalls seeing Chara with the New York Islanders after being picked 56th in the 1996 draft: “He was so awkward, nearly a joke—tall and spindly and not a great skater. But he worked and worked.... And now he’s a monster. There’s never been an NHL player like him.”
Carrying the flag of his native Slovakia during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
And none with a harder slap shot. The high-scoring defender has twice won the NHL all-star competition, clocking a record 108.8 mph shot to bury his rivals. There was even a commercial created for Warrior Sports showing a Chara blast taking off a goalie’s head. The ad never aired but lives on in Internet glory. Equally notorious was Chara’s nude photo shoot for ESPN magazine, featuring artful shadowing, washboard abs, and a come-hither look right out of Blue Boy. “Big Z” took a lot of ribbing around the league, but you have to be careful when the target of mockery wields the longest stick in the NHL.
Chara last played in a Stanley Cup final in 2013, when coach Claude Julien’s charges fell in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Last year they got bounced in the conference semifinals by Montreal. This year the seasoned star faces diminished playing time, with younger defenders like Dougie Hamilton earning more minutes, especially as Chara recovers from a knee injury sustained early in the season. But once he gets back, he says, “I still want to be effective. When their best player is out there, I want to be on him.”
With his wife, Tatiana, at the 2014 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
Chara speaks seven languages and is known to weigh his words carefully in every one. But when the three-time Olympian talks about carrying the Slovakian flag during last year’s Winter Games in Sochi, his face flushes and the words flow like a fast break. “It was amazing,” he says. “They give you the flag, you walk out underneath the stands, and you hear ‘Slovakia!’ You see the people and know the whole world is watching. It’s indescribable.”
Chara, who lives in the North End with his wife, Tatiana, and 5-year-old daughter, Elliz, loves Boston’s history, its cobblestoned byways and European sensibility. “That’s all part of this team,” he says. “It’s a huge honor to be playing for the Bruins and wearing the B on your chest. It’s so much more than just playing in the NHL. It’s playing for the people of Boston. It’s something you take to your heart.”
photography by bruce bennett/getty Images (stanley cup, nhl awards); ryan pIerse/getty Images (olympIcs)
September 19, 2018