Zdeno Chara. (Getty images)
In the NHL, there are few things that strike fear into a player's heart like Zdeno Chara lumbering around the ice. The big man with the big heart continues to prove that even though he's lovable off the ice, he's downright scary on it.
The most infamous female serial killer in history eventually met her demise in a castle located in present-day Slovakia. Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a noblewoman of Hungarian descent who has been mythologized as a sadistic murderer of hundreds of young girls and women. Some believe she was a vampire or werewolf, while the most popular story is that she bathed in the blood of her victims in a mistaken attempt to gain eternal youth. If you want to see a demonstration of her alleged methods, watch the shock-horror movie Hostel 2 – or just take my word for it that it wasn’t nice. Thanks to her noble standing, the ‘Blood Countess’ was never convicted of any crimes, but she was confined to a castle in Cachtice, where she died in 1614.
Zdeno Chara grew up in Trencin, only half an hour from Cachtice, but the ghost of Countess Bathory couldn’t haunt his dreams as a child. “The rumors and stories get bigger with every generation,” Chara said. “It’s a very small castle.”
Slovak folklore is rich with the kinds of old-school fairytales that could shake children to their tiny foundations. (One reads: “And so it goes in this world, dear children, the old die and the young come after them.”) But none of them scared Chara as kid. Only one topic did. “My only fear was not being able to play hockey,” he said. “A lot of coaches told me I was too tall, that I should stick to another sport. That fear gave me motivation to train, so maybe in the end it was good for something.”
At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, Chara is the biggest NHLer ever. And with his incredible strength, huge reach and booming slapshot, it’s no wonder his peers believe he is the scariest defenseman in the game. “It’s not just because he’s going to put you through the wall,” said Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson. “But he’s a giant. He’s like two of me.”
Chara’s size makes him the stuff of nightmares for opposing players going into the corner. And though he’s more than polite and calm when you talk to him, there have been famous incidents in the past that illustrate just how terrifying an angry mountain of a man can be.
There was, of course, the rag-dolling of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe in 2004 when Chara was a member of the Ottawa Senators. ‘Big Z’ hoisted all 220 pounds of McCabe into the air and flung him around with ease during a one-sided fight. More recently, there was the altercation with Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith during the 2014 playoffs, when Chara simply laughed in the face of his hopped-up adversary, at one point holding Smith at arms-length like a Looney Tunes character. The officials graciously pushed Smith away before Chara could really get mad and cave in the youngster’s melon. In between those two cases, you can YouTube plenty of fights in which Chara came out unscathed. And he’s been doing that ever since he came to North America.
Although coaches back in Slovakia may have tabbed Chara as a basketball power forward instead of a linchpin defenseman, the New York Islanders saw things differently. So after drafting Chara in 1996, the Islanders tried to find him a home on this side of the Atlantic. Director of player personnel Gordie Clark (now with the rival Rangers) called up Stan Butler, who was coaching the Western League’s Prince George Cougars at the time, and gave him the lowdown. “Gordie told me he was a raw kid and a good athlete,” Butler said. “He wasn’t a big player – he was a massive player, 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds at the time. He was a raw talent but very skilled.”
So off to the wilds of central British Columbia it was for Chara, via the Canadian Hockey League import draft. And while there was an obvious language barrier to overcome, the big kid on the back end was thrilled to go to a place where they wanted him. Of course, the WHL has long been known as a rough-and-tumble circuit, and them good ol’ boys were certainly going to test the new foreign kid’s mettle on the ice. They were probably unaware boxing and wrestling had always been part of Chara’s workout regimens and that his father was a Greco-Roman wrestling Olympian. “We never fought like over here back home,” Chara said. “You were basically hitting the other guy in the mask. I made sure I was ready. Pretty much every game for the first few games I was challenged.”
Butler recalls Paul Ferone, a Tie Domi-like fighter with the Seattle Thunderbirds, welcoming Chara to ‘The Dub’ on his first shift. But Chara got the last laugh. He returned to the bench, and his coach congratulated him on holding his own. “He turned to me and said, ‘Hey Stan, that was my first fight,” Butler said. “I thought to myself, ‘Then God help other people.’ I don’t remember anyone beating him.”
Later on that season, Chara’s opponents still hadn’t learned their lesson. Once again, Seattle was on the other end of the ice, but this time it was burly 6-foot-4 left winger Tony Mohagen dropping the mitts. As Butler remembers it, Chara likely knocked out Mohagen but didn’t realize it at first because he was holding the T-Birds tough guy up. He punched him once more before Mohagen was released from his clutches. “They took him off on a stretcher,” Butler said. “ ‘Z’ got a lot of room after that.”
Chara still cherishes his time in Prince George. The Cougars made the playoffs, with fellow Slovak import Ronald Petrovicky leading the team in scoring and the whole town coming alive as a result. And thanks to his mammoth frame, Chara left his own mythology behind when he departed the small city for the Islanders after that season. For one thing, the Cougars didn’t have a sweater big enough for him, so pieces from another jersey were cut off and sewn on. A similar problem arose when it came to everyday wear. “Even in a lumber town, it was hard to find clothes,” Butler said. “There aren’t many 6-foot-9 lumberjacks.”
But Chara endeared himself in many ways. Despite his NHL draft status, he insisted on getting a part-time job in town, so the team hooked him up with a local dealership, where he washed cars – ones you would assume came out with the most sparkling rooftops possible. He was a fiend in the gym, even as a teenager, and that helped him make his NHL debut with New York the next season (he also spent time with Kentucky in the American League). While he still had to drop the gloves with noted pugilists such as Kris King and Louie DeBrusk as a rookie, eventually Chara was allowed to move beyond sideshow status. “At some point when I established myself on the Islanders, I got to focus on playing against top lines and not just rough stuff,” he said. “I really enjoyed that challenge. I knew my first priority was to defend.”
Move ahead to summer 2006 and Chara leaving Ottawa for division rival Boston. He earned the Bruins captaincy right away and has been extremely successful in Beantown. Along with leading the team to the Stanley Cup in 2011, Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and has been named a league all-star five times in his eight seasons wearing the Black and Gold. “He’s so good with his reach and his strength,” said coach Claude Julien. “He breaks up plays by having his stick in the right place, he separates players from the puck and wins about 90 percent of his battles in the corners.”
Although the NHL can be an intimidating place for young players, Julien points out that Chara has done everything possible to bring the new kids into the fold. For example, the captain’s rule is that the term “rookie” is never used to describe a player in the dressing room. They’re known as “first-year players” instead.
The Bruins have been adept at easing talented young blueliners into the lineup during Chara’s tenure, and that’s no coincidence. While GM Peter Chiarelli and his scouting staff can be credited with drafting the likes of big dudes Adam McQuaid and Dougie Hamilton, part of their maturation has come by playing in a corps with Chara. “He can certainly give you extra confidence out there,” Julien said. “He’s got your back, and if you make a mistake, he’ll probably have you covered.”
Torey Krug, who came to the organization as a free agent, doesn’t fit that mold at just 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, but he’ll benefit from Chara’s presence this season on the power play, where Krug has already had success. That’s because the Bruins intend on continuing to install Chara in front of the opposition’s net when they have the man advantage. It’s a ploy that has worked well in the past (particularly when the B’s had to come back in Game 7 against Toronto in 2013). And it only makes sense when you think about it. “There is nobody better in front of the net than Zdeno,” Julien said. “You either leave him alone in front or waste your time trying to move him.”
The only reason the Bruins didn’t always plunk him down in front of enemy goalies before is that Chara also possesses a lethal slapshot from the point, but clearly the Bruins have decided it’s easier to stop a bullet than move a mountain.
If anything, the most prudent path to getting Chara out of the way would appear to be via the penalty box, but that’s not so easy, either. Chara hasn’t hit the 100-PIM mark since his second season in Boston and hasn’t fought more than four times in a year in nearly a decade, so Chara is smartly avoiding the fisticuffs, even if he is Golem-esque in his strength. How many opponents out there are worth trading five minutes in the box with that would be willing to step to him? Not that he’d admit it. “Sometimes people point that out,” Chara said. “But I’ve never felt I should be treated differently than anyone else on the team.”
Chara is smart about picking his spots. This is a man who has averaged at least 24 minutes of ice time since his first season in Ottawa, peaking at nearly 28 minutes a game for Boston when he first joined the franchise. At 37, Chara is still good for more than 24 minutes per night, even if speedy players can give him trouble in transition sometimes.
Off the ice, Chara is a quality person. He’s a family man who goes back to Slovakia in the summer to hang out with friends and relatives, and he even scaled Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro one time for charity. Sometimes his noble efforts can be comical – like the time he wore a pink bunny costume to a children’s hospital – but his efforts always come from a good place. “He’s got a good heart,” Julien said. “Whether it’s with his teammates, coaches or trainers, he’s very conscientious. He could certainly go the other way, but that’s not his personality.”
But that only applies when you’re on his side. When it comes to winning hockey games and representing the spoked ‘B’ on the front of his jersey, Chara is a man with singular vision. Sometimes, particularly if you channel Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, his resolve sounds downright chilling. “When I go in the corners, I’m ready to battle,” he said. “I want to come out with the puck, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’m not thinking about the other guy.”
That sort of statement should produce a collective throat-lump in the rest of the league, but every season, at least a couple brave/crazy players still step up to test Chara. “I see that in the NHL these days when guys try to fight him,” Butler said. “I laugh. Pride overrules stupidity.”