Arthur: Being Chara is no big deal
Size isn't what makes Bruins' gentle giant so dominant on the ice
BOSTON — Quick Zdeno Chara story: He’s in Ottawa, and he comes off the ice, and Darren Dreger is waiting to interview him on television. Dreger isn’t 6-9, so he gets a crate to stand on. Chara shakes his head, no. Why, he is asked? “I’m not a freak show,” says Chara. “I’m a hockey player.” Dreger nods, pushes the crate to the side, and cranes his neck instead.
Zdeno Chara is not interested in talking about himself. He slipped and fell in the warm-up before Game 3 and collided with teammate Milan Lucic. After the game he was asked about it. “Did you just lose an edge?” he was asked. “Yeah, lost an edge,” he nodded. “Did you have to be stitched up?” he was asked. “Ask me about the game,” he said, his eyes wide, his beard thick as a forest. The stitches were in his eyebrow, right there on his face.
Throughout these playoffs Chara, 36, has been his usual massive self, in body and in impact. He chased Phil Kessel in the first round, shuttered Rick Nash in the second, loomed over Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the third. In the final, Chicago split up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to get one away from him, and he was a key in Boston’s dominant 2-0 victory in Game 3. Chara is 6-9, 255, and when you ask people what makes him so good, the first thing they say is that he’s big. But that’s not the only reason he can dominate a game, scramble a game plan, like no other defenceman in the league.
He hates talking about himself, though, and only perks up when he’s asked about his teammates; his half-ping-pong-ball eyes widen, and his wide flat oval face becomes animated for a second before becoming a polite Easter Island statue again. There are rivers that run deep in him, but he doesn’t like to share.
Of course he’s big. In the NBA there have been four players who were 7-6 or taller. In the NHL, there is only really Chara. When he left Slovakia nobody at home thought he would really be a star — they told him to play basketball when he was young — and in junior he didn’t immediately impress people, even while the crowds held up life-size Zdeno Chara growth charts in the stands.
“It’s impossible for one of us to relate to playing like that, but there’s also a reason that the league isn’t full of 6-foot-9 people, or 7-foot people,” says Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference, who played against Chara in junior, and wasn’t overly impressed. “Because it’s difficult to play the game at that size, and to be as nimble and quick and agile as you have to be. So I think you can’t just sit there and say, ‘Wow, he’s so big.’ Because that’s just what he is.
“But what he’s done with the height, how he’s adjusted his game from junior until now, how he’s improved his skating and his agility and his turning and all that, that’s what impresses hockey players. Not that fact that he’s big.”
Quick Zdeno Chara story: He’s just won his only Norris Trophy at the NHL awards in Las Vegas. He’s 32. He does the rounds, and finally talks to TV from home, from Slovakia. He starts by thanking everyone who has helped pushed him across the world to this place — teammates, friends, family, everyone. And he starts to cry. They turn the camera off. They give him a second.
The other day Dreger had a video of Chara punching Crosby in his recently repaired jaw. It was from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the first time Crosby had removed his full face shield, and in slow motion, Chara’s fist plows into Crosby like a cruise liner steaming full speed into port.
When Dreger shows the video to Chara, Chara goes deadpan, with a hint of a smile. “You can’t prove that’s my arm,” he says, and vanishes behind a curtain.
Chara is such a gentle man that when he plays with former teammate Aaron Ward’s kids he doesn’t lift them up so much as get down on the ground with them. Ward, now with TSN, says Chara’s daughter’s feet didn’t touch the ground for a year, because Chara was always carrying her. His friends would tease him, saying she had to learn to walk, but he would hold her.
On the ice, though, he has a well-honed mean streak, when necessary. But he had to learn it. Chara is not Chris Pronger, though; he’s too nice to be, and too strong besides.
“(Pronger) didn’t care,” says Blackhawks forward Jamal Mayers, who played with Pronger in St. Louis. “What he would say is, if I have to take a couple suspensions every year, it’s all right, then that gives me what I want. It was worth 70 grand, or whatever he had to pay. It was an investment.
“(If Chara played like Pronger) he’d be out of the league. It’s all calculated. He’s a smart guy.”
Chara has learned to be mean; ask Max Pacioretty. But he has regrets, too. They used to talk about this sweet young kid in the Western League who felt bad after he pummelled the thugs who tried to fight him. After he broke Ryan Callahan’s leg with a slap shot in 2011, Chara met with reporters and after the interview Chara asked them, “It wasn’t my fault, right? It wasn’t my fault?”
Quick Zdeno Chara story: The Bruins are taking the bus down to Buffalo after a game in Toronto, and there’s a Floyd Mayweather fight on pay-per-view that night, and they decide that they want to see it as a team. It starts at midnight, but the relatively new coach, Claude Julien, stands up at the front of the bus and announces that curfew is at 11. The Bruins groan, throw their heads back, exhale.
And Chara stands up at the back of the bus. No, he says. They’re with me. I’ll be responsible for them. I’ll make sure nobody does anything wrong. We’ll watch the fight and come back, and it’s on me. There’s a pause, and his teammates’ eyes all swing back to the front of the bus. Julien considers it. He agrees. The team goes out, watches the fight, goes back to the hotel. Nobody does anything wrong. They look up to their captain all the more. Metaphorically, they crane their necks.
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