Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Thrill of Victory will Always be there for Chara

By Larry Wigge

The thrill of victory ... and the agony of defeat.

For years, those were the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. The words could also apply to the words that symbolize just how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup.

Zdeno Chara was ecstatic about last year's run to the Cup for the Boston Bruins. Three playoffs were decided in Game 7's -- Montreal in the first round, Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference round and against the Vancouver Canucks in the final round.

Big Z pronounced was almost prophetical saying how you'd better be lucky and good to win it all once again.

"You don't know how hard is ... You're always hearing and ready about how hard it is    until you go through it and win," Chara revealed. "Then, you to a feeling ... This is what it really feels like. Not that you're not prepare for that, you are. You are preparing for it. It's something like when you are going to have you first child. It's something very unexpected. It's great. It's so rewarding. But you have to go through it you don't know."

From April 14 until June 15, the Bruins were fighting, scrapping, positioning themselves for the marathon that they call the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Chara is right in that you pull from your inner heart and soul for more energy to fight some more -- and once you are finished with one round ... there's another team that waiting for you.
"You never, ever, never give up," he explains. "Always follow your dream -- never give up. For us last year ... there were so many times we were close to being eliminated. Down 2-0 to Montreal team. Game 7 against Tampa and against Vancouver.

"So close. Every time, but just never, ever give up. Sometimes it's so hard. You're so tired. You think you're out of it, but your not. You think your tired, but your not. That's the greatest, greatest feeling in the world when you think ..."

It's easy to take Chara's pre-playoffs thoughts and make them work now because while they won it all last year ... this year's they couldn't get past the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the first round.

His passion last year could be expressed in this year's playoffs. It had been since 1972 that the Bruins had won the Cup. Now, one and down.

As we are now facing the second round, we are wondering about the first-round ouster of the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins last year's participants in the Cup finals. You look around and see that the first round was a disaster for a number of the top teams in the league -- the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the Cup in 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners in 2009, and the Chicago Blackhawks, winners in 2010. And the Bruins, winners in 2011.

The New York Rangers are waiting to see if they advance against the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils are awaiting Game 7's.

"You nod and you keep going," said Chara. "I think it's so rewarding, it so ..."

You can feeling the very thoughts of Zdeno come right out of this story as if he is reliving the run for the Cup one more time.

"You keep trying ... you keep trying," he continues. "Really, if you look at it the right way, every year there's five or six teams that can win. Any of those teams can do it, it's just a matter of which team has luck. If you don't have luck on your side and far as staying healthy and then get the bounces."

Any of five or six teams still remaining out of the final eight can win.

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. He's become an elite captain for the Bruins.

"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 GM 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."

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.

"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."

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, 56th overall, in 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 was 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.

"When he arrived in Ottawa, it was work, work, work," former teammate Marian Hossa said. "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."

All those quick-twitch exercises have now made Zdeno Chara one of the most feared defenseman in the NHL. More passionate than the next guy -- and sure to make another run for the Stanley Cup.

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