By Larry Wigge
Zdeno Chara has always played a numbers game.
From the time Chara got to North America from his native Trenchin, Slovakia, the 6-9, 255 pounds were always key. So, too, were third-round position, 56th overall, by the New York Islanders in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
The numbers were still there when he was traded to the Ottawa Senators in June of 2001 for star center Alexei Yashin.
"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."
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.
Chara made the first all-star team three times, won a Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman and led the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and was front and center when the B's lost to Chicago in the finals in 2013.
Now, the number being beat down is his age of 38. On January 13, Boston was beaten by Philadelphia, 3-2, as Chara was on the ice for all three scores.
Never mind that his plus-minus was six.
And don't forget that the Bruins won consecutive games following that Flyers effort against Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal.
"That was a big game for us," Chara reflected after the Buffalo game. "We started the road trip well, then we lost some games due to not playing 60-minute games, so we knew that tonight's game was going to be a big game for us."
"Zdeno's leadership qualities have been apparent from the time he joined our players after we signed him as a free agent in 2006," said former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "He leads by example, both on and off of the ice, and he has earned the respect of everyone in our dressing room."
"I remember Wayne Gretky coming over to the Edmonton bench and saying, 'Having to play against defensemen like that, guys built like basketball players, is the reason I'm quitting,'" former Senator GM John Muckler said.
"With two or three strides, his reach pretty much covers the width of the rink," said former Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis. "It kind of feels like you are going a block outside your way to get where you are going when you see him trying to defend you."
But Chara is no freak of nature. Not even close. He's just a big man who plays a man's game with the size, strength and skill that no one else has.
"A player like Z gives you a presence that is irreplaceable," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, who wasn't in Ottawa when the Sens let Chara go to free agency and the Bruins in July 2006. "He has toughness, size and great mobility. He is a fitness fanatic. He can play 20 or 25 minutes a game. He's one of a kind. His leaving was pivotal."
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.
Big Z pronounced was almost prophetical saying how you'd better be lucky and good to win the Cup.
"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."
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews singled out Chara as the Blackhawks goal in the finals of 2013.
Toews calculates Chara's "number one advantage" as his "size, reach and strength," but added: "There are certain ways you can expose him. ... We made sure we were outnumbering him everywhere we went.
"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, and not be intimidated by that. We can outwork him ... and we did that, and we want to continue that."
"He's so strong," San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, himself 6-4 and 235 pounds. "If we had a strength contest here, he could ..."
Following a pause, I suggested to Thornton that maybe Chara could bench press a house for the fans here.
"Yeah," nodded Thornton. "That's close. He can just neutralize you with that reach and strength of his."
Zdeno Chara started out as a waterboy for his father when Zdenek ran a sports academy in Slovakia and trained all sorts of athletes ... with cycling as a must for everyone.
"I like cycling because you are totally by yourself on the bike," Chara said. "There is no one to help you. You can train your mental strength -- how much pain you are willing to take -- on the bike."
The best advice he ever got?
"My father would say, 'If you do something, do it right. Don't do it halfway. Don't be average,'" Chara said. "No one gave me much of a chance because of my height, but my dad told me, 'If I could master the basics of gymnastics and acrobatics, I could master hockey as well, because it's all about being mobile, being able to make use of my explosive power in combination with my height.'"
Chara hates being asked how tall he is, or how tall is father is (he's 6-1) or his mom (she's 5-8) or his sister (who is 6-feet). Whether Big Z liked it or not, by 17, at 6-9, he became an oddity on the ice.
"I remember clutching my legs because of the growing pains," he said.
Zdeno Chara has a long way. He's just a big man who plays a man's game with the size, strength and skill that no one else has.