KANATA, Ontario -- His lunch complete, the big man in the restaurant's corner booth eschewed the dessert menu, politely declined a cup of coffee, and then focused his total being on the splinter of chocolate that he confided would be his day's singular dietary reward.
``These are good," said Zdeno Chara, delicately cradling the tiny treat, roughly the length of one of his elongated baby fingers and the thickness of a ballpoint pen refill. ``This is it, my sweet of the day . . . once in a while, you have to have a sweet, no?"
For Chara, all 6 feet 9 inches and 260 pounds of him, that's living fast, loose, and large. Signed as a free agent July 1, the biggest and richest and perhaps strongest player ever to wear a Bruins sweater prefers his meats lean (ideally rabbit), his potato baked (no butter, no salt, no nothin'), and his veggies steamed (for dressing, see potato).
Once in a while, maybe every time a blue moon hangs over the Vah River in his hometown of Trencin, Slovakia, he'll break nutritional discipline and have a glass of wine (red, of course, but you figured that out by now). Caffeine is OK, but only in near-monastic amounts. About every three weeks, he says, he'll sit down long enough with a friend to savor a (that's one and only one) cup of cappuccino.
As big as he is, and as huge a factor as the Bruins hope he'll be in their future success, the 29-year-old Chara truly is more a minimalist than a monster. His passions are hockey and cycling, the two closely connected in a year-round workout program that most summers leads him to train in the mountains of France and Italy, often pedaling a stage ahead of the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia.
``Always a stage ahead," said Chara. ``That way, I work out for four or five hours, and then see the race come through. It gives you energy. Cycling is a beautiful sport. Too bad now it is known for doping. So many think it is a dirty sport. But there are so many good athletes in it that don't do doping."
Chara, the big wheel on the Boston defense, owns no fewer than five bicycles, and speaks at least as many languages.
``English, Czech, Russian, and some Swedish . . . my German used to better, but I haven't used it in a while," he said. ``In Slovakia, we have an expression, and translated it means, for every language you are able to speak, you are that many times a human being."
Beginning Monday morning, Chara officially will start to work on his Boston accent. Along with a group of at least a half-dozen other players on the Bruins' roster, including goalies Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen and fellow blue liners Paul Mara and Brad Stuart, he'll skate every weekday in informal workouts at the club's practice facility in Wilmington, Mass. Some 2 1/2 weeks ahead of the official start of training camp (Sept. 14), the Bruins' new era, the ``Z" years, will have begun.
For a promise of $37.5 million over the next five years, the Bruins on July 1 bought themselves more than just a defenseman with a pterodactyl's wingspan capable of routinely logging upward of 30 minutes of ice time per night. They also purchased Chara's mind-set, his dedication, and his drive, all of which he began to shape some 15 years ago when coaches in Trencin began to tell him that he had a body and skill set ill-suited for the sport he most wanted to play.
``I got so sick of that, hearing, `You will never make it,' " Chara recalled this week, as he prepared to move to Boston from Ottawa, where he spent the last four NHL seasons as a force on the Senators' defense. ``Those voices, those coaches, have always stayed in my head. When someone says to me, `You cannot do it,' that's the best thing for me. I hear that, I make sure I prove that I can do it."
By his father's orders, young Zdeno, while on his way to feed the chickens and rabbits, had to execute at least two pullups every time he passed under the apple tree.
``Being around my dad, it helped," said Chara, whose father continued to wrestle until eight years ago, finally retiring at age 47. ``I was so young . . . working out all the time, you get connected to it. Since then, I have been obsessed by training."
For all he worked out, though, and for all the desire and passion he showed for hockey, the fast-growing Chara could not crack Trencin's ``A" junior squad in his late teens. The dynamics of the sporting culture then, and today, said Chara, dictated that only wealthy Slovak families could afford to place their teenagers on the ``A" squad. Zdenek Chara didn't have the cash or the inclination to pay into what his son still characterizes as an unfair, corrupt system.
``All I heard for two years was, `Hey, you go to the ``B" team,' " recalled Chara. ``It's not, how you say, democractic. It's that way -- pay, or you are out. Two years of that, I had enough. The `B' team, let me tell you . . . not pretty. All the rinks were old, and cold. Some of them, I am not kidding you, they had no roof, no sides. We would play games outdoors in the freezing rain, and it would put a coat of ice over your mask, and freeze your jersey to your body. Some of the rink's corners, well, they weren't corners, they came together like this [at a 45-degree angle]. The bus rides were long, and the buses very old and broken down. All you could smell was the gas fumes. You got off that bus after a 2-3-hour ride, and I am telling you, you were high."
The ``B" team life also included substantially less than Grade-A equipment. According to Chara, sticks were old and scarce, typically handed down from Trencin's ``A" squad. During games, the 18 skaters worked with an arsenal of about a dozen sticks, meaning sticks were handed over to a teammate when players returned to the bench. Chara, who once grew 6 inches in a two-year span in his teens, often played with a stick that was far too short. Slap shots were strictly forbidden during practices, for fear that a shattered stick could further shorten the supply for the next game.
``I walk by the stick rack now in the NHL," said Chara, ``and I see 10, maybe 12 sticks ready with my name on it. Unbelievable."
Seemingly lost in ``B" team anonymity, Chara's break came because someone, in fact, was watching. His name was Jaromir Henys, a Prague-based agent, who was among a gaggle of scouts and agents, said Chara, who hung out at the Trencin rink after the ``A" squad games. Chara captained the ``B" team, was almost always on the ice (see Boston, 2006-07), and ultimately Henys spotted him and convinced him to bolt Trencin for Prague in 1995 to play for a top-level Sparta Praha junior squad. Some nine months later, the Islanders chose the all-but-unknown 18-year-old Chara No. 56 overall in the June draft.
In the days leading up to the draft in St. Louis, Chara made his way to the annual teenage meat market to meet one-on-one with any NHL club interested in taking on a raw, 6-9 project. He arrived with a small bag, with only one pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, and a shirt. When the Islanders drafted him, he called home and told his parents that 1) he was drafted, and 2) he wasn't coming home.
``My parents said, `Go for it!' " said Chara. ``I have to tell you, if I had gone back, I might never had made it. In Trencin, the same people who were telling me, `You're no good, you won't be a player,' instead would have been saying, `Hey, you are one of our guys.' All of a sudden, I would have been good for them, you know? They probably would have wanted money [in the form of a transfer fee]. Forget that! I was staying."
Chara quickly gained a reputation as one of the ``Dub's" most-feared fighters, a title he has kept through his years in the pros. For the most part, the fight game is dead in today's NHL, but there undoubtedly will be a game every week or two when he'll be forced to fight. When you're 6-9, and play his amount of minutes, and play with his strength and determination, the odd bout is inevitable.
``I don't like it," he said, preferring more a skill role, such as moving to the front of the net on power plays, a job he did with some regularity in Ottawa. ``No one likes to fight, really, but I understand there are times you have to do it -- to stick up for yourself, a teammate, or change the rhythm of a game. The game has changed. It's a fast-tempo game now, and you have to be able to play and skate."
For the record, he goes by the nickname ``Zee." Initially, North American teammates began to call him ``Dino," until he told them that his first name is heavier on the capital ``Z" that it is on the lower-case ``d." As for his last name, the emphasis is on the first two letters, making ``Chara" roll off the tongue like ``chocolate" or ``chip" -- of which there is virtually no room for in his diet.
The Chara leisure file is rather spartan. He'll relax by listening to music (U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers head the playlist), or read a book, or go for a walk in the woods. He refuses to golf, not for an inherent dislike of the game but for fear that he would like it too much and get, by his word, attached. ``And I do not have four or five hours in my life for that," he said. ``Impossibility." No surprise for a guy who describes his perfect day as the following:
``Wake up . . . have a big breakfast . . . and then have my first of four workouts."
Although he laughs when saying it, he is not kidding. Every workout day is different, self-designed to keep him interested and motivated, but Chara routinely puts in 6-7 hours of training, including cardio work, weights, and agility exercises. After games, he said, he typically works out for another hour or two. Fiancee Tatiana Biskupicova, his constant companion the last 10 years, is often the last to leave the wives' room after games, Chara often working to near midnight after games that end around 9:30.
Has he ever been outworked by anyone?
``No. No," he said, firmly and reflexively. ``Because I wouldn't allow it."
Come Monday, there is much work to do in his new home. Once among the proudest of NHL franchises, the Bruins now have a tall order for their tall man, to help them restore integrity and success in the product. The man once destined to wear nothing more than the Trencin ``B" will be charged with restoring dignity in the spoked-B.
``I went by my heart," said Chara, explaining why he chose Boston over a long list of suitors, some willing to pay him better than the $7.5 million-a-year average he'll earn the next five years. ``I looked at all the categories; the team, city, money, and in the end, I went with my heart. I like a challenge. I am not afraid to go after it. And I heard good things about Boston, the city. But cities . . . I am not a tourist, I am a hockey player. I am here because I want to win."