All his games are away games, Boston captain Zdeno Chara these days without an active NHL team. The Bruins remain in lockout, along with the rest of the league, and for now the towering defenseman stays put in Prague, suiting up for the local Russian League (KHL) squad.
In some ways, Prague is home, the history-rich Eastern European city where a teenage Chara moved to kick-start his career, catch the eyes of NHL scouts after playing in near-anonymity in Slovakia. But with his NHL career on hold, and his wife and young daughter in Boston awaiting his return, even one of the world’s most dazzling and romantic cities, one where he has strong sentimental ties, can feel somewhat empty, lonely.
“Especially at times like this, Halloween,’’ Chara said by telephone late last week, thinking of his daughter Elliz Victoria and the tricks and treats that await her Wednesday night while he’s out of town on business. “And you know, she’s attending her first classes at ballet. It’s different occasions like that when you are actually realizing, OK, I wish I could be there. I think of them a lot. It is tough to be away from the family. It is not easy. But at the same time, hopefully, it is only for a short period of time.’’
Maybe. Maybe not. That is the unknown of all lockouts, no matter what the sport. They are all finite, though the wait seems infinite.
The NHL on Friday, to no one’s surprise, wiped out all games through November. Chara won’t be back from there until it’s over over here, and thus far NHL owners and players have barely been able to agree on where and when to meet, never mind actually jawbone their way to a new collective bargaining agreement. The season could begin in December. Maybe later. Maybe not at all.
From thousands of miles away, Chara sounds as baffled as the rest of the game’s rank and file, whether they live within blocks of one of the NHL’s 30 arenas, or if, like him, they’ve taken their game across the Atlantic to keep bodies and minds tuned.
“I honestly don’t know what to think,’’ Chara said, dwelling on how CBA talks fell apart 10 days ago, with the league dismissing out of hand three counteroffers proposed by the players. “If that was the [league’s] plan, if it was basically, ‘We won’t do anything unless you guys do basically what we want to do’ . . . then I really don’t know. I don’t think these days you can negotiate with the approach, ‘My way or the highway.’ I mean, you always have to find a solution. Otherwise, you won’t have a deal. It’s as simple as that.
“Obviously, when [the union] tried to move toward [the owners], and give them three different proposals, I think it wasn’t nice to have all three refused in a few minutes. It’s a shame to go through such a long time of waiting and then basically in a few minutes you kind of throw those offers off the table. Just a few days before that, or prior to that, you are hearing, ‘Oh, maybe Gary [Bettman] is getting softer.’ It’s not true, like I don’t think people were thinking he was getting softer or that he was basically playing nice. We are trying to get something done and we are giving them different approaches, and I think it’s kind of disrespectful at the same time not to have a better look at those proposals.’’
Meanwhile, the former Norris Trophy winner remains focused on the job at hand, providing highly skilled defense for HC Lev Praha. Headed into weekend play, he had a goal and three assists in seven games. And though the game is the same, the routine is vastly different, and in some ways more demanding than what goes on day-to-day in the NHL.
Take, for instance, a typical offday. NHL players are accustomed to perhaps a brief video session prior to practice, followed by an on-ice workout or scrimmage in the range of 45-60 minutes. After the workout, players might work out in the weight room, but more typically they’ll check in with a trainer for bumps and bruises, maybe have a massage, then head home after a quick shower. Start to finish, the work day lasts about three hours.
“Here, it feels like training camp the whole season,’’ said Chara, laughing while noting the shared looks of disbelief he sometimes trades with some former NHLers on his team. “You run before practice, or maybe do sprints on bikes. Then you go on the ice for an hour-and-a-half practice session. Then after the practice session you lift [weights] for another 45 minutes. That’s just a normal day. And you think, ‘Oh, my God, this is kind of different!’ In the NHL, you try to save all the energy for the games and you kind of rest up. But for example with our team, we hardly get any days off. We practice, practice, practice every day. Some days you come to the rink at 9 a.m. and you leave at 2 p.m. So it’s almost like 4-5-hour training days.’’
Chara chose Prague, in part, because it is roughly a four-hour drive to his home in Trencin, Slovakia. He had in mind that he could spend some of his off hours zipping between rink and relatives. If he had to be away, being home felt like a reasonable alternative. But downtime has been little, allowing him but one trip to Trencin.
“It was so short that I only had time for lunch with my mom, and went out for dinner with my friends,’’ he said, laughing again, a good plan gone awry. “I basically slept over and then drove back the next morning. That was it.’’
For now, and for who knows how long, Chara waits. The league in which he usually makes his living has gone cold, colder than the biting winter wind that will soon whip off Prague’s Vltava River. The NHL lockout started six weeks ago. It appears destined to go at least five more. Meanwhile, a favorite son of Slovakia plays for a Russian-owned team in a Czech city that for years was ruled by the Soviet hammer and sickle.
“Kind of foggy and rainy, and getting really cold,’’ said the transplanted Bostonian, summing up the view out his window in Prague. “And the forecast is saying it’s going to be colder and colder from now on.’’