|After a rough first season with the Bruins, Zdeno Chara emerged as one of the elite defensemen in the NHL in 2007-08. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)|
COLE HARBOUR, Nova Scotia - Zdeno Chara, the tallest and among the strongest players in NHL history, regularly stares down the league's most accurate sharpshooters and occasionally squares off against its toughest brawlers.
But the Bruins captain, whose fists made a near-permanent impression on the face of Chicago heavyweight David Koci last season, considers a four-year matchup against textbooks one of his toughest challenges.
"It was a big fight because it was really hard," he said. "I never expected it to be that hard."
From 2001-05, Chara studied financial planning at Ottawa's Algonquin College. He completed assignments online. Each season, he missed two morning skates because of four-hour exams. On planes and buses he read books about pension plans and estate planning. No matter how much his body ached after an NHL dogfight, he studied when he returned to his Ottawa home, closing his textbooks as late as 2 a.m.
"You never really get somebody to push you to study until you sign up for the course," Chara said. "Then once you sign up, when you have to go to school and do assignments, you're like, 'Oh, my God.' But you can't drop it. Obviously, you have some pride. You don't want to fail."
Growing painsChara, 31, is about to kick off his third season in Boston. He and the Bruins hope it will be nothing like his first.
Chara, fresh off signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract, was a disappointment in 2006-07. The Bruins finished last in the Northeast Division and failed to make the postseason. Coach Dave Lewis was fired, one season into a four-year contract. Chara was a ghastly minus-21 and never appeared comfortable in his role as captain.
"He tried to do too much," general manager Peter Chiarelli said. "You could see that on the ice, too."
The turnaround started last season, when Chara rebounded and led the Bruins to the playoffs and developed into one of the NHL's top three defensemen, as his Norris Trophy nomination indicated.
In Ottawa, he was a complementary piece of a corps - Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros were the triggermen, while Chara, Chris Phillips, and Anton Volchenkov were the defense-first grinders - that Chiarelli termed the best blue line in the NHL. Last season, Chara rounded into an all-around threat, racking up career highs in goals (17), assists (34), and points (51) while excelling as a shutdown man. Off the ice, Chara had help from veterans such as Glen Murray, Andrew Ference, Marc Savard, and Aaron Ward in leading the team.
"The Zdeno I know looks at the landscape, whatever predicament he's in, and gets informed," Chiarelli said. "He gets information about it and finds out the best way to manage it. That's what he's done here. He recognized that last year, his second year as captain, he had players around him to help him. That's how he handled it."
Such is the way Chara approached his studies. He was curious about his finances and the workings of the global economy. His wife, Tatiana, then his girlfriend, was a financial planner at TD Bank in Ottawa, and he was interested in her career. So in 2001, he enrolled at Algonquin and earned his degree in 2005, although he said he's not sure if he'll use it upon his retirement.
"I didn't want to do it to impress somebody," Chara said. "I wanted to do it for my own knowledge. I wanted to know what was going on, what was happening, how the system works."
Chara's financial planning degree stamped an exclamation point on a cash-aware lifestyle that has provided endless material for his teammates. The vehicle of choice for veteran players is a luxury SUV, but according to one of his teammates, Chara keeps a
"I heard he bought a couple beers, but I don't know if it's true or not. I might have to see the receipt," cracked Peter Schaefer, who also played with Chara in Ottawa. "That's just the way Big Man is. He takes the heat for it."
Poverty is no joking matter for Chara. This summer, after undergoing surgery to fix a torn labrum in his left shoulder, he visited Mozambique as an athlete-ambassador for Right to Play, the Toronto-based humanitarian organization. There Chara saw things he hadn't seen before.
World travelerChara's well-worn passport includes stamps from countries such as Cuba, Poland, and Trinidad and Tobago. The native of Trencin, Slovakia, can speak five languages: his native tongue, English, German, Swedish, and Russian. The cycling enthusiast has ridden the courses of the Tour de France, including the lung-piercing ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez, the most famous climb of the race. He enjoys the famous destinations of the countries he visits.
So even a repaired shoulder in need of rehab didn't keep Chara from visiting Africa for the first time. Chara and Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr traveled to Mozambique, where they saw kids playing soccer with balls of grass held together with string.
"Every day, they're doing things for survival," Chara said. "They really have to work to get water and to be able to feed their families. But there is so much potential. It's crazy. I see the kids - how they play, how they run, how they do gymnastics, how they do somersaults. You're like, 'Oh, my God.' They're unbelievably skilled. They're so playful. They love playing games. They're honest. You look at them in the eyes, and that look tells you everything. They're so honest. What you see is what you get. It was an unbelievable experience. It makes you realize how lucky you are."
Naturally, Chara was an outsider in Mozambique and Tanzania, which he visited to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Right to Play. He noted that in most cases, the people he met had never met a white person.
Blending in, however, has never been simple for the 6-foot-9-inch Chara. In 1996, after a season of pro hockey for HC Sparta Praha in the Czech Republic as a 17-year-old, he arrived in Canada for a year of juniors with the Prince George Cougars. He spent his first summer in Edmonton with Jim and Lorna Aitken, parents of former Bruins prospect Johnathan Aitken. In his only season in the black-and-blue Western Hockey League, the gangly European had to learn one of the codes of North American hockey: be tough.
"Coming in as a big kid, you get challenged a lot," Chara recalled. "I was using my fists quite a bit in juniors."
In his first year as a Bruin, Chara was told not to fight by Lewis and didn't drop his gloves once. Last season, he had no such limitations under coach Claude Julien. In the exhibition season, Chara threw down with Islanders forward Kip Brennan. He bloodied Koci Oct. 25, fought Montreal forward Guillaume Latendresse Nov. 17, tussled twice with Pittsburgh tough guy Georges Laraque Dec. 20, and grappled with Washington heavyweight Donald Brashear March 3. Earlier this month, Laraque told the Edmonton Journal that if he wanted, Chara could be the toughest guy in the NHL.
Taking the next stepIt's been a quiet training camp for Chara, who has yet to appear in an exhibition game. He has skated in every practice session and thrown some checks, but he does not consider himself 100 percent. His weightlifting routine is limited. After each practice, he wraps ice around his left shoulder. While Chara and the Bruins believe he'll be ready for the regular-season opener against Colorado Oct. 9, the defenseman might not play in any of the six remaining exhibition games.
If the Bruins want to take the next skate stride toward relevancy, they need their captain to be at full health. He averaged a team-high 26:50 of ice time per game last season, and will be the minutes leader again. He'll play against the best forwards. He'll be a power-play option at the point and down low at the far post.
"It hasn't crossed my mind," Chara said when asked of his post-hockey plans and whether he'll use his degree. "I really want to win. That's my first priority. I really want to win the ultimate prize. I'm not worried about what's going on after. There are a few options, but they are only options. If you start thinking about those options now, it means you're not ready to play. I don't think I'm ready to retire. I'm ready to play. I want to win."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.