It has worked out for Chara
Norris finalist proves he belongs
LAS VEGAS - Because this is not a hockey place, and in part because Nicklas Lidstrom is the very definition of humility, the exquisite Red Wings defenseman didn’t cause the slightest stir yesterday when his car pulled under the portico at Palms Place.
Over in the corner of the hotel’s lobby, the tall man from Boston spotted Lidstrom, met him with an admiring gaze, one that Lidstrom never saw as he made his way to the registration desk.
“There he is,’’ said Zdeno Chara, the Bruins captain, enjoying a cold drink with a visitor from Boston. “The best defenseman . . . Nick . . . and I’m telling you, what a guy. Amazing how humble he is, and his play . . . he plays to perfection.’’
Tonight in the Nevada desert, the hockey world will find out if Chara, Lidstrom, or Washington’s Mike Green will win the Norris Trophy, acknowledged as the NHL’s best defenseman of 2008-09. Lidstrom, 39, has won it a half-dozen times, including last season, and thrice finished runner-up. Chara’s best finish came in ’04, when he was second to New Jersey’s Scott Niedermayer. Green, only 23, enjoyed a breakout season in 2008-09 and is the baby-faced newbie in the race, having topped all blue liners in goals (31) and points (73).
Not an easy choice here. Chara, with 19 goals (a career high) and 50 points, was a dominant force in Boston’s unexpected run to the top of the Eastern Conference. Lidstrom (16-43 -59) put up his weakest numbers in four seasons, but still helped the Red Wings make Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, where they finished short of winning their fifth Cup in the Lidstrom Era. Green has the numbers, and some of the Capitals’ flash and dash might have brought him a few votes.
Chara is here to win, but he won’t say that. He won’t even hint it. But competing and winning make up the very center of the 32-year-old’s being. Thirteen summers ago, only days after being chosen 56th overall by the Islanders in the ’96 draft, he showed up in Western Canada with a pair of skates, a small piece of luggage, and remote odds of ever playing in the NHL. Now he’s mentioned in the same breath as Lidstrom, Niedermayer, and some of the best blue liners to play the game.
“If I win,’’ mused the 6-foot-9-inch Chara, a grin nearly the equal of his wingspan, “I wouldn’t mind it. It would be a huge honor, especially to win when [Lidstrom] is still playing. I don’t know . . . see me [tonight]. I’ll either be sad or happy.’’
Chara is part of what could turn into an impressive awards hat trick for the Bruins. Tim Thomas has a chance to win the Vezina Trophy as the game’s best goalie. Claude Julien could win the Jack Adams Award as best coach. It could be Boston’s biggest heist of hockey bling since the early ’70s, when Bobby Orr perennially hauled in enough trophies to supplant Paul Revere as the Hub’s most noted manufacturer of bowls.
Chara yesterday defined himself as a salesman. His customer? Always and forever the same - himself. He makes the sale during summers when he works out, often eight hours a day, sometimes to exhaustion. When he is home in Trencin, Slovakia, and it’s getting on time to return to Boston in late August, there will be a day or two, he said, when he runs at top speed straight up a hill, until he collapses, or does the same on a long, steep set of stairs.
It is summoning what he calls “the sell’’ from within during those daunting workouts, which he believes has made the difference for him. He spoke about it yesterday with an ease and insight he has rarely displayed during his three years with the Bruins.
“A lot of guys work hard and train,’’ he explained. “But when you get on the ice, like I say, you have to sell it. It can come down to one second, one play, one shot, and you have to be able to think, ‘OK, this is the time . . . I have to sell it . . . I have to hit this puck, make this shot, make the difference.’ It’s like when you watch sprinters run a 100-meter race. At 80 meters, they are all together, tied with each other straight across in a line, and it’s at that point it comes down to selling it. The guy who sells it, he pulls away by 2 meters.’’
Now 11 seasons into developing, and selling, an impressive NHL career, Chara has earned his place as hockey’s consummate shutdown defenseman, able to use his size, reach, brute force and guile in ways no other defenseman of any size can match. He is not the equal of Lidstrom or even Green offensively, in large part because he is not a puck-lugger. But he owns the game’s hardest shot (recorded at this year’s All-Star game in Montreal), and he is an offensive force in his own right. And neither Green nor Lidstrom are his measure in the defensive zone.
“I want to be the best,’’ said Chara. “I want to be the best all-around player or defenseman in the league. I look up to Lidstrom and Niedermayer and those guys . . . they are Hall of Famers, just unbelievable players. I always want to add to my game.’’
He added to it again this year. When Julien took over to start the 2007-08 season, Chara was told to scale down his game, do less but do better with that smaller piece of work. He has thrived within the simplicity, owning his left side of the defensive end, turning into a growing force when Boston’s play moves up ice.
Whatever the outcome tonight, just being here, just being judged in this company, offers rewarding feedback.
“It all depends how it’s going to end [tonight],’’ said Chara, asked if he finds his story hard to believe, given the odds he overcame, emerging from the relative obscurity of low-level Slovakian teams.
“It’s a good feeling to be noticed and that you do something right. You know, growing up and always hearing, ‘You shouldn’t play hockey,’ and then overcoming the adversity of coaches and scouts who didn’t believe in me. It is a good feeling to prove them wrong, sure. I’m human. But now, you want to be here every year. I don’t want to look at this and say, ‘OK, now I am somebody with nothing to prove.’ I have to prove it again and again and again. I have to be a leader, be the best player on the ice.
“When you are that, people look at you differently, and you have to be better than everyone else.’’
For his season of excellence, Chara finds out if the Norris voters have bought what he is selling. Win or lose, though, he has obviously made the toughest sale of all.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.