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Chara is back where it all began for him

Leaving his native Slovakia to play in Prague was a huge step for Zdeno Chara, and he has raised his game to an elite level in the NHL. Leaving his native Slovakia to play in Prague was a huge step for Zdeno Chara, and he has raised his game to an elite level in the NHL. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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PRAGUE — He remembers being young, alone, scared when he arrived here, a teenager living on his own for the first time and far from convinced that pro hockey would end up his life’s work.

“Yes, Zdeno, you go to Prague,’’ his coach in Trencin said to him sarcastically, the day he finally allowed the tall, gawky kid to leave his hometown Slovak team to pursue his foolish dream. “You go there, Zdeno, and you show them in Prague how hockey is played.’’

So on that day, Zdeno Chara plucked his transferable hockey license from the doubting coach’s desk, nodded goodbye, muted his resentment, and made his way to the Czech Republic.

“I took it,’’ a proud Chara said the other day, noting how he stifled his aggravation in that instant some 15 years ago. “He didn’t believe in me. He was so arrogant.

“I never played for [Dukla’s] A team, never their junior team, just their third string down, you know? I just took the paper from him and said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And I walked out. That was it. Goodbye.’’

Chara today is among the world’s top defensemen, an NHL star, and an icon in his native Slovakia. Here this week with the Bruins as part of the NHL’s six-team European tour, the 33-year-old Trencin tower of power will be sporting the captain’s C for the Bruins again, for a fifth season, when Boston opens its NHL season Saturday against the Phoenix Coyotes at 02 arena.

He has a Norris Trophy (2009) to his credit as the NHL’s best defenseman, and an annual salary ($7.5 million) that slots him No. 9 in the league and first among blue liners.

And here, in a city that in the mid ’90s was slowly, inexorably finding its way in the world, was where everything really started for Chara. The two were a perfect match, a city and player with similar dreams, each in need of profile and patience. A city trying to feel its way through new politics, a new economy, a new world standing. A player just looking for a break.

Getting some notice
Chara moved into a one-bedroom apartment near the storied arena of his new team, Sparta Praha, and played on Sparta’s junior A squad. He cooked for himself, did his laundry, darted home to Trencin to see his mother and father on the odd free day. Otherwise, it was hockey, morning and afternoon and night, hockey in a big European city where the sport mattered, and where a smattering of NHL clubs had just begun to station scouts.

“[Sparta] saw the potential in me, and I’ll always be thankful for that,’’ said Big Z, who this week is the city’s main attraction with both the Czech and Slovak media. “They took the risk while others wouldn’t.

“Because I was here finally, a lot of scouts saw me. The word got out a little. In Slovakia, I was barely playing. Who could see me? And there weren’t scouts, not like here.’’

One scout in Slovakia, recalled Chara, tried ardently to interest the Rangers. Jan Gajdosik, who today heads up European scouting for the Rangers, sent video of Chara and written reports to Manhattan. Look at the big kid here, he said, he could be worth drafting one day.

“I know he sent the stuff,’’ said Chara. “But they said, ‘Huh, he’s not even playing for their junior team in Trencin. How good can he be?’ And Jan would tell them, ‘No, look, it’s political.’ But, nothing.’’

Playing in Prague meant eyeballs were in the rink. Not only did Chara play for Sparta’s junior squad, he practiced with the elite team, sessions in which he gained valuable experience and wisdom. At the time, he recalled, a handful of NHL teams had scouts at most of the games and many of the practices.

It was Karel Pavlik, then an Islander scout, who became Chara’s No. 1 advocate, and ultimately it was the Islanders who figured the 56th pick in the 1996 draft was worth using as a flyer on a raw, 6-foot-9-inch defenseman who could skate a little, hit a lot, and almost by sheer size alone shut down about 50 percent of the defensive zone.

Ideally, said Chara, he’ll be able to meet with Pavlik here this week. No longer with the Islanders, Pavlik phoned Chara a couple of years ago and asked if he knew of any scouting positions open on the Bruins staff. When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli told him the spots were full, Chara reluctantly had to tell his old friend and one-man booster club that there was nothing available.

“I’d love to help him out,’’ said Chara. “He was good to me.’’

‘I grew up fast’
Not surprisingly, Chara loves it here. He compares it to the North End in Boston, in part because of its cobblestone streets and neighborhood charm. On Monday evening, he made a point of taking out members of the Bruins support staff and treating them to a “true Czech’’ pub dinner. The big man is generous, rich, worldly, fluent in a handful of languages.

Also introspective and sensitive. It’s easy for him to reconnect with the feelings he had when first arriving here from Trencin.

“I was really scared,’’ he recalled. “I was coming from Trencin, a town of 60,000 people, to a place of, like, 1.5 million people. Everything was so fast — the speed of the traffic, the speed of people just moving. I’d never seen anything like it.

“Oh God, I was scared. That first week, other than to go to the rink, I did not leave the apartment. True story. I was scared to go in the streets. I was thinking, ‘Wow, I need to be home with my friends, with my buddies, my mom and dad.’

“And I didn’t know how to cook. But I started to learn, to schedule things. It would be 4 o’clock and I’d think, ‘OK, I have to defrost some stuff now. I have to eat something.’ I never had to do that at home.

“You start to think quickly as a man, not as a boy anymore. Then you get in the locker room, and it’s adults — guys are talking about their kids, wives, restaurants.

“I grew up fast. Not just in life, but in hockey, too.’’

Success won’t spoil him
Chara’s release from his Slovak team came in the midst of the 1995-96 season. He arrived a nobody, played but 16 games for Prague the rest of the year, then got drafted by the Islanders in June.

During a news conference yesterday, he noted that he likes being back in Europe, especially here, but he has no desire to play anywhere else but the NHL, which he termed “the best league in the world.’’

He lives in downtown Boston with his wife and child, but summers are spent back in Slovakia. Nine hours to the east of downtown Prague, he is building a new home in Poprad, one that is being customized with 7-foot doorways and oversized windows that offer wondrous mountain views. It’s a large log home with a lot of stone accents.

“Put wood in the fireplace, sit, relax,’’ mused Chara. “It will be nice.’’

A far cry from the one-bedroom hovel in downtown Prague, where he once sat as a frightened young man, where no one knew his name, his career path was uncertain, his destiny to be determined.

“It’s a long way,’’ he said. “I remember what that was like then, and now when I look where I am . . . well, I don’t want to say that I stayed exactly the same person. I can’t say that. Obviously, it wouldn’t be true.

“But I live a lot the same, really. Yes, I’ve spent money on a house in Boston, and I need that for my family, for us to live there. And I am building this other house.

“But otherwise, most of my life is the same. I have no luxury cars, no private jets, no $20,000 watch. Money’s not going to change me.’’

Some 15 years later, Zdeno Chara is back in Prague. As things turned out, yes, he showed everyone he can play.

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