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On Second Thought

Dad kept him on the right track

Zdeno Chara, with help from his father, booked a ticket to the NHL at an early age. Zdeno Chara, with help from his father, booked a ticket to the NHL at an early age. (Winslow Townson for The Globe)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 17, 2010
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Zdeno Chara was just a kid, 16 years old, when his father sat him down at the kitchen table in Trencin, Slovakia. If he wanted to get somewhere, really go places with his hockey career, Zdeno was told, he would have to get on the train.

His father reached for pen and paper, drew a picture to explain.

“Up front, it is the engine,’’ said Zdenek Chara, who has kept that piece of artwork, proud that his son is now the Bruins captain, a Norris Trophy winner, and one of the NHL’s highest-paid players. “And behind this engine, 12 cars.

“I told him, ‘Zdeno, you are now in the last car, back here. If you do what I say, you can move all the way to the front.

“ ‘If you get off the train, Zdeno, then it leaves — for good.’’

Only a metaphor, but a vivid one. A train that could carry him to his dream, make him happy, successful, wealthy. His son listened. Why did he listen?

“He was a boy then,’’ his father said. “And I was his idol.’’

Zdeno and his father were together last weekend in Prague, where the Bruins opened their NHL season with two games against the Phoenix Coyotes. Big Z is much taller and leaner than Zdenek, a sturdy barrel of a man and a celebrated Olympic greco-roman wrestler who still lives in Trencin, in the same house where he conjured up the train.

Zdeno recalled taking his father’s words to heart. From the day he saw himself in that last car on the kitchen table, he rode his dad’s advice.

“Each month,’’ recalled the defenseman, a wide smile lighting up his face, “he would move me up a car. Month by month, as I got stronger and did the workouts, he would move my dot up to the next car, closer to the engine.’’

The Chara Express, final destination unknown when he came aboard, was not an easy ride. It soon became obvious, through social sacrifices and demanding workouts, that his father’s plan allowed no passengers.

“He wanted me to be the driver,’’ said Zdeno. “That’s what it was all about.’’

Speaking through interpreter Zbynek Cerny last week, Chara’s father made it clear that the railbed was structured on time management. There was time for sleeping, eating, practicing, training. But little else.

“No time for entertainment,’’ said Zdenek. “No time for discotheques, no time for girls. All that takes away energy. You have to know what’s important and what it is you really want. You have to be responsible.’’

Not easy, recalled his son, especially during the summer. The local swimming pool was the center of summer fun in Trencin. It was where everyone went, where teenagers shared all the things that teenagers share.

Big Z had big dreams, but they weren’t easy for everyone to see. He was not a prominent player for his local team. In fact, he felt buried on what amounted to Dukla Trencin’s third squad. Friends teased him that he should forget hockey, use his height to play basketball. Even harder to hear, some of the hockey coaches said the same.

“I didn’t go to that swimming pool until I was 21 years old,’’ recalled Chara. “My dad convinced me I only had this short time, maybe 2-3 years, to do what I had to do. That meant getting up every day at 5 in the morning, 6 in the morning, training every day.

“I’m telling you, I was so jealous of my friends. They were going to movies, to the swimming pool, going on trips. They would go to that pool, eat and drink all day.

“And I would see them. It would be 90 degrees, wicked hot, and they’d be out there in the sun and I’d go by on the street, doing my running. That was hard.’’

But he stayed with it. Why?

“I didn’t want to open that box,’’ he recalled. “And honestly, I saw I was getting in shape. It was all paying off. I was getting stronger, more fit. And then eventually, whether it was the pool, whatever, I’d think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that.’ It became easier.’’

The workouts, designed by his father, were mostly in the family’s backyard. Zdenek, sensing his son’s need to build upper-body strength and flexibility, jury-rigged the apple trees with exercise equipment, pieces such as a pull-up bar and a rope. The exercise was deliberate, but the workout often passive.

“Let’s say I was working in the garden,’’ recalled Zdenek. “I would tell Zdeno, ‘I need this tool, go fetch it for me.’ And on his way to get it, he would stop at the tree and do six pull-ups. On the way back, he would stop and climb the rope.

“And I would tell him, ‘You are not obligated to do any of this, but it’s up to you. You have to be self-motivated.’ It was about building responsibility in himself.’’

Another exercise had Zdeno swinging a hockey stick stuck in a basket filled with hardened cement. Another had him shooting pucks at a chain screen, similar to a pitch-back net here in North America. When Zdeno one day ripped a shot through the chain screen and smashed the headlight of the family car, the car had to be moved, the chain repaired.

“Every day, he shot 300 pucks at that net,’’ recalled his father. “Wrist shots. Firm grip. Quick release.’’

Zdeno’s big hockey break didn’t come until the weeks leading to his 18th birthday. Withstanding the insults of his coach in Dukla, he was handed his hockey license, allowing him the freedom to transfer to the Czech Republic. He joined a team in Prague, where the world finally got to see the behemoth son of the Slovakian wrestling legend.

Last weekend in Prague, the junior Chara signed a seven-year contract extension with the Bruins that will pay him $45.5 million. Them’s a lot o’ backyard apples.

“I’m not sure all those cars got filled in,’’ said Chara, asked if his father’s drawing of the train ever was completed. “I don’t know. I suppose I did, because I made it to the NHL. I guess you could say I’m the driver now.’’

Chara’s father was emphatic that a visitor from Boston understand that he misses his son, the boy who dreamed big dreams, scaled backyard trees, broke his headlight, so eagerly jumped aboard that train. He said he is happy, but also sad, because his son lives in North America now and is usually back only for brief stays in the summer.

Preparing him, he said, also meant losing him.

“I’d like to finish by saying,’’ said the 59-year-old Zdenek, “what I wanted most for him was that he be honest and humble. I know he’s that, so I am happy.

“I told him always that there are two magic words to live by: please and thank you. These are the two words that open doors all over the world.’’

A few simple words. Some straight advice. Lots of hard work. And the drawing of a train, now neatly folded and kept, that started a life’s journey.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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