Free associating with Zdeno Chara
The holiday was always in May, but he’s not sure of the date or even its formal name. Zdeno Chara was just a kid then, a carefree schoolboy, and the atmosphere for the big, serious national holiday every year wasn’t anything like the festive and joyous doings of New Year’s Eve.
The holiday was all about saluting the flag, paying respect and reverence to communism and order and whatever else the Soviet government dictated for yet another country it had taken hostage. But Dec. 31 was a night to contemplate the future, escape, embrace a new start. Or maybe just hope for the sake of hope in the absence of anything else.
“New Year’s Eve was much different,’’ said the Bruins captain, breaking out in a huge grin, a kid’s grin, as he thought back some 30 years to those celebrations near his home in Trencin, Czechoslovakia. “It wasn’t a big, crazy celebration, like [New York] with a huge ball dropping down.
“People were in the town square, and there was music and dancing and, you know, people drinking champagne and just celebrating. Not all crazy, but happy, like just a big party outdoors.’’
The children played tag and hide-and-seek, reveled in their tiny acts of tolerated mischief. Born in 1977, slightly less than 10 years after Czechoslovakia was occupied in August 1968 in a blitz of some 500,000 communist troops, Chara was among the scores of kids who tossed tiny firecrackers at the dancers’ shoes and played the harmless pranks that were as much a part of New Year’s Eve as wine and song.
“Fun,’’ said the towering defenseman. “Good memories.’’
Chara recalled all of that earlier this month, just after the calendar flipped to 2012, following a routine day-of-game skate during a road trip to New Jersey. It was one of those meandering, lighthearted conversations of no significant intent, sparked by my curiosity and offhanded question to him about whether Slovakia celebrates New Year’s as we do here in America.
It was Chara’s reminiscing about that other holiday from his childhood, the May celebration framed by communist rule and military might, that came to my mind this past week when Tim Thomas snubbed the club’s Stanley Cup celebration at the White House. As all the world learned early Monday evening, the supremely gifted 37-year-old goalie is fed up with all branches of American government.
In 21st century American politics, Thomas’s views, as posted on his Facebook, are fairly typical of far right-wing conservatism. It’s not a majority view, but it is shared by a sizable, vocal portion of our society, and there is no telling what influence it will have come November when we determine who will occupy the Oval Office.
Thomas said what he said and in so doing distanced himself from many team members, at all levels, which in turn led to Bruins president Cam Neely issuing a statement noting the club’s disappointment that he did not attend and that “his views certainly do not reflect those of the Jacobs family or the Bruins’ organization.’’
Chara made it to the celebration. So did Tomas Kaberle, another son of communist rule, born in March 1978 in Rakovnik, now of the Czech Republic. Kaberle, a disappointment in his short stay with the team last season, left the Bruins over the summer and now plays for the Canadiens.
Amid all the noise Monday, I must admit I laughed out loud when I saw a beaming Kabby the Habby standing in the group shot, attending as an invited guest/secret Montreal operative, while Thomas the conscientious objector was elsewhere in town preparing to release his Bronx cheer.
Chara and Kaberle, both liberated from Soviet rule as kids in 1989, both of whom lived under governmental tyranny that was efficient and frightening and suffocating, celebrated the White House invite with their teammates. Thomas, who grew up poor in Michigan and doggedly worked to fulfill what many of us proudly would call an only-in-America dream, kept his distance.
My Globe duties over the last quarter-century-plus have twice taken me to Prague, Czech Republic, and I dipped a toe into Slovakia, Chara’s country of origin, in September 2010 when the Bruins opened their season in Europe. The Soviet rule of the two countries ended in 1989, but it’s easy to see the vestiges of communism still lingering in the tired faces and eyes of many of its people.
“The Soviet system required all to be the same,’’ said Chara, noting how hard it is for many in his country, especially older Slovaks, to cope with the post-Soviet economics. “Before, no one was rich. No one had power. So for some, it was better in those days, because at least, you know, they had bread on the table.
“Now that stability is gone. I don’t think anybody would want to go back, but everything today is so expensive and their pensions are so low, they’re trying to live on maybe $400 a month. It’s very difficult. Sad.’’
The May holiday, recalled Chara, “was the day we recognized that the Soviet Union invaded us.’’
Unlike New Year’s Eve, he said, all children were made to attend the festivities. There was no horseplay, no tiny firecrackers, no dancing, no singing, no embracing a new start. For those old enough to give the day context, there was no dreaming about a different government, a free society, a new rule, a life of dignity and promise.
The communists governed. The people did as told.
What he remembered of the day, said Chara, was standing in silence with classmates as the Russian tanks rolled by and the soldiers marched in columns with their guns.
“We would all have to line up and watch it,’’ said Chara. “It wasn’t like it was optional. It was a big deal, and it lasted all day.
“For days before, we all had to practice how to walk, and how we would salute, who to salute, when we would salute.
“Some of us had flags to wave. All this silly stuff. But we did it. We didn’t have a choice.’’
Thomas reminded us last week that we are a messed-up, shook-up nation, in desperate need of huge doses of common sense and compromise. But when I thought of Chara as a little boy, who grew up to be a man of great size, wealth, dignity, and perspective, I was reminded that none of us born here really, truly knows what it is like to be governed absent of freedom and choice and free will and opportunity. And, above all, absent of hope.
No matter what Thomas said, I don’t think we’re so far off the rails, headed to ruin or under anyone’s thumb. Although, for myriad reasons, we often seem to be making the least of the greatest social experiment in the history of mankind. And we often forget, when we carp about government, we are actually complaining most about ourselves.