TORONTO — Wednesday morning, during breakfast at Team Europe’s downtown hotel, center Frans Nielsen was chatting with his wife over the phone. Across the meal room came Zdeno Chara, the colossus cosmopolitan who understands, at least on passable levels, seven different languages. Hearing Nielsen’s end of the conversation, he interrupted in kind. “I know a little Swedish too,” Chara said—in Swedish, no less.
For the 6' 9", 250-pound defenseman with no small appetite, the World Cup of Hockey experience presents an all-you-can-eat cultural buffet. Eight different countries are represented on the motley European roster, including the NHL’s first drafted Dane (Nielsen), one of two active Norwegians (Mats Zuccarello) and Frenchmen (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), and its history’s only Slovenian (Anze Kopitar). They have been together since convening for training camp in Quebec City and Montreal, and improbably still stand alive in Toronto—behind 1–0 in the championship round against Canada but having already far surpassed their expected endurance.
Hailing from Trencin, Slovakia—formerly Czechoslovakia under the Iron Curtain—Chara has been surrounded by countrymen on Team Europe, including old friends Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik. But he’s always been one of the league’s most culturally aware and socially conscious skaters; past summers included re-creating Tour de France stages in the Pyrenees, and Chara got his real estate license in Feb. 2015. So since the 39-year-old is two seasons away from his contract ending in Boston, it’s quite possible that his international career will wind down here, surrounded by new friends nearing their expiration date together.
“I probably think about that maybe once everything is over,” he said Wednesday, swarmed by reporters at the back of the media room, camera shutters clicking away. “But it’s been a great experience. Having so many guys from different nationalities, different parts of the world, being together and playing for one team, and really coming together so quickly, it’s been really nice.
“Getting to know them, just see how everybody interact with each other, buying into the system and the team concept, it’s been a real pleasure so far. Probably a few days after, you probably have deeper thoughts about the whole thing.”
For now, Chara’s focus remains on ensuring this journey doesn’t end Thursday in Game 2. In five games he’s averaging 20:33 of ice time, fourth among European skaters behind defenseman Roman Josi (26:07), Kopitar (22:38), and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (20:45). In Tuesday’s series opener, Chara finished well below that mark at 15:38, committing the turnover that led to Canada’s second goal, the eventual game-winner. The home crowd, only sparingly dotted with Team Europe flair, also drenched Chara in boos whenever the puck reached his stick.
“He’s hated everywhere he goes, because Boston-Montreal, Boston-Toronto, Boston-New York, even when we were in Quebec,” says Vaclav Nedomansky, the former NHL forward who scouted for Team Europe.
“Sometimes I feel like they just boo, because they feel like maybe they need to boo someone,” Chara says. “But honestly I don’t care. Doesn’t bother me.”
Like in Boston, another multi-cultural locker room where he has worn the captain’s C since getting traded from Ottawa, Chara strikes a commanding presence among fellow Europeans. He’s known for dishing inspiring advice, culled from a personal library of motivational texts, just as well as his long stick or big hits. “You always heard stories about him,” Nielsen says. “He keeps guys honest. It’s been great. You can see why Boston had so much success with him as a captain. When you have a leader like this, it’s not only the coach who has to go in and tell guys. He’ll be there right away.”
When Chara reflects on Team Europe’s path, from seemingly overmatched in exhibitions against the North American young guns to giving Canada its toughest challenge of the tournament thus far, he sees the amalgam of cultures working together in harmony. There were major questions before the World Cup—about bringing together skaters unfamiliar with each other, about an aging roster in a speed-first game, even about what anthem would be played.
The European management team involved its players in discussing this last issue, and the resulting veto of an instrumental track illustrated the group’s uniqueness: Condensing eight nations into one song simply seemed counter-intuitive, not with so much individual richness throughout the ranks.
“You don’t know where it’s going to end up, when you’re playing together,” he says. “Obviously everyone wants to be where we are now. That was always the main goal. But you never know how it’s all going to play out with different personalities, different cultures, new coaches, players, chemistry, so on and so on.
“Day one, day two—you’re going day by day instead of looking at the big picture. You’re going square by square. But we are where we want to be, and where most people probably didn’t see us to be. That mentality in the room after few days was very motivated to prove that we were, and we are better than what a lot—a lot—of people thought and expect us to do.”