- “He’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, making sure he’s ready to go, making sure his consistency is unparalleled. I think that’s what’s carried him so far.”
BOSTON -- Ducking into an auxiliary locker room typically reserved for visiting NBA teams--you know, athletes closer to his size--Zdeno Chara arrives at the photoshoot ready for work. “How’s my hair?” he says, still wearing his gear and dripping with sweat from Bruins practice. “Beautiful? I want to look sexy. Forty is the new 30.”
He strikes an imposing stance and laughs. It’s an early March afternoon at TD Garden, two weeks before the Boston captain turned 41 years old, a milestone he might’ve celebrated with birthday cake, but only if the chef used dairy-free ingredients. When Chara remarks that he is famished after a long workout, a PR assistant starts listing menu items served in the team cafeteria today: steak tips, chicken … “So,” deadpans Chara, “everything I don’t eat.”
Plenty of texts and documentaries were devoured before Chara fully converted to a plant-based diet last September--no meat, no eggs, fish on rare occasions--which he saw as a test of discipline in addition to a method for improving personal health. Early reviews have been positive. “Big plus,” he says now, citing tangible differences in both performance and recovery. But vegetables alone don’t entirely capture how the NHL’s oldest and tallest defenseman continues to defy ordinary aging curves, average almost 23 minutes a night, and anchor the shutdown pair of a Stanley Cup contender.
“The diet’s just a piece of it,” agent Matt Keator says. “It’s more the drive, the determination, the chip on his shoulder to continue playing at a high level.”
It was this relentless focus that SI featured in this week’s NHL playoff preview issue. “He has a very distinct creed — the way he lives, the way he wants to lead and be as a person on and off the ice,” Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller says. “He’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, making sure he’s ready to go, making sure his consistency is unparalleled. I think that’s what’s carried him so far.” But material was clipped from the finished product as always, especially true for a cosmopolitan polyglot with an otherworldly dedication to fitness.
And so, here are some (ideally plant-based) leftovers from the world of Zee:
While teammates wage war on the card table or bury their noses into Netflix during flights, Chara usually sits in the back and reads. He estimates that 99% of his chosen titles are non-fiction. “You can put yourself into that person’s shoes or that story or certain situation and you can have better understanding when you’re actually reading about something that happened,” he says. “I always like doing that.”
Among others, he has plowed through several Lance Armstrong books, biographies of Lionel Messi and Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, and Wearing the C: Leadership Secrets from Hockey’s Greatest Captains. Right now Chara is deep into a thick scientific text called The China Study, which explores the links between nutrition and various illnesses. Sometimes he recommends documentaries to Miller and Bruins center Patrice Bergeron as well, like the Oscar-winning Icarus. “That’s part of the whole package,” Miller says. “He’s educating himself.”
Which explains why Chara took a financial planning course on his own time several years ago. And why he studied for and passed a four-hour real estate test several years ago, obtaining a license that he hasn’t put to use yet. “He’s got a PhD in life, I guess,” Keator says.
One morning before Christmas in Dec. 2006, the Senators were getting dressed for practice in Philadelphia while the Golden State Warriors were finishing a shootaround at the arena. Before bussing to another rink, a few Ottawa players ambled onto the court and started hoisting shots. As Chara grabbed a basketball and spinning a few layups, general manager Peter Chiarelli surveyed the scene with fear. “I’m sitting there going, F---, Zee, don’t twist your ankle,” he says.
Then someone approached Chiarelli. It was Chris Mullin, a few years away from his Hall of Fame induction, working as the executive vice president of basketball operations for his former team. “Who the hell is that?” Chiarelli recalls Mullin saying, motioning over to Chara. “Jesus Christ, he’s a good basketball player.”
Chara was a capable hooper as a kid in Slovakia, but he stuck to hockey despite the recommendations of several short-sighted youth coaches. Of course, they couldn’t have fully understood the capacity of Chara’s inner motor, either.
“Such a freak of fitness,” former coach Claude Julien says.
“He’s a machine, that’s for sure,” former teammate Shawn Thornton says.
“He’s an animal,” says winger Brad Marchand, whose 34 goals and 50 assists lead the Bruins. “He does leg workouts more than anyone else I’ve ever seen. You’d think that maybe he’d get tired or it’d be a little too much. I said to him, one day, earlier in the season, ‘You’re going to be exhausted tomorrow.’ He laughed at me, like, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’
“Then I started doing a little bit with him and you start to see the results and how it pays off. Now it’s become the day-before-a-game routine, I do Zee’s leg workout. I feel incredible.”
Ten years ago, Chara climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as a charity ambassador for the humanitarian organization Right to Play, accompanied by a group that included ex-NHL defenseman Robyn Regehr and former The Hockey News journalist Mark Brender.
They summited on the fourth night, awaking around 11:30 p.m. and switching on headlamps to trek through total darkness, up slopes of volcanic ash. They reached the top before 7 a.m., in time for sunrise. During the descent, Brender recalls Chara offering a few words.
“We had porters with us,” says Brender, who now works as national director for Partners In Health Canada. “They knew he was somebody important, but didn’t know what he did. He gathered everyone around and said, ‘You guys made this trip,’ talking to these 20 porters and cooks for 6 or 7 of us. That’s where you saw the captain. He spoke to everybody totally sincere, no jokes. You could see the authority he has, because of his sincerity.”
As it happens, the long line of admirers snakes south down I-95 outside Boston, all the way to Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady has four more championships on Chara, who hoisted the 2011 Stanley Cup, but they share more than a birth year (1977) and a C on their jerseys. “It’s clear he has such a deep love for hockey, like I do for football, and in that way I think we are very similar,” Brady wrote via email. “I think a big reason why we are so intent on playing for as long we can is a result of how much we love to play the game.”
Chara is a big fan of Brady too, dedicating an Instagram post to “#newengland and #newachievements” before Super Bowl LII. He also keeps a signed No. 33 Patriots jersey on the wall of his family playroom and recently flipped through Brady’s book, The TB12 Method. “It’d be a lot of fun to talk about training,” Chara says. “We’d probably have just normal conversation, but I’m sure we’d probably get deeper into different things.”
Brady, meanwhile, snagged some jerseys and pucks for his children when the Bruins hosted the 2015 Winter Classic in Foxborough, and reports that he has been following Chara’s various training methods through Instagram. “I’ve read a bit about his approach and it’s clear he takes great care of himself, does everything with a purpose and loves the sacrifice and preparation it takes to try to be the best,” Brady wrote.
As for whether Brady believes he will outlast his fellow captain in Boston?
“That’s why we play, right? we will see! Ha.”
How many more years does Chara have left? He recently signed a one-year, $5 million extension with Boston and confidently stated that he will continue playing beyond its expiration next July, when he is 42 years old. Privately, he has told Chiarelli and others that he wants to reach 45. Skills coach Adam Nicholas, who has worked with Chara for the past two summers, believes that he could physically withstanding playing until 50.
“I don’t really have a number,” Chara says. “You want to be realistic. When people say, you can still play for 10 years, that's just talk. Just a saying. It’s not probably possible to play. Even now the league is so young. Thirty feels like it’s 40.
“But as much as it’s fast, as much as it’s young, it’s not always about the speed and the sexiness, as I want to call it. It’s not always about making a beautiful move or being fast. You have to be smart, you have to have the experience, you have to know what you’re doing on the ice. That plays a big role as well.”
No doubt that Chara’s intelligence will carry into his next venture. Chiarelli thinks that Chara would make a shrewd general manager (if not an intimidating trade negotiator on the draft floor). Perhaps he could put that real estate license to good use; the coursebook is still kept on a shelf above his desk. Or maybe Chara will write something of his own, compiling the workout regimens that he has logged in detail for three straight decades and sharing them with the masses.
Just ... not yet.
“I can’t give you all the secrets, just like that,” Chara says. “As of right now, I want to keep some stuff that works for me, just for me.”