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The Big Picture At 6'9", Zdeno Chara is not only the tallest NHL player ever but also the key to Ottawa's Stanley Cup hopes

March 17, 2003
March 17, 2003

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March 17, 2003

Inside Soccer

The Big Picture At 6'9", Zdeno Chara is not only the tallest NHL player ever but also the key to Ottawa's Stanley Cup hopes

Ottawa Senators defenseman Zdeno Chara despises tall tales, so
let's set the record straight.

This is an article from the March 17, 2003 issue Original Layout

He is 6'9", not 6'10" or even 6'11", as was reported on Hockey
Night in Canada last season, when he seemed to have a weekly
growth spurt.

As a child in Trencin, Slovakia, the only son of Zdenek and
Viktoria Chara--who were 6'2" and 5'9", respectively, sizable
but hardly Brobdingnagian--helped tend the family's animals.
There were pigs, ducks and chickens, but no blue ox.

The Senators did not file for bankruptcy protection in January
because they couldn't afford Chara's pregame meals. For lunch
Chara does not eat, as captain Daniel Alfredsson says, "one of
each. One chicken and one steak. Or two chickens and one steak
and the pasta plus the rice."

Chara concedes that he has a healthy appetite, but he insists
that his gourmandise is overblown. Anyway, a 255-pound boy needs
sustenance. "I like facts," says Chara, who for lunch on this day
has an oversized salad, a main course of fish with mashed
potatoes and vegetables, and a brownie a la mode with Kahlua
drizzled on the ice cream. "I'm a guy who likes everything
straight up."

When the 43-18-7-1 Senators, the NHL's No. 1 team through Sunday,
see Chara ruling the corners, clearing the crease and
occasionally screening the front of the net on the league's
second-best power play, they see a player who is more straight-up
than anyone else in the 86-year history of the NHL. Chara,
hockey's tallest player ever, brings toughness to a team that in
the spring usually turns as gritty as dentist's-office music.
Chara was sorely missed by Ottawa in the final two games of its
second-round playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last May. He
had sprained his left knee in Game 5, effectively ending his--and
the Senators'--season. "Obviously his loss hurt us," says Ottawa
assistant coach Don Jackson. "He's a dominating player."

Almost daily Chara is subjected to three questions: How tall are
you? Do you play basketball? Were your parents tall? He has
learned to react with amused detachment. "I was thinking of
getting a hat that says, 6'9", NO, NO," he says. Once the shock
of seeing a player of his size in the dressing room wears off,
height seems to be the least intriguing thing about Chara. He is
one of the best defensemen in the NHL, not a circus freak
patrolling the blue line. He and his girlfriend, Tatiana, are
taking a college course in finance and investment on the
Internet; Chara keeps a dictionary at his side to help with
unfamiliar economic terms. (English is his fifth language; he's
also fluent in Slovak, Czech, Russian and German.) When he
completes that course, he plans to study Spanish. The former
stay-at-home defenseman also wants to travel to Africa and Japan.
He has dabbled in painting and cooking and playing the drums. He
likes films about nature. He reads motivational books such as
Lance Armstrong's autobiography. "I took the finance course
because I spend so much time on planes and in hotels, and I
didn't want to be watching movies or playing cards all the time,"
he says. "I have time to read and learn. I want to do things."

For the 25-year-old Chara, who grew up under communism, life is
all about expanding horizons and testing limits. To discover what
those limits are, each summer he devotes one day of his maniacal
training regimen to running uphill as hard and far as he can,
literally to the point of collapse.

His father, a Greco-Roman wrestler for Czechoslovakia at the 1976
Olympics, today coaches the Slovakian national Greco-Roman team.
He started training his son for a pro hockey career when Zdeno
was 13. The boy worked out three times a day, running before
breakfast, lifting in a makeshift weight room in the basement
after breakfast and cycling at night. His father hung an iron bar
across the branches of a tree in the yard; each time Zdeno passed
that tree, he was expected to drop the buckets of water he
carried to the garden and do 10 pull-ups. "Many times he pushed
me so hard that I ended up crying," Zdeno says. "I would wonder
why he was so mean to me, but I didn't understand what he was
trying to do. He meant it in a good way."

Zdeno was always tall for his age and had outstanding mobility,
but his sticklike body failed to intrigue shortsighted coaches.
He didn't fit the mold of the slick, skilled Slovakian player.
The nation of 5.4 million has produced NHL scoring stars--the
Minnesota Wild's Marian Gaborik, the Los Angeles Kings' Ziggy
Palffy, the Buffalo Sabres' Miroslav Satan and Chara's teammate
Marian Hossa--but few elite defensemen.

Chara didn't seem destined for the NHL. At 17 he was languishing
in Junior B, using cracked hand-me-down sticks and wearing shin
pads that were too short and shoulder pads that might as well
have come from a Cracker Jack box. He played that season with a
skate blade that was partially torn from the boot; he taped its
ripped heel before each practice. Chara never made a junior
national team, and he played only 15 games of major junior
hockey, in Prague. Nevertheless, the New York Islanders liked his
size and drafted him. "I was no prospect," he says. "When the
Islanders picked me 56th in 1996, I was shocked."

He prepped for a possible pro career by moving to Western Canada
at 19 and playing in juniors for a year in Prince George, B.C.
The game suddenly came to him. The North American rinks, 3,000
square feet smaller than the international ice surfaces Chara was
used to playing on, were ideally suited to his skills. Over the
next two seasons he shuttled between the Islanders and the
minors, content to play a minimalist game, safely shooting pucks
off the glass to clear the zone. Former All-Star defenseman Brad
McCrimmon, a New York assistant coach in 1997-98, would stay on
the ice for 30 minutes after each practice and drill Chara on
tape-to-tape passes.

Chara's progress was halting but so unmistakable that in June
2001 the Islanders were able to obtain scoring center Alexei
Yashin from Ottawa for Chara and the No. 2 pick in that year's
draft. Almost two years later not one general manager in hockey
would trade Chara--an All-Star who will earn $1.75 million this
season and $2 million in 2003-04--even-up for Yashin, an albatross
who has eight years left on a $90 million contract and has been
demoted to the Islanders' fourth line.

Chipping the puck off the glass might have worked on Long Island,
but it was the last option on a deft team like Ottawa. For the
first time in his career Chara was told to rush the puck when he
had open ice. He was so keen on finishing checks that he would
raise his arms to hit an opponent, but Jackson taught him to keep
his stick on the ice to block passes while throwing a check. Last
season Senators coach Jacques Martin started using Chara to
create a human eclipse in front of the net on power plays because
Chara has hands quick enough to deflect pucks, and a long reach
for rebounds.

Chara scored 10 goals last year, four with a man advantage.
Through Sunday he had seven goals and a career-high 31 points
this season despite having missed eight games with a bruised
chest. "He could have the same impact as [St. Louis Blues
defenseman Chris] Pronger because of his offensive abilities and
physical presence," Jackson says. "He's that good and that
tough."

The true measure of Chara's worth will be revealed next month,
when Ottawa tries to prove it's a team that has the stomach for
the playoffs. Chara, who has the stomach for everything, is big.
For the Senators to be successful, he will have to be huge.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL WIPPERT LOOMING LARGE Players like Buffalo's Stu Barnes (41) can't measure up to Chara.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BAZEMORE/AP TOUGH TIMES In the playoffs, Chara must be physical for Ottawa to succeed.
Chara is one of the NHL's best defensemen, not a circus freak.