He's not only developed into one of hockey's most dependable defencemen, but Zdeno Chara has also stepped into the spotlight as one of the game's most respected leaders.
To many, he is known for being the tallest player – 6'9” – to ever play in the NHL. But over his 928 career games at the sport's elite level, Chara has worked tirelessly to stand out as a top-notch blueliner and in recent years, he's also become a first-rate captain.
The Slovakian native, who launched his NHL career with the New York Islanders in 1997-98, was recently recognized for his efforts in 2010-11, when he was honoured with the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
“To be selected by somebody like Mark is an honour, you have to be a true leader and it doesn't happen overnight and for myself coming to Boston was great,” said Chara, who after four seasons with the Islanders, was traded to the Ottawa Senators during the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, before he signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Boston Bruins in 2006 and was named the team's captain. “I'm lucky to be surrounded by other players and I learned from veterans from previous years, and early in my career, but it just takes time.”
Chara was never better than in 2010-11, leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship, becoming just the second European born and trained captain to lead his club to the title.
On October 9, 2010, Chara, who won the 2009 Norris Trophy as hockey's top defenceman, re-signed with the Bruins, inking a seven-year deal with the Eastern Conference club.
In January, Chara recorded his first career hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes, a 7-0 victory.
At the conclusion of the regular season, the 34-year-old, who has won the Hardest Shot competition at the NHL All-Star Game SuperSkills Competition in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011 (where he set a record of 105.9 miles per hour) had 44 points, including 30 goals. Chara also skated away with the top plus/minus award in 2011, a plus-33 rating.
He also contributed nine points in 24 post-season games.
“I'm at the point where I'm really myself and I know that to be a leader you need to have followers, and that's what I had in Boston and I'm thankful to my teammates, obviously the coaching staff and the organization,” said the former Western Hockey League graduate, playing one campaign with the Prince George Cougars. “They believed in me.”
Chara, whose father, Zdenek, was a Greco-Roman wrestler who competed for Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Summer Olympics, has made a believer of the hockey world, a player who truly is a larger than life figure both on and off the ice.
An athletic ambassador for Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play programs to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children and communities in disadvantaged areas of the world, Chara has certainly made his mark with the charity.
In July 2008, he spent two weeks in Africa, travelling to Mozambique in support of Right to Play, before climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with fellow NHLPA member Robyn Regehr.
And now, he has a Stanley Cup ring to add to his impressive list of accomplishments.
“Unbelievable,” offered Chara, who has played extensively with Slovakia in international competitions, “So exciting. Everybody was so happy and it made us happy when we saw all these generations of people, not just the people in the crowd, but the old-timers coming out into the streets and from the windows, so happy. That's just making us really happy. Making somebody else happy like that is all you need to see.”
Chara is hoping the good times continue to roll in Boston, as the club seeks to become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings achieved the feat in 1997 and 1998.
A tough task, to be sure, but one Chara believes the Bruins are capable of accomplishing.
“Every game is a tough one in this league,” he offered. “From the first game to the last one, it's never really easy. But we have a great group of guys here and everyone knows what it takes to win. Hopefully, we get another shot at it again.”
With Zdeno Chara leading the charge, it by no means a longshot.