Bigger and better: There's nobody in the NHL like Bruins captain Zdeno Chara

BOSTON — Before he was the biggest of the big, bad Boston Bruins, Zdeno Chara was just big. He was more of a curiosity, a 19-year-old kid from Slovakia, a third-round pick of the New York Islanders. He was trying to adjust and develop half-a-world from home in Prince George, a tough lumber town in the forests of British Columbia.

His junior team printed life-sized posters of him with measurements on the side, so regular folks could compare themselves to the giant and his 6-foot-9 height. Fans would hold them in the stands. Opponents could see them as they whirled around the rink for warm-ups. This being the Western Hockey League, the pugilists lined up to prove themselves – until Chara proved himself as a fighter. He still had to prove himself as a player.

“He wasn’t a guy that you looked at right away and said, ‘Wow, he’s going to be unbelievable in the NHL,’ ” said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who played against Chara back then. “He was a guy that you looked at and you’re like, ‘Well, he’s got a lot of work to do.’ ”

Now? Wow. He’s unbelievable. Chara, 36, is two wins from his second Stanley Cup in three years as captain of the Bruins, and he is the most dominant, disruptive defensive force in the game.

Not only does he stand 7-feet tall on skates, he wields a stick that is supposed to stretch 65 inches from knob to heel – the longest exception to the rule the league will allow. Said Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: “I don’t know what to compare his reach to. It’s tough to get away from him. On his half of the rink, he’s going to get a piece of you somehow.”

Opposing coaches go to great lengths to spare their stars from his great length, switching positions, juggling lines, obsessing over matchups. A Boston game becomes two games in one – when Chara is on the ice, when he isn’t – and Chara generally plays 25 minutes or more.

In the last two rounds, the Bruins have played the top two offensive teams from the regular season: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Blackhawks. In seven games – including six overtime periods – they have allowed only seven goals. Chara has been on the ice for one.

Goaltender Tuukka Rask is the Bruins’ leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, because he has a 1.64 goals-against average and .946 save percentage – better numbers than Tim Thomas had when he won it for the Bruins in 2011.

Rask has been excellent. But at times he has had it relatively easy, like in Monday’s 2-0 victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, a no-sweat, 28-save shutout that gave the Bruins a 2-1 series lead. He has benefitted from great team defense, led by Patrice Bergeron, a winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, and Chara, a winner of the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.

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Chara is the real MVP because he is the most irreplaceable part, the centerpiece of the chess match. It is amazing that he has won only one Norris. Some theories: He played in the Nicklas Lidstrom era until this season. He hasn’t always put up top offensive numbers despite the hardest shot in hockey. And he hasn’t received enough credit because his size has been viewed as a natural advantage, when it is decidedly unnatural.

This isn’t basketball. The ice is slippery, and the puck is small. Before Chara’s size could be an advantage, he had to overcome it. He had to learn how to use it. He did the work – and still does.

“There’s also a reason why the league isn’t full of 6-foot-9 people or 7-foot people, because it’s difficult to play this game at that size and be as nimble and quick and agile as you have to be,” Ference said. “It’s not just, ‘He’s a big guy. It’s easy for him. He just throws on skates, and he’s bigger than everybody else.’ It’s not that at all.”

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Ask players about Chara, and they often say the same thing, whether they’re opponents or teammates.

“It’s really tough to attack him,” said Bruins winger Brad Marchand, a 5-foot-9 sparkplug. “His stick is so long. You’ve got to beat his stick, and once you get past that, seven feet away is still his body. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s never fun.”

A little perspective: When Bobby Orr led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups in the early 1970s, the longest stick the NHL allowed was 53 inches from knob to heel – a full foot shorter than Chara’s stick is now.

Over time, the rules evolved with the players. The NHL allowed 58-inch sticks in 1980-81, 60-inch sticks in 1985-86, 63-inch sticks in 1996-97 – a season before Chara arrived in the NHL. The league began allowing exceptions by written request in 2002-03, capped the exceptions at 65 inches in 2007-08 and limited the exceptions only to players 6-foot-6 or taller in 2010-11.

Sixteen players are on the NHL’s stick exemption list. Some are prominent, such as Chris Pronger, the 6-foot-6 future Hall of Famer sidelined by a concussion. Others aren’t, such as Mitch Fritz, a 6-foot-8 winger who played 20 games for the Islanders in 2008-09.

Bottom line: Chara’s stick is only two inches longer than any other player’s can be by rule. But there is no limit on the length of your arms or the depth of your talent and work ethic.

“What he’s done with the height and how he’s adjusted his game from junior till now, how he’s improved his skating and his turning and his agility and all that, that’s what impresses hockey players, not the fact that he’s big,” Ference said. “He wasn’t, like, awful, but he’s definitely a different player.”

Chara spent his first four seasons with the Islanders and struggled on a bad team. He was minus-27 in back-to-back seasons. Then he went to the Ottawa Senators and blossomed with a good team. He was plus-30, plus-29, plus-33, plus-17. He began to produce offensively.

“He certainly started playing with the puck, skating with the puck,” said Bruins defenseman Wade Redden, a Senators teammate then. “I remember some goals he scored in Ottawa where he’d get his feet going, just get a step on the ‘D,’ and he’d drive wide and beat ’em. He took a lot of pride playing against top lines. He’s always had that mindset defensively. He’s always wanted to be a top guy.”

Chara continued to evolve after he joined the Bruins in 2006-07. He became the foundation as they built a championship team, demanding the best from himself and everyone around him.

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Aaron Ward spent more than two seasons with the Bruins, a good amount of time as Chara’s partner. He saw Chara do everything expected at the rink, then go home and do more – more miles on the bike, more pounds in weights. He found out Chara expected passes on his tape. At all times.

“If my pass didn’t hit his tape on a D-to-D, he’d look at me, shake his stick and say in no uncertain terms, ‘For [bleep’s] sakes, hit my tape,’ ” said Ward, who’s now an analyst for TSN. “And if it happened again, he’d get mad. He’d get frustrated. In warm-up.”

“He battles extremely hard in practice,” Marchand said. “He treats it the same way as the games, so if you’re up against him, you can expect crosschecks and to get hit. That’s why he’s the best.”

A 65-inch stick is a liability, not an asset, if you can’t use it correctly. It takes more energy to move 255 pounds of mass, and teams try to wear down Chara by hitting him and outskating him. But Chara is in shape, and he’s skilled, and he’s experienced.

He knows how, when and where to position his body, and he gets it there. He knows how, when and where to position his stick, and he puts it there. The front of the net is protected. Passing and shooting lanes are blocked.

“Everybody thinks about the pros – being so tall and strong and covering so much ice – but it’s also tough if guys come at him and bring pucks in his feet and try to get by him with their speed,” said Dennis Seidenberg, Chara’s current defense partner. “He’s actually very fast for his size. He plays just like a small, mobile defenseman, and that’s what’s so impressive about him, that he can play each guy that comes at him.”

Bruins rookie Torey Krug is a small, mobile defenseman. At 5-foot-9, he is a full foot shorter than Chara. Still, he watches and learns.

“(Zdeno) doesn’t really get beat wide or anything like that,” Krug said. “It’s not just because of his size. It’s also because of his feet. He’s always working on that and taking a lot of pride in that.

“Something I can apply from his game to mine is how simple he plays. With the puck and away from the puck, he’s always in the right position. Regardless of your size, you always have to be in the right spot on the ice, and he’s always in a good spot.”

* * * * *

Chara has a nasty mean streak. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, he sucker-punched Penguins captain Sidney Crosby with a gloved hand. He socked the face of the game in the face – right after Crosby had healed from a broken jaw and taken off a plastic guard. Not only did Chara get away with it, he got Crosby to lose his cool. He bent down and taunted the 5-foot-11 superstar, like a bully would to a little kid. Crosby played as poorly as he ever has afterward.

But at the same time he wants to intimidate, Chara does not want to be known as monster. After he shoved the Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty into a stanchion in 2010-11, giving him a concussion and a fractured vertebrae in an incident the NHL ruled an accident, he texted Pacioretty. He spoke to him later and apologized, explaining that he never meant for that to happen. Eventually Pacioretty accepted it.

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“I think we all play the game hard,” said Chara in June 2012. “We all want to win. We all play tough. It's just hockey. That's the way it goes. But at the end of the day, we don't want to hurt anybody.”

Chara often offers little insight to reporters. That’s why he isn’t quoted otherwise here. But those who know him say he is sensitive about his size, because he has been mocked so many times, and he is gentle by nature. He does what he has to do. He oversees the team from way up there, looking out for his guys, looking for any edge he can find.

“He’s the epitome of a captain,” Ward said. “You respect it, not only because he’s got skill, but there’s a presence there. ‘Z’ doesn’t have marketing agreements. ‘Z’ doesn’t have a never-ending need to be the focal point of anybody’s broadcast, anybody’s article or anything. All he cares about is, bottom line, get wins. He’s the most competitive son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”

In the basement of TD Garden, there is another poster of Zdeno Chara. It is not like the one back in junior in Prince George, with measurements on the side, life-sized. This one shows him lifting the Stanley Cup two years ago, mouth wide in mid-scream, teeth bared and dark-bearded like King Leonidas in “300.” It is maybe 10 feet tall, larger than life.

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