- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The biggest challenge for Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara when he first arrived in North America as a 19-year-old junior hockey player was to find the proper equipment that would fit his large frame.
The Slovakia native migrated to Prince George, British Columbia, and was quickly nicknamed "The Great Big Z" by his new teammates.
Stan Butler was the head coach for the Prince George Cougars during the 1996-1997 season. He had heard the stories and read the scouting reports about the 6-foot-9 Chara, but when the coach first saw him on the ice, Butler was pleasantly surprised.
"When I first met him on the first day of training camp he was, by far, the biggest hockey player I had ever seen," Butler said. "He was big enough to play power forward for the Boston Celtics. He was as tall as he is now, but he was probably about 40 to 60 pounds lighter."
Chara's game was raw at the time. He was strong, but his skating ability and puck-handling skills were quite different than they are now. Chara's goal was to hone those skills in hopes of playing in the NHL. His transition to the North American game was relatively smooth. There was only one problem.
"The toughest thing was finding proper equipment," Butler said. "The size of sticks, elbow pads, even jerseys. I remember his first year when he played junior, we had to get another jersey and put an extension on his jersey so it would be long enough for him to play hockey. When equipment is made for guys 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2, when you're 6-foot-9 and you've got to adapt to that equipment, it may not sound like a lot, but that's a huge undertaking."
Halfway through that first season in junior hockey, fatigue started to set in and Chara broke his wrist. Once he returned to the lineup, he elevated his game and helped Prince George reach the Western Conference finals before the Cougars lost that series to Seattle.
"We had a real Cinderella playoff run that year and we made it to the finals," recalled Butler. "He was unbelievable in the playoffs. I remember in Game 6 of the quarterfinals, we were playing the Portland Winterhawks, Chara made an unbelievable play to get the puck to Blair Betts for the winning goal."
"There's a few of us who saw him in the Western League when he was playing for Prince George, and I played against him there," Ference said. "The progression from there, obviously everybody gets better from juniors, but he's probably one of the most extreme examples of really improving his game from skating, to stick handling, [to] using his body and from every aspect. He puts a lot into it on the ice and off the ice. He's a very proud guy and has everything it takes to improve himself. I don't think he's relied too heavily on coaches to get him better, he's a pretty self-driven guy."
By the end of that season, Butler could see the vast improvements Chara was making.
"I just saw in the playoffs that year, he really took his game up and I've never seen a kid improve as much in one year, as a hockey player, as he did that year."
That was Chara's only season in the WHL.
"When someone's that big, especially in junior, you expect them to fight," Ference said. "You expect him to scrap and take on the next biggest guy, and that's almost what the team expected from him at the start. He wasn't this great skater or defender that we see now, or the way he handles the puck now. He didn't have those in his bag, so that's why it is impressive for him to come from that to where he's at now.
"He's a big guy who could have easily been slotted in as a fighter. I'm sure when he came to the NHL with the Islanders that's all they would have expected from him, to be that big, tough defenseman. He obviously had other things in mind and his goals were a lot higher than the GMs that had control of him for a few years."
The New York Islanders selected Chara in the third round (56th overall) in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft and he made his NHL debut during the 1997-98 season, playing a total of 25 games with one assist and 50 penalty minutes.
His first few years he split time between the NHL and the AHL; he became a full-time NHL player during the 1999-2000 season.
He was traded to the Senators on June 23, 2001, and spent five years (four seasons due to the lockout) with the Senators before he signed as a free agent with the Bruins in July of 2006.
At the time, current Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was the assistant GM in Ottawa and knew if he was given the chance in Boston, he wanted Chara on his team.
"He was a driven player and I knew that when I was in Ottawa," Chiarelli said. "One of the things that I did was put together a to-do list of things if I got the job, and he was on the list. There's no questioning his impact when I was in Ottawa, and the way he kept his body in shape, I knew he would be a player of that ability that would make an impact for years to come."
Since the first day he put on a Bruins sweater, Chara has been the team's captain. It was strange at the time that the organization would give him the 'C,' but Chara requested that it be part of his deal in Boston.
It took him five seasons, but Chara finally helped the Bruins hoist the Stanley Cup on June 15, 2011 in Vancouver.
"I'm really proud of how well he's done," Butler said. "There were two things that were obvious to me right off the bat with Z: At the end of the day, you could tell he was an unbelievable athlete, a great athlete -- there's no doubt about that. That was obvious to me from Day 1. The second thing that was obvious to me is nobody I have ever seen works in a weight room like he does. He is a machine in the weight room and he works hard. With his athletic ability and his work ethic, I'm not surprised how far he's taken it."
Chara's not done. If anything, now at age 35, he's only getting better.
He reached a career-high in points this season, posting 12 goals and 40 assists for 52 points in 79 games. He also matched a career-high with a plus-33 rating, which he has accomplished two other times (2003-2004 and 2010-2011).
Chara played in his 1,000th career NHL game on March 24 in Los Angeles and should be the favorite for the Norris Trophy.
"I felt really good, really strong," Chara said. "It's hard to talk about yourself. I just try to play hard every game and try to do my best. For the whole season, I think I did a pretty good job and I just try to do what I do best -- shut down people, play strong defensively, but this year it seems like I found a way to help out the offense."
Since Chara would rather focus on the team instead of his own accolades, Chiarelli had no problems praising his captain's abilities.
"This year, his offensive play has gotten better," Chiarelli said. "In past years, we've seen him a little better defensively. He's always been really good at all these things, but his defensive impact is greater. This year, I've seen his offensive impact better, greater and move improved. At the same time, he's maintained his defensive impact. I think he's had a terrific year."
Has it been a year worthy of a second Norris Trophy?
"Absolutely," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "I know coaches preach for their player, but to me, a Norris Trophy defenseman has to be a good all-around defenseman. Zdeno's plus/minus speaks for itself. He plays against the top players on every team every night, and look how well he's doing in the plus/minus.
"Offensively, he's got the best stats he's ever had, and defensively, obviously, he's done a great job at shutting down other players. I think that, especially in the last month, he's been playing some of his best hockey I've ever seen, so, to me, he's deserving because he's a complete defenseman."
Chara, along with defensive partner Dennis Seidenberg and goaltender Tim Thomas, were all a major reason the Bruins won the Cup in 2011. Boston's solid defensive game translated into an explosive offensive charge that led the Bruins to the championship.
"It's been a pleasure and an honor getting to play with one of the best, a guy who I think should go down as the best defenseman ever," Thomas said. "Certainly, in his own way, there's been nobody like him in the NHL. Nobody brings the exact attributes that he brings, so I count myself lucky to have been playing with him and behind him."
As far as Chara becoming the greatest defenseman of his generation, his junior coach believes he's reaching that status.
"I think he's developed into that," Butler said. "He's a prime example of a kid who came over here at 19, and he could probably tell it better than I could, but one of the reasons he came over here was because in Slovakia they were telling him he was too big to be a hockey player. They had the communist, East German-type mentality over there, too, where the athlete didn't pick the sport, the sport picked the athlete. He loved hockey and wanted to come over here."
It's true. Because of Chara's size, most Slovakians thought he should play basketball. Chara had other goals.
His next one will be to defend one of the game's best offensive threats, Alexander Ovechkin, and help the Bruins shut down the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, which begins with Game 1 Thursday night at TD Garden.
And if that goes as planned, Boston will be another step closer in defending the Cup title.
During a pregame ceremony on Oct. 6, 2011 at the Garden, as the Stanley Cup banner was being raised to the rafters, Chara reached up with his hand and touched it one last time. Clearly it was a moment he won't soon forget.
"He's still a special person to me," Butler said. "I think the world of him and I'm happy for him."
At 35 and going strong, Zdeno Chara continues to exceed expectations.