Zdeno Chara, Bruins captain and proud son of Slovakia, grew up in Trencin when his country was one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states. As a boy in grade school, he had to learn to speak Russian, pledge allegiance to all things Lenin, and otherwise accept the social tenets and restrictions of Communist rule.
“The bad side of it,’’ recalled Chara, 36, “you couldn’t do certain things. You always had to follow the orders of other people above, or country above. But you know, it is what it is, and it’s behind us. So . . .’’
Chara, a middle schooler when the Soviet Union vacated its decades-long control of Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, next month will carry the red-white-and-blue Slovakian flag into Sochi, Russia, home of this year’s Winter Olympic Games. The Slovaks approached him in November about leading them into the Games, and though he initially debated it because it would mean missing a game or two with the Bruins, he eagerly accepted after gaining the full endorsement of club management and team owner Jeremy Jacobs.
“What he said was, ‘I know missing games is a significant thing for the Boston Bruins, and I’ll understand if I can’t go,’ ’’ said Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins’ general manager. “But it’s such a big honor. It’s really a no-brainer. If it’s important to ‘Z,’ it’s important to us. Mr. Jacobs felt strongly that he should go.’’
Veteran Bruins winger Jarome Iginla, whom Chara consulted on the decision, added, “We are really happy for him. Love to have him in the lineup, but we are glad to see him have that moment. It’s really once in a lifetime.’’
The symbolism of leading the Slovak team into the Russian venue while lugging the flag of his country, which came into formal existence at the start of 1993, is not lost on Chara. He remembers well the days of his youth when the Soviets’ military strength and ruling might were the central themes of annual parades in Trencin’s streets.
All the boys in his school, recalled Chara, were instructed on parade day to dress in formal blue shirts. A parade stand was erected with local politicians in select seats, often joined by Russian politicos or members of the Soviet military. The kids performed, sang songs, and saluted flags.
“I think people to a certain point were OK with it,’’ said Chara. “But they didn’t have the freedom of speech, freedom to go somewhere and travel, see the world.
“Any time you said something or you challenged the government and whatever they were doing, then you got yourself or your whole family in trouble. You were always being told, ‘Hey, just keep your mouth shut and just go.’ ’’
Some 25 years after being in those parades, Chara, now an NHL superstar and multimillionaire, will lead a Slovak contingent of skaters and skiers, lugers and bobsledders, all of them free men and women, into the country that once had a say in virtually every aspect of their existence.
Somewhat mixed feelings
True of athletes from many other countries once part of the Soviet empire, most of the Slovak Olympians are too young to have known, or fully understood, their homeland’s politics or their life’s limitations under Soviet rule. Even Chara, not yet 16 when the Slovak flag came into existence, needed to be prodded when asked to ponder the meaning of the moment.
“I didn’t think about it, until now, until you mentioned it,’’ he told a Globe reporter the other day. “But it is interesting, that I grew up in that regime and now I am going to bring my flag into Russia. It’s a good point. It’s a story.’’
Chara, intelligent and ever-curious, wears a near-perpetual smile. He frequently smiled even when summoning some of the drearier recollections of his youth. Perhaps, he noted, he was too young to dislike the Soviet system with the same intensity of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
There are those back home, he said, who to this day long for parts of the old ways.
“Obviously, I did grow up in that kind of Communist system,’’ said Chara. “But it wasn’t like we had a choice. We didn’t know as kids that there was anything better.
“Later on we did, but . . . we were pretty much following the rules and orders and whatever the regime was kind of providing. And anyway, it was kind of good. When I look back, it gave us a lot of discipline and structure and humbleness.
“You know, sometimes I wish the new generation of kids would experience a little bit of that, because you see how it is different now. But I am glad [Soviet rule] is not there, because [Slovakia] gives so much more freedom for people.’’
There is, Chara acknowledged, a lingering awkwardness within him, being here in the United States and discussing his homeland. He owns a condo in Trencin, the city where his family remains, and he also in recent years built a grand home not far away in the mountains, where he spends much of the summer with his family.
He knows full well how the Slovak economy has continued to sputter in the post-Soviet era, how a striking division of wealth in his country has, by his eye, made for a nearly nonexistent middle class.
“I am sure they are happy that the regime is gone, that we are not under the Communist system anymore,’’ he said. “But the situation back home is still so loose, as far as the law, the way that politicians are kind of guiding the country, always making promises. I think it is everywhere, but especially back home it is a big question, ‘What is going to happen to our country in the next [however] many years to come?’
“I am smiling because it is hard for me to make comments because I am over here and I know people back home, they are still fighting for better pension plans, fighting for better wages ...
“Their standard of living is so low compared to other countries, especially the European Union. We can’t even compare, what people are making and what they have to spend for basic living, things like buying groceries and so on.
“It’s very hard for people back home to have a nice living. You have to look at it as there is no middle class. There is really poor people or really rich people. That’s what makes it very hard.’’
Hard to imagine
Chara first came to North America in 1996, only weeks after being drafted by the New York Islanders, and has forged a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
He has played for numerous Slovak national teams, including the Olympic squads of 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver).
Mocked by coaches in his amateur days for having NHL aspirations, he now will be the smiling 6-foot-9-inch guy, big flag in his hands, leading the Slovaks up Olympus.
How will it feel?
“I don’t know, but I will tell you about it,’’ said the beaming Trencin Tower of Power. “I can’t imagine having all these countries, lined up, how to organize that.’’
Animated, with traces of a child’s glee as he spoke, Chara conjured up the noise and the splendid chaos he expects in the moments leading to the start of the Olympic opening ceremonies.
He will be the only Slovak NHLer to arrive, although some of his compatriots, pros in various European leagues, will be at his wings.
Like all of the Slovaks, Chara will be a free man in Sochi, unfettered and alive, the Soviet machinery and reach long turned off.
“Some of it was good, you know,’’ said Chara. “I learned Russian, another language, so that’s not all bad. But one day all that just ended . . . it all went away.’’