Zdeno Chara grew up in Trencin, Slovakia, just east of the Czechia border, and first wore skates to zip along the frozen, serpentine Vah River, unaware as a toddler of the riches and fame that his skating ultimately would bring him.
But it’s not that pair of beginner’s blades that the Bruins captain best remembers. The pair that he’s held on to, more than 25 years later, serve as a reminder of aching feet, promises broken, and the perseverance it took to follow his dream.
“I had been cut so many times from so many teams,” said Chara, thinking back to his teens, when local B-level squads dismissed his desire to play, teasing that a boy so tall was meant to play basketball.
“Players on the A teams were allowed to get new skates from the team, but I never got them. They’d tell me I was entitled to a good, healthy pair of skates, but they’d never give them to me.”
So he kept on skating in his old, broken-down pair of Bauers, through his growth spurts of 2 inches or more per year, through ever-lengthening feet that nearly curled his toes under the inside battered tips of his skates.
“My feet were mangled,” recalled Chara. “I had those bone spurs. It was so painful, because eventually the skates were two or three sizes too small.
“The blade holders ripped off and I literally had to screw them back on — and I could feel the screws coming into my feet. And teams would tell me, ‘Nah, you’re on B team.’ And my dad couldn’t pay for new skates, couldn’t afford it. Just too expensive.”
The Globe asked many Bruins players this winter what they remembered of their first pair of skates. Answers were all over the sheet, including Brad Marchand’s old-style double runners, Kevan Miller’s rentals during a family vacation, David Pastrnak’s figure skates, and the hand-me-down “player” skates that a 5-year-old Jaro Halak couldn’t wait to swap for a pair of goalie skates.
Jake DeBrusk, whose dad Louie was playing for the Edmonton Oilers when he was born in 1996, recalled loving his first pair of skates so much that he tried to wear them to bed.
“I didn’t take them off,” said the left winger. “I got in the house and literally kept them on the entire night. I tried to go to sleep in them. They were some sort of Reeboks, not the pumps, and I was planning for the upcoming season. I was super excited.”
Thankfully, recalled DeBrusk, there was an abundance of carpet in the family home.
“So that made it a little bit OK,” he said. “But my parents also gave me a little talking to, and said, ‘OK, buddy, we love that you love the gift, but you need to chill. Your feet are going to get sore.’ ”
Patrice Bergeron was 4½ when his parents bought him his first pair of CCM hockey skates.
“Brand new, right out of the box,” recalled Bergeron. “Didn’t make me a better player, I’ll tell you that. And after the fact that I grew in, like, three months, they kind of regretted it.”
His next skates were second-hand, in part because Bergeron’s parents weren’t initially convinced their son, today a four-time Selke Trophy winner, really cared for the sport. In fact, the first time they enrolled him in hockey, Bergeron spent the first three-quarters of the season sitting on the ice during games, stacking pucks around the net, watching everyone else race around the sheet.
“My parents we’re, ‘Let’s go with the second-hand skates right now, and figure out if he really likes it,’ ” said Bergeron. “Then after that, they were always buying brand-new equipment for me. Which I’m very grateful for, because it was a lot of money for them, especially back then, and it meant a lot to me.”
By age 18, Bergeron was a Bruins rookie winger, with an uncanny knack for knowing where everyone was at all times. All the watching paid off. He also played day and night outdoors, typically with his brother alongside, be it ball hockey in the summer or winters on the community outdoor rink in his Quebec City neighborhood.
“It was lit up at night, so you could stay out there forever,” he recalled. “Many times my parents would drive down to get us because we had to finish homework or eat dinner. It was fun times.”
David Krejci’s first blades were wide-track double runners when was age 2-3. There was no backyard rink because the Krejcis in those days lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building in the far eastern part of Czechia.
“But my dad used to be a referee, and he would take me on the ice after the game,” said Krejci, “and just kind of push me around. I know I had those skates with two blades and I was wheeling around.”
It wasn’t long, recalled Krejci, before he eyed a pricy, stylish pair of CCM hockey skates.
“Black and white with a stripe — they were really cool — and I never got them,” said Krejci, who today leads all Bruins money-earners with a salary cap hit of $7.25 million a season. “My teammate when I was 12 years old had them, and he got hurt for a little bit, or he got sick, so I was able to wear his for a couple of games.”
Growing up on Long Island, Charlie McAvoy was a New York Rangers fan. He doesn’t recall his very first pair of skates, but he still has his first hockey gloves, in Ranger red, white, and blue.
“My parents moved over the summer,” said McAvoy. “So I actually had to go through my old room. So I kept the gloves, my first pair of shoes, little things that I made in wood shop at school and stuff like that.”
As for skates, McAvoy best recalls the Vapors (X’s or 20s) that he wore at age 5-6 as a mini-mite.
“They had just come out,” said McAvoy. “And we were at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J. We were playing a game there and we went into the pro shop, and I needed new skates badly because I had skated out of my old ones, and he got me those.
“I remember how excited I was. I was so young and so naive, little did I know he was spending a whole paycheck on a pair of skates.”
Earlier, recalled McAvoy, he’d worn hand-me-downs from cousins or found what he needed at the recreation department affiliated with the Long Beach, N.Y., rink where he first played. He saw some of that old gear last summer when he cleaned out the attic during the family move.
“Piles and piles of hockey gear,” he said. ‘So we separated all of it — tons of skates, shin pads, shoulder pads, jerseys — and we bagged it all up and brought it over to Long Beach Recreation, and dropped it all off there.
“So it was kind of like a generational thing. I started with hand-me-downs from there and now hopefully someone will be able to start with my old stuff.”
For now, Chara is holding on to his old skates. No one would want them. Too battered. No hockey left in them. They’re home in an apartment he keeps in Slovakia, sealed in a plastic bag, and figures he might bring them back to Boston next summer and show his kids.
“I looked at them over the summer and I couldn’t believe it, I swear,” said Chara. “Someone would think, ‘This is not possible to play for three years with these skates.’ The screws and everything sticking out. Oh my God. But I keep them because . . . that’s the memory.
Some other first skates memories
■ Sean Kuraly: Hand-me-down CCMs.
He grew up in Ohio, but first skated on the pond behind his grandparents’ home in Caledon, Ontario.
“I’d push around a chair. We went out there at Christmastime, and those were my first strides. It was me, my older brother, aunts and uncles, younger cousins . . . all of us out there having a blast.”
■ David Pastrnak: White figure skates, age 3-4.
“Because my feet were so small, we couldn’t find hockey skates.”
■ Brad Marchand: Wide-track double runners, age 2.
He grew up in Sackville, Nova Scotia, 10-12 miles outside Halifax, and first skated at a nearby indoor arena. His dad put up a backyard rink for a few years, until the family moved to a house bordering a pond.
■ Jaro Halak: Used hockey skates, age 8. Not goalie skates.
He grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and knew at age 3 he wanted to be a goalie.
“I was a goalie right away, but just in player skates. Back then, it was a little bit harder to find goalie skates. It took a couple of weeks to find them. A used pair. At that age, your feet are growing so fast, so we got them a little bit bigger and I wore thicker socks.”
■ Kevan Miller: Rentals at outdoor rink in Idaho, age 5.
“Sort of like a snowboarding boot with clamps. It was me and my two brothers. We’d roller-bladed before, but never skated on ice. So we started out pushing chairs, and 20 minutes later we were doing laps. Freezing cold, but we had a blast.”
■ Torey Krug: Roller skates, age approximately 18 months.
“Those are the first I remember, playing on the street outside our house.”
■ Brandon Carlo: Inline skates, age 4.
He grew up in Colorado Springs, and was introduced to street hockey by next-door neighbors, transplants from Massachusetts. Close pal Hadan Jordan, originally from Marshfield, is now a junior defenseman at St Michael’s College.
“Hadan was pretty good, and I’d just jump into the teams he was playing for. Especially with ice hockey, the first year, I would just be working on skating at center ice while everyone else was having a regular practice. I had to get up to speed.”
■ John Moore: Hand-me-down Bauers, age 2-3.
He was raised in Winnetka, Ill., where he first skated on a nearby field that the local fire department flooded each winter.
“I got the skates from our neighbors, the Tuttles. They had twin boys who were three years older than me. Any sporting goods needs, I would get their hand-me-downs.”
■ Steve Kampfer: Used CCM Tacks, bought at the local rink in Jackson, Mich., age 2.
For the better part of a decade, his grandfather would buy him a new pair of skates each year for his birthday, until he was in his mid-teens.
“It was awesome. Every year I needed a new pair. We would always buy it a size too big, and my parents would make me wear really thick socks for the first half of the season until my feet started to grow.”
■ Danton Heinen: Hand-me-down wide-track double-runners, from his older brother Cody.
He grew up just outside Vancouver, and skated predominantly indoors.
“We didn’t get to skate outdoors too much, but it’s the best when you’re a kid — just playing for fun.”
■ David Backes: Rentals, age 2-3, from Fogerty Arena, down the street from the family home in Blaine, Minn.
“All I can remember is that the logo was a little yellow triangle, and I thought that was cool.”
■ Matt Grzelcyk: CCM Tacks or Ray Bourque Bauers.
He first began to play at the MDC rink in his hometown of Charlestown.
“I used to hang out there all the time. That’s pretty much where me and all my friends would spend our time. We were obsessed with sticks and stuff like that.”
■ Tuukka Rask: Plastic ski-boot-like children’s skate, with buckle, age 2-3, still stored at his family’s home in Savonlinna, Finland.
“The ice was maybe a five- or 10-minute walk, and we did that every day for, like, five or six hours. That was the only thing to do, really. As soon as we were old enough to leave the house, age 6. It would be minus-30 Celsius, and it would be only me and my buddy, and my brother. There would be no one else out there but us.”
■ Noel Acciari: Hand-me-downs from his brother, 7 years older, who likely got them from older cousins.
“We just kept handing ’em down and down and . . ”
■ Joakim Nordstrom: Plastic ski-boot-like, with buckles, age 2.
He first skated on an outdoor rink in suburban Stockholm, where the town maintained a hockey rink and also flooded a soccer field.
“I still have the skates. My parents gave them to me a couple of years ago. Honestly, I wouldn’t have remembered them unless they’d kept them.”
■ Chris Wagner: Koho hockey skates, age 3.
First used at learn-to-skate lessons at the Ponkapoag rink in Canton.
“Yeah, you know, pushing the milk crates around.”