Zdeno Chara always has played the long game.
Wielding a 67-inch stick like a pucks Paul Bunyan, the towering 6-foot-9-inch, Bruins defenseman’s trademark trait always has been his remarkable reach, the ability to extend his presence on the ice beyond what’s normal or expected to stifle opponents. But at age 42, playing in his third Stanley Cup Final and chasing a second championship, his career has morphed into his most impressive feat of extension.
A combination of good genes, great work habits, and OMG workouts have allowed the league’s second-oldest active player to keep Father Time from knocking him off his skates. It’s not hockey happenstance that Chara is here in his 21st NHL season. It’s the result of careful planning, indefatigable determination, and an unyielding desire to uncover any athletic edge that compelled him to consult with elite athletes in sports as disparate as ice dancing, football, swimming, and powerlifting. When the Bruins take the ice for the Stanley Cup Final on Monday at TD Garden, facing off with the St. Louis Blues, Chara will remain plugged into the familiar roles he has occupied since he came to Boston as a ballyhooed free agent in 2006 — team captain and trusted half of the Bruins’ top defense pairing.
Boston’s elder skatesman is still performing at a high level, despite a lower-body injury that forced him to miss the final game of the Eastern Conference finals. He leads the playoffs in plus-minus at plus-11. In the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he became the oldest defenseman in NHL postseason history to score a game-winning goal. Goaltenders freeze the puck, accepting a faceoff. Chara has frozen time, refusing to accept a send-off.
“I’m not surprised with him. His work ethic, his fitness level, his attention to detail is tremendous,” said former Bruins teammate Mark Recchi, who won the Cup in 2011 with Chara’s Bruins at age 43. “I’m not surprised at all with him, and it’s really great to see. His commitment to his fitness level, he’s always leading the charge in the gym. He knows what it takes for his body to be ready for games. When you get a little older, you learn that. When you put those things together, and you have a real commitment and will to be a good player, it leads to him being able to continue to play like that.”
There’s no Emmy Award-winning “Zdeno vs Time” docuseries to hail Chara’s longevity. But there’s an obvious parallel here in the Hub of Championship Hardware between the stalwart Slovak and another 40-something Boston athlete who is defying aging and chasing championships when many of his peers have retired. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who turns 42 in August, and Chara have something of a social media mutual admiration society, congratulating and supporting each other on Instagram.
Like Brady, Chara was never supposed to be this good; he certainly wasn’t supposed to be this good for this long. They’re both unlikely franchise players and self-made superstars. Growing up in Slovakia, many pushed Chara to abandon his hockey hopes for basketball. He entered the NHL with the New York Islanders expected to be a heavyweight combatant, never a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman.
Chara has actually sought advice from Brady and consulted the quarterback’s body coach and business partner, Alex Guerrero. A few years ago, Chara ventured to the TB12 Sports Therapy Center to get training advice and work with Guerrero. This season, he got counsel directly from Brady. The two talked on the telephone for 20 minutes a few months ago, according to Chara.
“I was very interested in it, and it’s something I wanted to learn, what kind of studies they do,” said Chara. “It was a very great conversation. He’s such a smart man, and so experienced with so much knowledge. He knows exactly what he wants. He knows what he’s doing and what he’s getting out of it and where he’s going. It’s very, very inspiring to hear that he is still so dedicated, so hungry, so successful and yet so still not complacent . . . I’m like, I don’t want to bother him. Obviously, I respect his privacy. I respect what his life is all about.”
Help from his friends
The tallest player in league history, Chara is the NHL’s version of the character The Mountain from “Game of Thrones” except he’s a cerebral giant. Like his football contemporary, Chara is dedicated to optimizing his physical fitness and maximizing his career.
For the last two years, he has switched to a plant-based diet. He has solicited Olympic medal-winning US ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani for skating advice. He has started working with resistance bands to increase his flexibility. An avid cyclist, it was not unusual to see Chara riding his custom bike on his way to TD Garden. He has tapped professional cyclists Pavel Padrnos and Rene Andrle for training tips.
“I try to really surround myself with athletes from different sports that I could always contact and kind of pick their ideas or their advice on certain things,” said Chara. “Whether it was training, diets, or supplements, and try to be informed on what’s happening all around sports, not just hockey.”
But the core of what is allowing Chara to defy the NHL actuarial tables traces back to his hometown of Trencín, Slovakia, and a Spartan sports training center and demanding father. The Legend of Z was forged and is maintained at a place called Dukla, a sporting club and sports development academy that Chara returns to every summer. He describes it as a rustic, old, Eastern European gym, ground zero for his greatness.
He has been going there since he was a kid, when he would watch his father, Zdenek, train as a Greco-Roman wrestler. Chara’s father wrestled for the former Czechoslovakia and coached Slovakia’s wrestling team at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Zdenek is a hard man with a relentless work ethic and an iron will, both of which he imparted to his son.
That will is on display in some of Chara’s grueling workouts, which he posted on Instagram this summer.
They get the mandible moving in disbelief. One showed Chara propelling his 6-9, 250-pound frame up a rope several times, including while wearing a weighted vest. Another showed him jumping over hurdles off one leg, alternating legs.
Teammates are in awe of Chara’s workouts. (His pull-up prowess is legendary.) Some grimace just thinking about trying to duplicate them. Bruins winger David Pastrnak, 19 years Chara’s junior, summed up the disbelief at Chara’s fitness routine.
“Yeah, I mean, like he’s an animal,” said Pastrnak. “I don’t know what my body would answer to me if I tried to do his workout.”
Chara is meticulous about keeping track of those investments of exertion and exhaustion. A Sports Illustrated story revealed that Chara has kept a detailed workout diary that dates back over three decades. This Workout Diary of a Mad Man is like the Rosetta Stone for the six-time All-Star staving off the ravages of age.
“I have I believe since 1996 all of my training, every day, pretty much every single day what I did, how much I did, how I did it. I got all the regimens, programs, every single day what I’ve done. It’s probably this thick with all the stacks of papers,” said Chara, holding his thumb and index fingers about 5 inches apart.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s something you’ve got to keep track of. I think it’s very important that you see where you were, where you’re at, where you want to get to, how you did it, how you felt. That’s most important, how you felt, and maybe find a pattern that will be like, wow, this kind of sequence worked.”
Not over the hill
Oldies but goodies are not uncommon in the NHL. Chara isn’t the outlier that Brady is in the NFL. Gordie Howe was the gold standard for aging gracefully, sur glace. He was still playing in NHL games for the Hartford Whalers at age 52. Defenseman Chris Chelios took his last shift at age 48. Ageless forward Jaromir Jagr played in the NHL until 45.
The Bruins’ all-time leader in games, Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, aged gracefully on the Boston blue line before Chara. Bourque hung up his skates at age 40 after finally winning the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. He averaged 28 minutes and 32 seconds of ice time during that Cup run.
Bourque said that to maintain a high level of play as the birthdays pile up you have to listen to your body and tweak your routine. But in some ways, the game becomes easier.
“It’s actually a little easier than a young guy coming in and not knowing the league, not knowing what it takes to play at that level. We kind of know,” said Bourque. “Z, I’m sure, knows his body, knows what he needs to fix. It’s not a hard thing in terms of preparation and knowing what you have to do. How you’re doing it sometimes in the course of a game might be different than it was 10 years before, but you know still how to get the job done.”
Like all players, Chara has been forced to make some concessions to aging. This marked the third consecutive season that Chara’s average time on ice dipped, to 21:05, as the Bruins managed and massaged his minutes with the idea of having him ready for a deep playoff run. He played in 62 of 82 regular-season games. Chara missed 19 games with an MCL injury in his left knee, suffered against Colorado on Nov. 14 when he knocked knees with former Bruin Carl Soderberg. The Bruins rested Chara in the penultimate regular-season game.
During these playoffs, Chara is averaging 22:32 of ice time, exactly seven minutes fewer than the last time the Bruins played in the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.
Just like early in his hockey career in Slovakia, Chara is not without skeptical critics at this stage of his career. They view him as too lumbering and too old to survive in the new fast and furious, nitrous-oxide-super-charged NHL.
But one of the world’s foremost experts on the matter of manning the blue line dismisses that as hockey hogwash.
“He’s had a really good season. I haven’t seen much drop-off,” said Bourque. “It’s like people will say he gets exposed or whatever with quickness. Every single defenseman gets exposed with quickness, especially the way the game is played now with all the penalties — there’s no clutching, there’s no holding, there’s no hooking. You can’t do any of that stuff anymore.
“The game is called the way it’s supposed to be now, so every once in a while you’ll see a defenseman get exposed. Z, being the size he is, sometimes it looks like you can see it when he does. But go around every single team and ask every best player or best line that’s playing against him, ‘How do you like playing against Chara?’ I’ll tell you that 99 percent of them will say, ‘It is not fun, and I don’t like it.’ That says enough for him, right there.”
Recchi, an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, concurred, saying Chara has evolved, using his hockey sense and his reach to remain very effective.
Both Bourque and Recchi did what Chara hopes to do — hoist Lord Stanley’s hallowed hardware on the wrong side of 40.
“That’s what you’re still playing for, is to be able to win a Cup,” said Recchi. “To be able to do it when you’re at that age, it’s just an incredible feeling.”
The inevitable question is how much longer does Chara plan to play? Like Brady, Chara has expressed a desire to play until 45.
“It is still. You’ve got to set the goals,” Chara said. “Obviously, when I said that I was probably 35, to be honest with you. As you go on, you’re kind of putting those goals a little shorter. Obviously, I’m signed for next year. I’m planning to play. I want to compete and still play. I’ll be 43. I’m not, obviously, that far away.
“I’m taking it one year at a time. I think you have to respect that things could change. It could go from my end, ‘Hey, I just don’t feel like it.’ Or it could be, ‘Hey, I still love it. I still have so much passion for it. I want to keep going.’ But I want to play until I can still be contributing to the game and still be effective. At the same time, you’ve got to realize that when there is a time there is a time.
“At this point, I’m still hungry. I still love the game. I have so much passion for it. I’m enjoying that everyday grind routine that you go through. I love it.”
Aging is inevitable, part of the ineluctable march of time. The salt and pepper in Chara’s beard, the hoary swaths of gray that decorate his jawline, are testament to that.
Chara might be showing his age off the ice, but on the ice, he’s freezing out Father Time.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.