NEW YORK — He was once a kid from Trencin, as unfamiliar as it seems to consider Zdeno Chara as anything other than what he has become: 14-year Bruins captain, tallest NHLer ever, premier defender of his generation, obvious future Hall of Famer, polyglot environmentalist, plant-powered superathlete, inclusive leader, relentless achiever.
This monstrous wheel that keeps on turning was once something far less accomplished. To fans, a curiosity. To management, a project. To teammates, a soft-spoken, towering Slovakian in acid-washed jeans who was learning to control his immense body.
“One time we got on an American charter and he hit his head on an exit sign, and cut his head. It was a problem the rest of us never had,” said former Islanders winger Bill Muckalt, who recalled being conked by a breakout feed from Chara that had a little too much might.
“The forwards were calling him ‘Frisbee’ for a while.”
“He was ‘Baby Huey,’ ” recalled ex-Islander Mark Parrish. “If you were 10 feet from him catching a pass on your backhand, good luck.
“But you saw the hockey sense, the timing, the way he read plays. You saw the competitiveness. You saw the leadership potential.”
“He has become,” said their teammate, goalie Kevin Weekes, “a walking encyclopedia on how to play the game.”
Soon to be 43, Chara is set to play his 1,000th game in a Spoked B on Monday at Philadelphia. The team plans to fete him at home, likely before Thursday’s game against the Penguins. He will be the sixth player to skate in 1,000 games as a Bruin (Wayne Cashman, Johnny Bucyk, Ray Bourque, Don Sweeney, and Patrice Bergeron). No one has done it all as a captain.
He has spent so long here that it’s easy to forget he played four seasons each with the Islanders and Senators. This week, former teammates recalled the nascent days of Big Z, in a league where big and mean meant effective.
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One of the invite-holders for Chara’s second training camp with the Islanders, in 1998 in Lake Placid, N.Y., was 26-year-old career minor leaguer Vashi Nedomansky. Early on, they performed the Wingate test, a 45-second, all-out sprint on a stationary bike. Chara went over a minute.
“You’re on the floor. Everything is burning. You’re sore for a day,” Nedomansky said. “But he kept going faster and faster and they had to make him stop. He wasn’t even breathing heavily. They just said, ‘That’s good, buddy, you’re good.’ ”
His training sessions, sometimes three or four per day, had teammates wide-eyed. Weekes remembered seeing Chara, the son of a Czechoslovakian Olympic wrestler, clean-and-jerk 135 pounds with one hand.
“You know those 80-, 90-, 100-pound dumbbells that nobody touches and there’s dust on them? He was yanking those things around like they’re nothing,” Parrish said. “Our strength coach had to stop him from doing full workouts the day of the game. Everyone else was going home and napping.
“I’ve never seen a 6-9 guy so ripped.”
While he wasn’t yet wholly fueled by plants, he ate cleanly. Like everything he seemed to do, his meals had a purpose.
“He’s the biggest guy on the team, and we’re all eating way more pasta, finishing it off with a couple scoops of ice cream — because that was backchecking food back in the day,” Parrish said. “He made sure he had what he needed, and moved on. The discipline he had, and has, is impressive.”
In the days before the Easton Synergy hit the market, Parrish once took one of Chara’s sticks, placed it between two chairs, and stood on it.
“I could barely get it to bend,” he said. “I’m 200 pounds.”
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While Chara would lay the wood on teammates if they cut across the blue line, he wouldn’t needlessly intimidate.
Nedomansky, who became a film editor in Los Angeles after hanging up his skates, remembered Chara fighting every day during the first week of camp scrimmages. Most of his opponents were invitees trying to prove their toughness. Chara rag-dolled a few, but mostly held them at arm’s length.
“He knows he can hurt people badly,” said Parrish, who like Weekes, now works as an NHL Network analyst. “If he wanted to be, he could be the biggest heavyweight the NHL’s ever seen. He respects the game, he respects the players.
“He’s also going to make sure that if you pick on one of his teammates, he’ll make sure you never do it again.”
Chara became a first-time captain in 2006, when he signed with Boston. It was no surprise to his old mates. Parrish, who joined the Islanders, recalled a turnover that led to a loss, which led to a 23-year-old Chara showing up at his stall.
“I coughed it up to [Petr] Sykora, we lost to [New] Jersey in the last minute or so,” he said. “I was sitting in my locker, head down, and Big Z sat next to me, put his arm around me and said, ‘Parry, come on man,’ and gave me this comforting speech. I was thinking, ‘Aren’t you younger than me?’ ”
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Rather than build around him, then-Isles general manager Mike Milbury dealt Chara, Muckalt, and the No. 2 overall pick (Jason Spezza) to Ottawa for star center Alexi Yashin at the 2001 draft.
According to Muckalt, he was blunt when Milbury called him into his office to ask his opinion of the 23-year-old defenseman.
“I said, ‘Nobody does any video work with him. We’re asking him to play against Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr, all those guys that are in the division,’ ” recalled Muckalt, now the associate head coach with Michigan. “I said, ‘Nobody works with him, and you’re putting him in impossible situations.
“I said, ‘He’ll be a top-10 defenseman in this league if you give it time.’ Mike just looked at me like I was the dumbest person. Two months later, we both got traded.”
Milbury did not respond to an interview request for this story. On a podcast with Jeremy Roenick in 2016, he said it was the worst trade he ever made.
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Before the Islanders drafted him 56th overall in 1996, scouts were buzzing about the 6-foot-9-inch defenseman who played that season in WHL Prince George.
“We heard stories about him,” said then-Blues scout Matt Keator, who became his agent in 1999. “He was this mythical figure.”
At Keator’s first lunch meeting with his potential new client, at a Long Island restaurant, Chara surprised Keator by presenting him with a written list of his goals. The Islanders saw him as a shutdown defenseman and enforcer. Chara wanted to be a complete player, a leader, a champion.
“I was pretty impressed,” Keator said. “He was organized, thoughtful. He had a vision of what he could become, and he made it happen.”
Parrish wonders why management didn’t see it coming.
“He had it from the get-go,” he said. “He passed a little too hard, got a little too much lift on some of them. But there was a player there. His character has gotten him this far.”