Chara a player of magnitude
Chara a player of magnitude
Slovakia’s biggest star already makes an impact
It was the 206-cm-tall hockey player Zdeno Chara, the captain of the NHL’s Boston Bruins, a team that is perfect for him since the Slovak giant has a distinctly bear-like appearance.
“Actually, I tried to carry it low,” said the humble and very pleasant Chara about his flag-carrying experience. At that, he wasn’t very successful, as Big Zee creates quite an impression wherever he goes. However, these Olympics, Chara’s third, are having an especially strong impression on him as well.
“If I had to pick one thing, it was the moment right before your country is announced,” shared Chara after Slovakia’s practice Saturday night at the Bolshoy Ice Palace. “The steam is coming up, the lights are on... It’s just such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, such a huge honour. It’s so hard to put into words what it means to represent your country, to have your team behind you, walking tall and being proud of who you are and where you come from.”
Walking tall, it goes without saying, is easy for Chara. So is carrying the flag, which he says ”wasn’t hard at all” even though it’s “a big piece of material”. He is also a tall sleeper, the fact which prompted the organizers to put a special “extension” to his bed in the Olympic Village. The photo with the little ottoman upended to Chara’s twin bed has made its way around the world, amusing some and worrying others.
“Actually, I slept very well,” said Chara, dismissing the idle talk about possible “gamesmanship” by the Russians. “It was a late night after the ceremony, so I only got about seven hours or so, but it’s a lot better than the last few days. As for the bed, it’s actually very comfortable! I’ve gotten a lot of texts from my friends who have seen that picture, but it’s a little bit funny to me. Actually, it was very nice of the organizers, very thoughtful to give me a bit of a special treatment. I really appreciate this. Those little things do make a big difference.”
Falling asleep may not be much of a challenge for Big Zee, but making Slovakia a factor in the medal race will undoubtedly be one. The Slovaks have never medalled at the Olympics and their entire haul at the IIHF World Championships equals one gold medal, two silver with the last one coming two years ago, and a bronze.
Still, in Vancouver, Chara and friends managed to surprise Russia in the group round and defeated Sweden in the quarter-finals, eventually finishing fourth. Chara contributed an assist on the go-ahead goal in the upset.
“I don’t think we will ever be among the favourites,” said Chara. “We won’t go into the World Championships or into any kind of tournaments as a favourite. But we do have potential and when we play as a team, we have shown before, we can be a very strong team. But, honestly, to predict who will win or even who will be the toughest team to beat, is hard.”
One matter of concern for Slovakia will be whether Chara can use his size and toughness as effectively on the big Olympic ice as he does in the NHL. And with Marian Gaborik, the country’s most dynamic scorer, missing with an injury, defence will surely be key to Slovakia’s ability to stay in the games with the favourites.
But Chara says the Olympic ice changes the game for small guys in the same way as for the big ones. Being smart, reading the positions and known how to choose your spot on the ice will be key and nobody has ever accused Big Zee of not knowing how to play smart hockey.
Additionally, as the team captain and most recognizable player, it will be up to him to provide the kind of leadership the Slovaks will surely need. Head coach Vladimir Vujtek isn’t shy about admitting this, either.
“We are counting on him to play the role of the team’s leader,” Vujtek said. “Everyone respects him and his word is law in the locker room. Two years ago, at the World Championship, we got silver medals thanks to our team play. And he is an ultimate team player. He is our No. 1 and he keeps the room in order.”
Chara, though, will never allow to be referred to himself as a “star”. It is simply not his style.
“No, no way!” he protests. “I will never look at myself like this. Honestly, I am very humble and never think of myself as a super star. I am a regular guy. Being a leader doesn’t mean I have to go around like a big shot. I just try to work hard and lead by example.”
Good luck telling that to his numerous fans, who besiege Chara for autographs everywhere. Including the Olympic Village, where other athletes have been flocking to him.
“I honour every athlete,” said Chara. “I really appreciate it when people come over and ask for a picture or a signature. I take my hat off to every athlete who makes it to the Olympics. The amount of hard work it takes, how can I look at other athletes as being something more, just because they play a different sport?”
Slovakia begins its Olympic tournament February 13 when it squares off against Team USA.
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