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TORONTO – On a bus ride through Sweden during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Zdeno Chara cracked open some educational reading material.
While other players on Farjestad opted for car magazines and style magazines, Chara wanted to go all-in on the culture in his temporary home. So he picked up a Swedish-English dictionary in order to get a better grasp on the language.
“Every day he would squeeze as much out of the day in everything as he could,” said former NHLer Mike Johnson who played with Chara in Sweden. “When it came to hockey he had practice in the morning we had a 45-minute practice, we’d get off the ice and guys would go off to the café for lunch and would hang out. And when you’re walking out, ‘Z’ would be on the ice with 100 pucks ringed around the blueline doing slappers. This was the day after he played 35 minutes, when we might also be going back to the NHL in 10 days and we’d have a game.”
At age 39, Chara – a former Norris Trophy winner and Stanley Cup winning captain– isn’t quite the same force who combined brute physicality with uncommon mobility for a man who stands 6-foot-9. But he’s still trying to get as much out of his career as he can – both in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and internationally here at the World Cup for Team Europe.
Throughout the event he has played mostly solid defense as he has led Europe to a final appearance against Team Canada. Now he faces his greatest test of the tournament, of trying to win two games from Canada at the Air Canada Centre to deliver a championship to the European squad.
“You have to believe all the time. I think what would be the purpose if you wouldn’t believe?” Chara said when asked about whether the team could come back. “You have to have the right approach and right mindset and it’s a best-of-three so you really have to focus on our game tomorrow and do it all.”
Chara has been fine for Europe in the World Cup. He scored a goal in their game against the Czech Republic and has played mostly steady defense except for his turnover against Team Canada in the first game of the final, which led to the game-winning goal.
No matter the outcome, Chara is enjoying himself and that has been his main focus at this point. If this is his last ‘best-on-best’ international tournament he’s certainly living in the moment.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are. I think you have to appreciate the game. If you’re not going to appreciate the game, the game’s not going to be appreciating you so you really have to be taking it with a great appreciation and being humble,” Chara said. “I think everybody no matter who you ask is probably happy to be playing at this level and at this time of whoever’s career it is, or whatever the point is.”
Throughout the tournament, Chara hasn’t just needed to fight through his opposition. He’s also been forced to deal with the background noise of the fans.
In Europe’s 3-1 loss to Canada, the people at the Air Canada Centre booed Chara whenever he touched the puck. According to his teammates the boos have been going on since even the exhibition games before the tournament.
“Everywhere we went starting in the pre-tournament he got booed everywhere,” teammate Christian Ehrhoff said. “I kind of feel for him.”
Chara says he heard the jeers, and just laughed them off.
“I don’t know why is it. If it’s because of Boston, we have a few other guys in Boston (here). I have no idea. It doesn’t bother me. I try to focus on the game and try to do what I do and do my best,” Chara said. “Obviously I can’t control the fans. I just sometimes don’t understand. Sometimes I feel they just boo because they feel like they need to maybe boo someone. Honestly I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me.”
Chara has been a member of Team Slovakia throughout his international career. If this is his final ‘best-on-best’ tournament, he is playing it for a made up team that has several countrymen but ultimately isn’t his homeland. He seems OK with this, even if he was a little skeptical at first.
“It has been great. To be honest with you, it really exceeded my expectations as far as how it’s all going to play out, how it’s all going to turn out. I’m really enjoying myself,” Chara said. “I have great passion for this game. I love hockey, I love competing and I love playing against the best. This tournament has been probably the most competitive tournament of all time. We have the best teams, best players at the start of the season where everybody is healthy, nobody is in the playoffs, nobody is really tired from the whole season.”
Even though Chara hasn’t produced big numbers, people who know him can see his influence going throughout Team Europe. Chara’s desire to perfect himself and push the upper limits of his potential – no matter his age – is infectious. If a player sees the oldest guy on the team still spending the most time on himself they feel the need to do the same as well.
“I can see why on a team he would be a really good leader because even if he’s not vocal, you just watch the way he lives and it would be hard not to be impressed and you kind of want to follow suit,” Johnson said. “He’d never hold it over you, he’d never make you feel guilty about it but it’s like ‘man I can do more’ because the guy who’s better than everyone is doing more in every sense.”
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