Bruins’ Zdeno Chara unfazed by Maple Leafs knockdowns

The Toronto Maple Leafs scored two goals in the third but couldn’t finish off the comeback as they fell to the Boston Bruins 6-4 in Game 4.

BOSTON – Zdeno Chara has very little interest in discussing the game, but he has all the time in the world if you’d like to talk about The Game.

When the TV cameras form a semicircle around Chara’s goalie-sized dressing room stall and aim skyward to gather the Slovakian giant’s pre- and post-win thoughts on the series, the tactics, his game-winner, the stoic defenceman’s quotes are so brief, so vanilla, so devoid of insight, they’re instantly rendered unusable. (Juiciest soundbite: “We kept the lead throughout the whole game.”)

This is certainly no reflection of the man’s intelligence. (He has a grasp of nine languages; I can name nine Wu-Tang members.) Nor is it indicative of a waning interest.

For when the cameras turn and the crowd thins and the conversation steers away from X’s and O’s and Brad Marchand’s compete level, toward something more personal, more compelling, Chara’s guard drops and he lets you in, a little, but only at arm’s length.

“I’m really passionate about the game. I love competing. I love winning. I love creating the camaraderie,” Chara says. He’s in a thoughtful mood, explaining why he’s still here, trying to prevent kids half his age from driving the net.

“It’s something that’s in me. I’m a proud guy, and I love doing all the preparation for the games, for the season in the summer. I love working out. I love being fit. Live healthy. I’m enjoying it. I’m glad I’m still able to play and be in the league and be part of this great game and playing with and against the best players in the world.”

Big Z is feeling nostalgic for the days he was something under six-foot-nine. He reminds you he was raised behind an Iron Curtain under Communist regime. That, as a kid in Trencin playing without access to jeans let alone American television, he had no NHL dreams because he wasn’t allowed to know the NHL existed.

“We had two channels growing up. Channel 1, Channel 2, and that was it. That’s just the way it was,” he says.

So, young Zdeno and his friends would play outside until it grew too dark to see the ball. Basketball, tennis ball, volleyball, road hockey ball, soccer ball—didn’t matter. He believes the variety (don’t forget swimming and gymnastics) made him agile, occupied.

“We didn’t have to worry about cellphones and computers. We were just spending our time in playgrounds, playing with other kids, playing games, and we all loved it,” Chara says.

“It’s hard these days to tell the kids to go outside. They play games, but it’s on computers, phones. I loved that era when we were kids and played outside. That’s where you create memories and friendships. The real thing.”

When the wall crumbled and American culture seeped in, young Chara’s first taste of major U.S. highlight were the NBA. He adored the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. He flashes a smile as wide as his wingspan recalling how fiercely he wanted to touch the rim. “We all wanted to dunk. That was the biggest thing.”

Zdeno’s father, Zdenek, is a 10-time national Greco-Roman wrestling champion who had no issues passing his love of athletics forward. When his wife was pregnant with Zdeno, Zdenek flew to Montreal to compete in the 1976 Summer Games but broke a thumb in qualifying and never got to find out just how good he was.

“He was very talented,” assures Chara. He idolized his dad, spent hours hanging around the gym with him, and still incorporates wrestling into a unique off-season regimen that includes riding the Tour de France course, studying real estate, and eating nothing but plants.

If he never fell in love with hockey, the future Hall of Famer would surely have pursued another sport.

“I’m sure you’re probably expecting basketball, but I think I would be following in the footsteps of my father, I would probably be in some sort of Greco-Roman, karate, judo, or some sort of martial-arts sport,” Chara says.

“We used to have wrestling matches in here,” he says, looking around the Bruins room. “We don’t wrestle anymore.”

Did he ever tussle with Marchard?

“I would be a little bit worried about going with Marchy,” Chara chuckles. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Unless Matt Cullen, who’s four months Chara’s senior and whose Penguins were swept this week, re-signs in free agency, 42-year-old Zdeno Chara will assume the mantle of oldest active NHLer, starting yesterday. (Chara, too, was bound for the market, until he accepted a $3 million pay chop three weeks ago and re-upped for a modest $2 million, plus $1.75 million in performance bonuses for 2019-20.)

The tallest.

The smartest.

The healthiest.

The most interesting.

Now, the oldest.

The Boston Bruins’ captain, “backbone” (Marchand’s word) and “rock” (Patrice Bergeron’s word) celebrated by scoring the critical Game 4 winner in Toronto, a seeing-eye point wrister he rightly credits to Bergeron’s screen job. The shot restored home-ice advantage, knotted this Maple Leafs series at two games apiece, and snapped a league record: oldest defenceman to register a playoff game-winning goal.

The goal also arrived mere hours after Chara had been nominated for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community. Chara’s most recent humanitarian act: resisting the urge to dummy Nazem Kadri in Game 3.

“They’re trying to find ways to expose him,” coach Bruce Cassidy says. “He’s trying to adapt to the new NHL and has. Not only is he hard, but he’s smart. He’s a very intelligent man, and he’s figured out a way to keep playing this game.”

The highlights make it look like they’re getting to him now, that Father Time has clawed back a lead.

“He can’t be the physical, dominant guy where he’s just smothering the Sedin twins like he did eight years ago,” Andrew Raycroft, who played for both teams, told The Jeff Blair Show Thursday.

In this series, Toronto’s Trevor Moore, Zach Hyman and Tyler Ennis — smaller, faster, younger packages — have all collided with Big Z and watched him tumble. (“Doesn’t matter,” Chara says. “That’s playoff hockey.”) His slower feet have cost him a pair of minor penalties.

“Most times you go to hit him, you end up on the more-pain side, so the fact guys are willing to get out of their shell and let him know we’re not just gonna back off is a vote of confidence for them and a great sign for the rest of the team,” Leafs defenceman Travis Demott says. “We don’t have to back down.”

And yet, going into the 1,649th game of his career, Chara co-leads the Bruins with a plus-3 rating and has more goals for his team than a flashy burner like Kasperi Kapanen has for his. The 42-year-old isn’t backing down either.

“The greatest thing about as you get older and you’ve learned through all the minuses you’ve had in your career, you learn where to stand, you learn where to put your stick,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock says.

“He’s got the longest stick in hockey and knows how to win.”

To those who only see what the camera catches, Chara appears like a man in decline. Inside Boston walls, however, he’ll always be the one you don’t want to wrestle.

“He just keeps doing it. It’s been going on for years,” Bergeron says.

“Everyone wants to try to take a shot at him, but it’s never really fazed him — and he’s going to give it right back. That’s who he is. He’s a competitor.”

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