By Mary Paoletti
Zdeno Chara's captaincy is being questioned. I say this and he immediately jumps in.
"Are they?" he asks.
My stomach drops at the reaction. He really doesn't know.
That statement, the preface to a longer question, causes his eyebrows to rise. He doesn't laugh, doesn't roll his eyes. No flash of recognition in his face betrays an insecurity found out. Chara sets his jaw and waits patiently for his chance to speak.
"Maybe some people are not believing in me being the right captain or they are questioning my leadership,'' he says. "I think I am the right captain."
So? What of the mob spitting beer-soaked disdain in his direction?
"I can't really control what they're saying. It's their opinion,'' he says. "But when I came here I really took over as captain when the team was at the lowest of the low. Maybe a lot of people forget that the team was out of the playoffs. They didn't really have anybody as a leader. Joe was young and he was one of the best players in the league, but as a leader maybe he wasn't as good. When you look at what's happened in the last four years, where the team went from five years ago, four years ago, to where we are now, I think we are going in the right direction.''
"Joe," of course, is former Bruins captain Joe Thornton. Like Chara, Jumbo Joe shouldered a terribly heavy mantle of expectations when that "C" was stitched onto his sweater. Apparently, that's the only thing they share.
"I think Joe and I are totally two different people. I know Joe a little bit but I think a lot of things are different as far as my training, diet and the way I work out...the way I act with the guys,'' he says.
It's understandable Chara would put distance between himself and his predecessor.
More of Mary Paoletti's 1-on-1 interview with Zdeno Chara.
The trade of the team's leading scorer was an ugly move for the then-struggling Bruins, summed up well by the talented center's departing words. "We haven't been winning. Whose fault is that? I'm not sure," the blindsided Thornton blustered, "but I'm out of here so it must be mine."
It's no secret that the individual stock of a player can rise and fall with his team's record. For a captain, it's unavoidable. Especially in light of the B's historic and humiliating loss to Philly.
"People do get frustrated,'' Chara says. "They are very passionate about it and they want to win. They've been waiting a long time for it. We all want to win as much as our fans, but for sure, it's not all blaming the captain for it. Sometimes you could have a great captain but you might not be winning. Sometimes the captain might not do a good job but the team is winning and everybody thinks he's great, but that's not the case.''
"I think I'm doing a good job as a captain,'' he says again.
The phrase isn't repeated as a part of a convoluted psychology to convince himself, to convince me. It is a simple statement of what he believes is fact. Chara likes facts. He is an information gatherer, what he calls an "organized person." And it's in this analytical realism of his, a brand that's lined with the emotions of a competitor, that lead him to a basic conclusion: You think things are bad now? Look where you were without me.
"It's heartbreaking that we lost in that way, Game Seven, second round. But it's progress. It's not something that's gonna happen overnight. Sometimes it takes teams, to win, many years. But I think we're going in the right direction. Being a leader . . . it's something that would be such a great feeling, to bring the Cup back to Boston. To the fans.''
Patience is all he asks. But that's a tall order for a city that has been waiting, not just since Chara got here five years ago, but since 1972.
Zee is more disciplined about patience. If there is a chip on his shoulder it's because his rise to didn't come quickly or easily. Chara battled methodically to get here.
He was told ad nauseum throughout his teenage years that he would ''never make it'' as a hockey player. This battle wages on still -- however more peripherally -- in his words. Chara has been a part of the NHL system for 14 years. But when he talks about it, he doesn't talk about the simple joy of skating onto the ice or a connection he feels for the sport itself. He talks about his embrace of pressure and his will to win.
Zdeno's Chara father talks with CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty
"It's been like that since a very young age. I really was up to challenges. If somebody told me, 'You cannot do it,' I always try my hardest, do my best to prove them wrong. You know, when I was pretty young I was assistant captain my fourth year in the league and then I was assistant captain for five years in Ottawa, then, obviously, I came here,'' he says.
"Knowing Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli helped too. But I think Peter knew at that point that serving as an assistant captain, being in that leadership role for the past seven, eight years made me accountable and responsible to a team."
Is the title restrictive? Does it, at times, feel like a hand around his throat, squeezing when he wants to tell an unfocused teammate to just piss off?
"I think that there is a right timing and place for it,'' he says. "You have to have a feel for the team. You can't be always screaming or always being nice guy. You have to really know how to read the feeling of the team.''
It is fascinating to watch Chara talk about his team. For a guy rumored to be protected at best, dour at worst, there shines an intensity and passion in his eyes when describing the logistics of navigating an NHL locker room. Example? Training regiments. Chara is obsessive by his own word. So one would assume that it's maddening for him to see any of his troops do less.
"Not everybody's meant to, or not everybody can, push themself as hard as you can,'' he counters. "Everybody grew up in different circumstances and some guys have way more talent than maybe I have, so I have to replace that part with the work ethic I am having to put into it. You have star players in the league that, they put skates on and they just fly. So if that guy was working as hard as I am, maybe he wouldn't be as good. Maybe he would be too muscular, you know? So you can't blame them, even if you would like to see them work as hard.''
"You have to understand that we all, 25 or sometimes more guys, come from different parts of the world, different cultures. We all come together and go toward the same goal. So you have to respect each other. You have to have that mix on a team where this guy's a hard worker, this guy is really skilled, this guy is really good at blocking shots. That's what makes a team, all the complimentary things come together.''
It's like a chess match. While they all commit to performing on the ice, Chara has another game to play. It is on the captain more than anyone else to pilot between demanding excellence and respecting different styles.
"If you tell somebody, 'Hey, you have to pick it up,' or 'You have to do this better,' or 'You need to play at this level,' that's the business. And you need to understand that it's not personal, that we all want to perform, we all want to win. If I don't perform you have all the right to tell me even though I'm a captain. That openness or that communication has to be there without any barriers or being too sensitive.
"If somebody needs to be told that, 'You can do it better,' and you have to make sure it's done in a positive way, you can't just always be negative -- you have to do that. But I try to be as positive as possible. And you have to read who can be approached in front of everybody and who can't. Somebody, if you do that, it brings the best out of him. But if you do that to somebody maybe next to him, it might go totally the other way and he might not perform for another two, three days.''
Who realizes this balancing act commanded by captaincy? That final compilation on the ice is the only thing the fans see. So when the Bruins get bounced from the playoffs prematurely, well . . . the captain should be tougher, right?
He should have unleashed a fury of bone-crushing hits and 105-mph slapshots. It must be that simple.
"No,'' Chara says. "I can be doing that but then I won't be doing the other things. My number one job right now is playing on the stop line and preventing them from scoring goals. If I was sitting in the penalty box I don't think I could do that. Doing everything is not going to help. You have to focus on playing your game and playing the right way.''
Take over? Dominate? He could.
"If try to do everything -- and trust me, I can do everything: I can score, I can pass, I can hit, I can fight -- but if I try to do everything in every game, I mean, that would be impossible,'' he says.
"You have to have to read how you're going to approach every situation. Because if you keep going and finish everybody's checks then they might score. Again, if I fight every second night and be in the penalty box for five or ten, fifteen minutes, again, I'm giving the other teams chances to get some power plays, to score and get some goals. For sure, if you're a big guy then they're expecting that. But I'm not just a big guy. I think I can bring everything to the table and I have to be smart about it.''
Chara was not so wise until the end of 2006-07. His first season in Black and Gold was disappointing; the B's finished last in the division and their new captain owned a dismal -21 plusminus rating. Chiarelli said that Chara was trying to do too much. Big Z agrees.
"Coming to a new team and being captain you try your best and try your heart out every night and do everything. And some nights I was trying to finish checks, I was trying to play the puck, I was trying to lead the rushes, trying to be . . . everything,'' he says.
That's not his game.
This is his game. He is the centerpiece in the NHL's stingiest defense (second and first in goals allowed per game in the last two years, respectively). A player who, on October 2, was called the toughest competitor in the NHL by Alexander Ovechkin. Teammates Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr echoed Washington's captain.
But it's a wasted anecdote. The misperception between on-ice expectations and reality is for athletes to understand, not armchair GMs throwing remotes against the wall about the 37.5 million captain after another loss.
"That pressure is there all the time. Really. It doesn't matter if you're here or in any other city. The pressure to win and perform is always there, but that is just the norm. I think it goes with the territory of being a professional. We are under such a microscope that they basically analyze it and write about it and they talk about it. We are always under somebody's eyes.''
The eyes are often unsympathetic. Whatever. He gets it.
"Sometimes they only see the money. They don't see the sacrifice,'' the captain muses. "But it's hard. It's not easy when you're playing hurt or when you when have to constantly train, you can't eat whatever you want,'' he says.
"And I'm not complaining.''
Chara smiles as if anticipating my reaction. So-called sacrifices of the multimillion dollar athlete. Plenty of people do it. Even the ones who say he isn't overrated will say they think Chara's overpaid.
But for him, the money is a benefit realized because of his innate drive.
"I love it. I love being always being under that schedule. And I would still be even if I stopped playing hockey, I would always want to eat and live well and be healthy,'' he says. "But I don't know if many people can realize the pressure of always being on some schedule or if they would like it. It takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of dedication, a lot of focus. It should be a professional athlete is not just collecting big check.''
It could be the case with Zdeno Chara. But without a Stanley Cup raised over his head, people probably don't care. Until then, fans will question his moves without knowing why he makes them and they'll question his heart without knowing how hard it beats, for as long as he's captain.
Chara now knows that people doubt him. It's a good thing for the Bruins -- the best thing -- that he doesn't agree.