Chara didn't seem destined for the NHL. At 17 he was languishing in Junior B, using cracked hand-me-down sticks and wearing shin pads that were too short and shoulder pads that might as well have come from a Cracker Jack box. He played that season with a skate blade that was partially torn from the boot; he taped its ripped heel before each practice. Chara never made a junior national team, and he played only 15 games of major junior hockey, in Prague. Nevertheless, the New York Islanders liked his size and drafted him. "I was no prospect," he says. "When the Islanders picked me 56th in 1996, I was shocked."
He prepped for a possible pro career by moving to Western Canada at 19 and playing in juniors for a year in Prince George, B.C. The game suddenly came to him. The North American rinks, 3,000 square feet smaller than the international ice surfaces Chara was used to playing on, were ideally suited to his skills. Over the next two seasons he shuttled between the Islanders and the minors, content to play a minimalist game, safely shooting pucks off the glass to clear the zone. Former All-Star defenseman Brad McCrimmon, a New York assistant coach in 1997-98, would stay on the ice for 30 minutes after each practice and drill Chara on tape-to-tape passes.
Chara's progress was halting but so unmistakable that in June 2001 the Islanders were able to obtain scoring center Alexei Yashin from Ottawa for Chara and the No. 2 pick in that year's draft. Almost two years later not one general manager in hockey would trade Chara—an All-Star who will earn $1.75 million this season and $2 million in 2003-04—even-up for Yashin, an albatross who has eight years left on a $90 million contract and has been demoted to the Islanders' fourth line.
Chipping the puck off the glass might have worked on Long Island, but it was the last option on a deft team like Ottawa. For the first time in his career Chara was told to rush the puck when he had open ice. He was so keen on finishing checks that he would raise his arms to hit an opponent, but Jackson taught him to keep his stick on the ice to block passes while throwing a check. Last season Senators coach Jacques Martin started using Chara to create a human eclipse in front of the net on power plays because Chara has hands quick enough to deflect pucks, and a long reach for rebounds.
Chara scored 10 goals last year, four with a man advantage. Through Sunday he had seven goals and a career-high 31 points this season despite having missed eight games with a bruised chest. "He could have the same impact as [ St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris] Pronger because of his offensive abilities and physical presence," Jackson says. "He's that good and that tough."
The true measure of Chara's worth will be revealed next month, when Ottawa tries to prove it's a team that has the stomach for the playoffs. Chara, who has the stomach for everything, is big. For the Senators to be successful, he will have to be huge.