Ottawa Senators defenseman Zdeno Chara despises tall tales, so let's set the record straight.
He is 6'9", not 6'10" or even 6'11", as was reported on Hockey Night in Canada last season, when he seemed to have a weekly growth spurt.
As a child in Trencin, Slovakia, the only son of Zdenek and Viktoria Chara—who were 6'2" and 5'9", respectively, sizable but hardly Brobdingnagian—helped tend the family's animals. There were pigs, ducks and chickens, but no blue ox.
The Senators did not file for bankruptcy protection in January because they couldn't afford Chara's pregame meals. For lunch Chara does not eat, as captain Daniel Alfredsson says, "one of each. One chicken and one steak. Or two chickens and one steak and the pasta plus the rice."
Chara concedes that he has a healthy appetite, but he insists that his gourmandise is overblown. Anyway, a 255-pound boy needs sustenance. "I like facts," says Chara, who for lunch on this day has an oversized salad, a main course of fish with mashed potatoes and vegetables, and a brownie a la mode with Kahl�a drizzled on the ice cream. "I'm a guy who likes everything straight up."
When the 43-18-7-1 Senators, the NHL's No. 1 team through Sunday, see Chara ruling the corners, clearing the crease and occasionally screening the front of the net on the league's second-best power play, they see a player who is more straight-up than anyone else in the 86-year history of the NHL. Chara, hockey's tallest player ever, brings toughness to a team that in the spring usually turns as gritty as dentist's office music. Chara was sorely missed by Ottawa in the final two games of its second-round playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last May. He had sprained his left knee in Game 5, effectively ending his-and the Senators'—season. "Obviously his loss hurt us," says Ottawa assistant coach Don Jackson. "He's a dominating player."
Almost daily Chara is subjected to three questions: How tall are you? Do you play basketball? Were your parents tall? He has learned to react with amused detachment. "I was thinking of getting a hat that says, 6'9", NO, NO," he says. Once the shock of seeing a player of his size in the dressing room wears off, height seems to be the least intriguing thing about Chara. He is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, not a circus freak patrolling the blue line. He and his girlfriend, Tatiana, are taking a college course in finance and investment on the Internet; Chara keeps a dictionary at his side to help with unfamiliar economic terms. (English is his fifth language; he's also fluent in Slovak, Czech, Russian and German.) When he completes that course, he plans to study Spanish. The former stay-at-home defenseman also wants to travel to Africa and Japan. He has dabbled in painting and cooking and playing the drums. He likes films about nature. He reads motivational books such as Lance Armstrong's autobiography. "I took the finance course because I spend so much time on planes and in hotels, and I didn't want to be watching movies or playing cards all the time," he says. "I have time to read and learn. I want to do things."
For the 25-year-old Chara, who grew up under communism, life is all about expanding horizons and testing limits. To discover what those limits are, each summer he devotes one day of his maniacal training regimen to running uphill as hard and far as he can, literally to the point of collapse.
His father, a Greco-Roman wrestler for Czechoslovakia at the 1976 Olympics, today coaches the Slovakian national Greco-Roman team. He started training his son for a pro hockey career when Zdeno was 13. The boy worked out three times a day, running before breakfast, lifting in a makeshift weight room in the basement after breakfast and cycling at night. His father hung an iron bar across the branches of a tree in the yard; each time Zdeno passed that tree, he was expected to drop the buckets of water he carried to the garden and do 10 pull-ups. "Many times he pushed me so hard that I ended up crying," Zdeno says. "I would wonder why he was so mean to me, but I didn't understand what he was trying to do. He meant it in a good way."
Zdeno was always tall for his age and had outstanding mobility, but his sticklike body failed to intrigue shortsighted coaches. He didn't fit the mold of the slick, skilled Slovakian player. The nation of 5.4 million has produced NHL scoring stars—the Minnesota Wild's Marian Gaborik, the Los Angeles Kings' Ziggy Palffy, the Buffalo Sabres' Miroslav Satan and Chara's teammate Marian Hossa—but few elite defensemen.