Zdeno Chara’s father used to push him to the point of tears as he would train the growing teenager to become a professional hockey player. Now 36, the Team Slovakia captain returned the favor last week when he informed his father that the land in which he trained, and the country they had seen go through so much, had chosen him to be its flag bearer in next month’s Olympics.
It’s been a long time since Chara was a growing boy in a growing country. His formative years in Trencin included him experiencing a childhood under communism, the fall of a regime in the Velvet Revolution and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia amidst tension within the state. He hadn’t signed up for any of it, but it was the childhood he got, and the one that shaped him.
“Some people, a lot of people make fun of it,” Chara said Thursday. “There were times they were calling us communists, but it wasn't like -- we didn't have any choice. That was basically the only way to go. It wasn't something that we chose, especially the kids.”
Through it all, Chara wanted to play hockey, and maybe be an Olympian like his father.
He’ll realize that dream for a third time next month as he captains Slovakia’s team, but this time he’ll have the added honor of carrying his country’s flag at the opening ceremonies.
“Slovakia has been through a lot of changes the past 20, 25 years,” Chara said. “I'm just very proud to be a Slovak. It's a very small country, and for some people we are not very known. Hopefully, and especially through sports, we can be in more of the picture for those people who kind of don't know about Slovakia.”
A KID UNDER COMMUNISM
Chara was born in 1977, while Czechoslovakia was a communist state. Kids couldn’t be kids the way they can today. There wasn’t that leniency.
It was a tough time in which to grow up, but Chara got something out of it, and it’s perhaps the one thing (aside from the extra 11 inches he has on the average man his age) that he has over most other people: his dedication, a byproduct of a rigid social structure.
“It was different,” Chara said. “It was something that, when you look back, taught you a lot of discipline. There were a lot of rules that you couldn't avoid, and you had to follow.
“In some way, it was really good for us, because it taught you discipline, and always being on time, and always being humble and polite. In a way, it was a really good thing for us, but after, when the whole regime fell down, it was eye-opening for a lot of us, that there is a lot of things. You're free to do whatever you want almost.”
In school, Chara followed strict orders. No jeans. No gum. If you had a seat, you gave it up the minute someone older than you wanted it. There was no tolerance for the casual misbehavior encountered in your average school. If the children fell out of line, there were no notes sent home.
“Teachers were allowed to obviously use different ways to get your attention,” Chara said.
Both of Chara’s parents worked multiple jobs, something Chara recalls as being rather common back then. Chara’s father, an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, also worked at a cemetery, then as a masseuse and physiotherapist at a school for athletes. His mother was a hairdresser and later worked at a grocery store.
Communism also found its way onto the ice for Chara, where a regimented upbringing laid the foundation for the discipline with which Chara still trains. In fact, he thinks youngsters in his country now struggle with discipline while failing to appreciate newfound freedoms.
“It was really good, especially for kids,” Chara said. “These days, you see how it is, especially back home, and you just kind of wish, 'Ugh, gosh.' I kind of wish that some of the kids would experience some of the stuff. It would obviously make them more humble and appreciative of a lot of things, but that's the way it is.
“It's a new generation, and they maybe misbehave at times. For sure, some of it is not their fault. It's basically the way were raised up, growing up, but yeah. Sometimes you just wish.”
JEANS, FREEDOM AND UNCERTAINTY
In 1989, when Chara was 12, the Velvet Revolution came about and marked the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, but post-communist Czechoslovakia brought about its own uncertainties.
“You saw that a lot of people who were not doing well, all of a sudden they were rich,” Chara said. “They got all their estates back from the regime before, and then the other way around, the people who were kind of in power during the communist regime, they kind of lost all their power and were almost like nobodies. It was kind of a flip-flop, and you could see that a lot of businesses went to private owners.
“It was just a big change. All of a sudden people were allowed to wear jeans, and say whatever they wanted to say. So yeah, it was different.”
Things were different, but change wasn’t done. With tensions growing within the government, the country was on the verge of dissolution, with president Vaclav Havel choosing to resign rather than see it split. Frustration mounted and politicians took turns pointing the finger at one another. Within 25 months of the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia was dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
At that point, Chara was 14 and training tirelessly to become a professional athlete. By age 18, he had left Slovakia to play in Prague, where he was noticed by an Islanders scout, leading to his selection in the 1996 draft. Chara headed for North America and played a season in the WHL to prepare for his professional career, but the place he left behind still had traces of the old regime. With that came the risk of having to join the army.
“Through these changes I was just glad that I was away from that,” Chara said of leaving for Canada. “I was not in there and having to go through all those different things. For example, if I wouldn't have been drafted, I would have had to serve the mandatory army service, which early on was two years, and then they cut it shorter for 18 months, then 12 months, then nine months and then we had options to have it only volunteer army service, but before that it was mandatory.
“I know some guys that were drafted, and after the draft they flew back home to kind of celebrate the whole draft thing. Right away they got escorted to the army and had to serve. They were able to play hockey, but they were under the army restrictions and couldn't leave. That's why I chose to not go home after I was drafted.”
OLYMPICS IN HIS BLOOD
Zdenek Chara wrestled in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the year before his son, Zdeno, was born. He also coached Slovakia’s national team in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
As such, the Olympics have always meant a lot to Zdeno. In fact, he’s long enjoyed watching any sort of elite international competition, whether the World Championships or the Tour de France.
“He always talked about it whenever he had the chance, how special it is to be part of the Olympics and how, for most of the athletes, it's the peak of their careers just to be able to qualify for the Olympics,” Chara said of his father. “For sure, it's well-known, and there can't be anything better because you're part of something that only the best of the best are a part of.”
Having an Olympian in the family was both a good thing and a bad thing for Chara. The good was that he had someone in-house capable of training him and pushing him to fill out his growing body.
The bad was that it was torture.
“At times I felt he did it just to absolutely break me,” Chara said, “but later on I learned that it was only for good. Those kind of sessions and training things carried over to today. I'm very, very appreciative that we did that. It's not meant for every kid, but that's the way it was.”
Young Zdeno wanted to be a professional hockey player, and his father would train him as such. Over the years, Chara has given examples of the types of drills his father would make him do.
On Thursday, he shared another.
“We had this apartment building. It was about 15 floors,” Chara said. “We used to run that, and if I didn't make it in a certain time all the way up, I had to do it again. It got to the point where I was almost … It was very hard."
That, it seems, was one of the easy ones, as he won’t share the worst.
"I'm not even going there," he said with a laugh. "It's just -- at first, it would be really hard to really believe.”
Last week, Zdenek learned that those sessions in which his son was overworked, beaten, broken and crying and had already paid off in the form of two Olympic appearances and two Stanley Cup finals, had helped make him the face of their country in the sporting event his family valued so much.
“He was very proud. He was very excited,” Chara said. “He was very emotional.”
With good reason. In Sochi, a notion that seemed too audacious even to be a dream will come to fruition, with Chara not only serving as a member of his country's Olympic contingent but instead, in many ways, laying claim to the title of its most significant representative. It is an honor that represents the end product of a shared determination and commitment between father and son that has resulted in extraordinary and unexpected global accomplishments.