Sunday, December 11, 2005

The emergence of The Chara

Matt from The Battle of Alberta brings us this tidbit on Zdeno Chara:
Chara. Wow. What a player. Redden wasn't playing tonight, but I find it impossible to believe that he could be as important to the Sens at Chara. (And I love Harry Neale's interesting and meaningful compliment: "He is the most improved player I've ever seen.")
I was watching the game last night with one of my cohorts (a Leafs fan), and we had an extended discussion about the 6-foot-9 Senators defenceman. More on that in a bit.

Now, I've been watching Chara since when he came over from Slovakia as a horribly gangly 19-year-old to join the WHL's Prince George Cougars for the 1996-97 season.

Playing on their blueline with Eric Brewer, Chara had been drafted that summer by the Islanders in the 3rd round and could best be described as a 'project.' Much much skinnier than he is now (I'd say at least 40 pounds less than the 260 he is listed at now) and part of the reason the NHL club sent him to play junior in the northern B.C. city was to bulk up and learn the grittier parts of the North American game.

He didn't have a problem with either, eating his heart out and fighting some of junior hockey's tougher thugs (including the Kamloops Blazers' Rob Skrlac).

(I can't find a link for this anecdote, but bear with me while I quickly recount the details. As with most junior hockey players, Chara was billeted with a family in PG while he played with the team. The amount of food he consumed at the home was so high that the team had to repay the billet family the equivalent food allowance of two players just to feed Chara. In one case, the billets had prepared a roast for the whole family to enjoy, and Chara ate the entire thing himself. I'll dig through the newspaper library later to find the exact story.)

Now, I don't know if it's because he plays the game the way an extremely tall, lanky guy (like myself) should, but I've always been a fan of Chara. His emergence as one of the NHL's best players has been amazing, especially for those who saw his awkward early days in junior hockey. At that point, one would have thought he would have had a servicable career as a tough-as-nails fourth or fifth defenceman (which was basically the role he filled with the Islanders for the 3.5 seasons he was there).

OK, so I'm a fan (and I'm really surprised to see I've barely written about him the past year). My cohort? Not so much.

Our discussion last night went somewhat like so:

"He's only good because he's big."

Me: "And Iginla's good because of his strength and speed. And Jagr's good because he has a ridiculously powerful lower body." etc. etc.

Anyway, enough of that. The thing is, there are very, very few NHLers over say, 6-foot-3, that can be considered elite players (I may make a list and post it later on). Hockey's a game that simply requires too much speed and agility for someone who isn't truly a gifted athlete, and I think at Chara's size, the fact that he's such a dominating force out there is so much more impressive.

During yesterday's Minnesota-Philadelphia game, one of the play-by-play guys was recounting a conversation he had with the Wild's Derek Boogard, another 'giant' at 6-foot-7. The announcer said he asked the 23-year-old Boogard at what point did he feel he had grown into his massive frame enough to use it at the NHL level. "Last year," Boogard replied.

Chara's 28 now, and without question, has grown into his frame in the past few seasons. Leafs fans may groan when his name is mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate, but Chara simply does so many things well and makes it so tough for the opposition to play against him that I can't imagine a scenario where he doesn't win at least one in his career.

Score one for hockey giants from PG to Trencin (and elsewhere).

(Speaking of which, the last hockey stick I bought, the salesman called it 'The Chara'. How could I not buy it after that?)


At 12:00 a.m., December 12, 2005, Anonymous David Johnson said...

The thing is, there are very, very few NHLers over say, 6-foot-3, that can be considered elite players (I may make a list and post it later on).

Not sure about that.

Joe Thornton 6'4"
Eric Staal 6'3"
Dany Heatley 6'3"

That's 3 of the top 5 scorers in the NHL so far this season. And Jagr is no small guy at 6'2", 230lbs. And Spezza, the other top 5 scorer is 6'2" as well. The top 5 scorers in the league average 6'3". And of course Mario Lemieux is one of the top 2 or 3 players ever and he is 6'4".

Other players 6'3" or taller include:

Mike Modano
Brendan Shanahan
Olli Jokinen
Vincent Lecavalier
Mats Sundin
Glen Murray
Chris Pronger
Eric Lindros
Jason Allison
Rick Nash
Alexei Yashin
Miroslav Satan
Todd Bertuzzi
Joni Pitkanen (potential future Norris Trophy winner)

There are some pretty skilled people in that group.

At 12:55 a.m., December 12, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

I should have said over 6-foot-4, but I didn't want to be unreasonable.

In any event, the only players you list that are actually "over 6-foot-3" are Thornton, Lecavalier, Pronger and Nash. Is that it in the NHL? (Lemieux is a good point. He's also amazing for how big and how good he is.)

Weight's not a factor in what I'm talking about here — Jagr can weigh 300 pounds and it doesn't matter. It's sheer physical height that limits a lot of things in elite athletes, mainly flexibility and coordination (something that makes huge goalies completely amazing to me). As you push past the 6-foot-4s guys, it really thins out. Hockey isn't basketball.

There's a real gap between Chara and the next non-goon-type player in the NHL, which I think, in itself makes him special.

In any event, 6-foot-3 isn't tall, especially in the context of the NHL where the average player is two inches shorter than that. Guys like Nash and Sundin, both pushing 6-foot-5, seem like freaks of nature. What that makes Chara — I don't know.

At 10:45 a.m., December 12, 2005, Anonymous David Johnson said...

I will accept that big players are generally less agile but I have my doubts that the group of NHL players 6'4" and above have a significantly lower percentage of elite players than the league in general.

Of the 72 forwards and defensemen who are on team Canada's list of 81 possible olympic players, 10 are 6'4" or taller. That's 13.9%. Are 13.9% of all NHLers 6'4" or taller? I have my doubts.


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