Tomas Tatar resorted to size-ism to identify the two Z’s in his life, because he got tired of wondering whether it was his Red Wings teammate or his Slovak teammate calling.
Zdeno Chara — towering captain of the Boston Bruins — became “big Z,” while Henrik Zetterberg — ailing captain of the Red Wings — remained simply Z.
When the first-round series between these Original Six clubs — who haven’t met in the playoffs in 57 years — begins Friday, the Bruins are favored to win, and Chara is, literally, a huge reason why. He has talent to match his 6-foot-9 frame, a height unheard of in hockey — and one best approached with humor.
Take, for example, Wings coach Mike Babcock’s reply Tuesday when asked about Chara.
“When he stands in between the hash marks in his own zone,” Babcock said, “he has one foot on one hash and one foot on the other hash, and he can reach your blue line.”
And when Chara stands in front of one’s net, “he’s a massive human being,” said goaltender Jimmy Howard, a former University of Maine star.
The Wings can’t carry slingshots in their gloves when they face Chara, so the effective countermeasure is speed. The Wings have it this spring — former UMaine standout Gustav Nyquist called it “one of our biggest strengths” — and that’s why playing with structure will be crucial.
“You only have speed if you execute,” Babcock said. “If you don’t execute, you have no speed. So their focus will be to take our speed away by getting on the forecheck and making sure we can’t execute. And our focus will be first-time execution, so we can have speed, so we can play in their zone.”
Babcock called Chara — certain to be a finalist in June for what could be a second Norris Trophy — a better person and leader than player, the sort “you build franchises around.” Tatar calls Chara a friend.
The two have crossed paths as fellow Slovaks, with 37-year-old Chara serving as mentor to 23-year-old Tatar. To Tatar’s joy, the Wings moving to the Eastern Conference has meant four dates with the Bruins. After every one — the one the Wings lost, the three times the Wings won — Tatar has sought out his friend.
“I was asking for him to give me advice, especially the first games, and what he thinks,” Tatar said. “Sometimes we obviously notice each other when we are playing. I see he’s there, or I’m up on his side on the blue line. It’s fun to play and challenge my friend. I respect him so much.”
Tatar joined Chara at the Sochi Games this year, relishing the opportunity to be an Olympic teammate for their native Slovakia.
“I realize how big he is for a team and how much power he can give you and how much speed,” Tatar said. “He’s a great leader. I learn lots from him, from just being around him. He’s the kind of guy who says stuff at the right moment. He won’t talk too much, but when he has to say something, it’s always something big and meaningful.”
Tatar — a good foot shorter than Chara — said nothing could happen in the playoffs to test their friendship: “If he hits me or something, I would never get mad on him off the ice.”
Maybe make him pay for dinner, though, as plans are brewing to share a meal.
Tatar spoke at length about how much Chara means to him, but an anecdote from Zetterberg was just as revealing about Chara’s character.
When Zetterberg left Sochi on an NHL charter following the quarterfinals, Chara was on board, his Slovakian team having been ousted in that round. News of Zetterberg’s impending back surgery had dominated Olympic headlines, leaving Sweden without their captain. Chara spotted Zetterberg carrying a bag and rushed to ease the burden.
“When we flew home from the Olympics,” Zetterberg said, “I was walking out and I had a backpack with me. He said, ‘No, you’re not carrying that.’ And he carried it for me.”
Now the Wings want to send the Bruins packing, and would be happy to help a great guy like Chara with his luggage.
Distributed by MCT Information Services