Saturday, February 13, 2010

Zdeno Chara Jersey Card

The Olympics are upon us, finally. I just hope the refs fare better than they do in this current NHL regular season so far and let the talent shine through.

I'll be coming up with the usual stars from the usual teams (think Russia, Sweden and Canada, maybe a bit of Team USA if the right guy steps up or if I find my Ryan Miller memorabilia in time) when they give me a reason to with their play on the ice, but I wanted to start off with a guy who is the centerpiece of his country's defense, and one that I predict will have a top-4 finish - Team Slovakia, and Zdeno Chára. Despite an apparent lack of depth when compared to the Big Five (the previously-named 4 countries and the Czech Republic), a team that has Marian Hossa up front (or his brother Marcel), Chára on defense and a hot Jaroslav Halak in nets can accomplish almost anything, except perhaps beat Russia in a gold medal game. But anything else is definitely a possibility.

Chára was always Slovakia's best hope on defense, but he wasn't always seen as a sure-shot NHL star. For starters, he was chosen in the third round (56th overall) of the 1996 NHL draft, by the lowly New York Islanders at that (in comparison, my hometown Canadiens chose both Matt Higgins - yes, Matt, not Chris - and decent goalie Mathieu Garon ahead of him, and Arron Asham in round three). The Isles themselves had chosen Jean-Pierre Dumont and Dan LaCouture before him.

But the Islanders have a shady reputation in choosing players personnel; as a matter of fact, ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups in the mid-1980s, even the good choices they made were sent packing for terrible choices in what is known in hockey circles as the 'Crazy' Mike Milbury era that has seen him trade away six (6!) top-2 defensemen, the second-best goalie in the world for the past 5 years (Roberto Luongo), and the equivalent of three (!) complete first lines to get very little in return.

Chára's trade was just more of the same: at the 2001 NHL draft, the 6'9'', 255-pound behemoth was sent to the Ottawa Senators along with utility player Bill Muckalt and a second-overall pick that ended up being Jason Spezza for washed-up, big-contract has-been Alexei Yashin, whom they made captain right away, to make matters worse. In doing so, the Islanders acquired the Sens' problem child while giving them a 100-point #1 center to play with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, and a first-pairing defenseman to play with Wade Redden in all situations - 5 on 5, 4 on 4, powerplay, and shorthanded.

It was as a Senator that Chára became recognized as the league's strongest man. Being the tallest and heaviest player in the league does have its perks, but when you can back it up with the hardest and quickest slap shot, you're starting to get a decent overall game going. Add skating speed that is average or better and he becomes more than just a passing threat, and when he decided he kind of liked dropping the gloves and fighting, he became a force to be reckoned with.

For the first half the the 2000s, Ottawa was the team to beat in the East, despite only reaching the Cup finals once. And each year, Chára's talents became more and more recognized. Keep in mind that these are the Nicklas Lidstrom years, arguably the best defenseman of all time (and even those who disagree can attest that he may be a top-3 of all time), so at the end of any given year, Lidstrom's name is on the ballot for the Norris trophy, as is perennial runner-up (and once a winner), Scott Niedermayer. With only one nominee spot remaining and a full league of talent to choose from, you could still count Chára among the 6 to 10 candidates to be in nomination in any given year, which in itself is quite a feat; he was, indeed, nominated in 2003-04.

At the end of the 2005-06 season, the Sens had a very difficult choice to make: with three top-flight forwards making a ton of money each, they could only keep one of Chára or Redden under the salary cap; in retrospect, they have made the wrong choice by going with Redden, who is now with the New York Rangers. Chára then went to free agency and signed with division rivals Boston Bruins, and was made their captain, becoming only the third Slovak to be named captain of an NHL team (after Peter Stastny of the Québec Nordiques, and Stan Mikita of the Chicago Blackhawks).

As a Bruin, Chára has thrice represented his team at the All Star game (once as starter), and broke the record for the fastest shot, clocking in at 105.4 mph (170 km/h). And last year, his solid play even garnered him not a nomination, but the actual James Norris trophy as the league's best defenseman, ahead of Lidstrom and Mike Green.

He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and speaks five languages (Slovak, German, Swedish, English and Russian). He is unstoppable. I never thought he'd actually ever win a Norris, so when you add that to all his other accomplishments, you figure a Grammy-winning album, and Oscar-winning documentary and a clothing line for giants can't be far along the way, maybe even a cure for cancer.

This card (#CT-ZC) shows him in a red Senators jersey and is from Upper Deck's 2005-06 Ice set, the Cool Threads (get it? ''Ice'', ''cool''...) sub-set and has more than tripled in value in the past year alone, going from a ''common'' card ($10) to a ''star'' card ($35). Not that I wish a Bruin would continue winning awards or anything... but a silver medal would be nice.

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