VANCOUVER -- As the abnormally large guy went past them on a bicycle, people walking along Causeway Street across from TD Garden in Boston craned their necks to follow the cyclist, then turned back to each other with a "Is that really ..." look.
Yes, it was Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara riding home from practice on an off-day during the Eastern Conference Finals. His bike might have his No. 33 emblazoned on it, but the 6-foot-9 Chara is pretty unmistakable on the streets in Bruins-mad Boston.
The tallest player in the NHL is now in the sport's biggest spotlight as captain of his team, which is in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990. How the Vancouver Canucks are able to navigate when the massive Chara is on the ice could go a long way to determining who goes home with the Cup.
"He's just a physically imposing figure out there," said Vancouver forward Chris Higgins, who has seen plenty of Chara in his career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers. "You get the puck and you see him and sometimes you can't see the rest of the rink because he's that big. He's turned himself into a hell of a defenseman. His skill set has really, really improved and obviously he's got an amazing shot so he presents a big challenge for us."
Chara broke into the NHL 13 years ago with the New York Islanders but blossomed into a star after being traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2001. Since joining the Bruins in the summer of 2006, Chara has taken another step forward and become one of the premiere defensemen in the world.
He won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and is a finalist for the award again next month. Chara has also become a fixture in the NHL All-Star Game. After making one appearance with Ottawa in 2003, he's represented the Bruins in the past four.
"He's a big boy," Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome said. "It is funny just skating around during warmups and seeing how big that guy is. It is kind of the same idea as Joe Thornton, only even bigger. It is amazing how well he moves for how big he is. He's a great player and we expect him to be good."
Added Boston defenseman Andrew Ference, who is listed at 5-foot-11: "It is comical when I'm out there for the [national] anthem with him because I'm staring into his elbow."
Chara played a big role in helping the Bruins keep Vancouver's top line off the scoreboard in Game 1. Daniel Sedin had a couple of good chances in the early going, but for the most part Chara and Dennis Seidenberg teamed up with Patrice Bergeron's line to keep the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows from creating the kind of havoc they caused San Jose in the Western Conference Finals.
"It's another challenge for us," Daniel Sedin said. "We've seen the top defensemen every game in the regular season and we're going to see probably the best one in the Final. That's the way it should be."
Added Vancouver forward Mason Raymond: "We've got to play him hard. We need to make him play in his own zone and turn back to get pucks -- just make him work. ... He's just a different breed almost. I think I've only played against Zdeno twice, but we were joking about how it's like when you are a kid playing hockey on the street and it is your dad that you're playing against with the tiny kid in the triangle beneath him. That's still kind of what it is like even though we're all adults. He's such a big man."
Chara has become a big hit at All-Star Games in part because of the show he puts on during the skills competition. He's able to generate a lot of power with his 255-pound frame, and Chara has defeated all challengers in the hardest shot contest. He established a new record in the event at the 2011 game in Raleigh, N.C. with a blast of 105.9 mph.
Boston's power play has been a tremendous problem for the Bruins during the playoffs. They have only scored 5 power-play goals in 19 games, and two of those of them came in 5-on-3 situations.
In an effort to help the team's work with the man advantage, the coaching staff has moved Chara from the point and positioned him at the top of the crease. It has become one of the most debated topics of the past two rounds of this postseason: Where should the Bruins put Chara on the power play to utilize his unique skills?
The idea with putting him in front of the opposing goaltender is pretty simple -- he's the largest guy on the ice so why not have him try to screen the goalie and cause problems for defensemen in front? The problem: By doing so, the Bruins lose his ability to hammer shots from the point.
"I'd prefer him to be in the box for a 10-minute misconduct and not have to worry about him," Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis said before the series started when asked which position he'd like to see Chara in. "He's a threat wherever he is on the ice. It'd be tough to deal with him there. You probably just trying to get to pucks before he can and not allow him to tip them as much as he can."
Added Chara: "Obviously it is different from being on the point. I think the main purpose of the whole thing is the same -- to be willing to do whatever it takes. All five guys have to do their jobs on the power play to be successful. Whatever position I'm in, I just try to do my best. I think it has got to be a commitment from everybody to be willing to do that job. It is not just on the power play -- obviously also 5-on-5 or whatever situation it is."
Those comments from Chara are particularly interesting. Phrases like "commitment" and "willing to do whatever it takes" are the expected chatter from a captain.
Chara was named Boston's captain the day he signed with the Bruins in July 2006. He's grown comfortable with the role, just as the team around him has grown from also-ran to Cup contender.
The paradoxical thing about Chara is he's really a gentle giant. It might be hard to believe that the guy who strikes fear into other players with his hard shot and ability to deliver crunching hits is not necessarily someone with a naturally nasty disposition. Part of Chara's development as a leader has been finding the right balance.
"I think he's found his comfort zone as far as the leadership goes with exerting himself and using his personality but doing it in a relaxed way and not trying to force things both on and off the ice," Ference said. "He's just been more natural. He's really been himself. More than trying to be a great captain, he's taken a step back and just been himself. I think that has made him a great captain.
"I've never been in that situation, but I can imagine it is a hard thing. Obviously his stature brings him recognition from everyone. Every time he's on the ice you know he's there. To be brought in and named captain of an Original Six team that was struggling at the time and wasn't very revered in the city -- that's a hard position to be put into. He's really come around and become a real strong leader."
Chara said becoming a leader has been a learning process.
It's something you have to be born with. I think it's something you have to have in you. It's not something you just learn," he said. "You learn on the way to be a captain. You also have to have some kind of instinct, be born with some kind of leadership skills. Obviously using some advice, things [along] the way you learn. I think most importantly you just have to be yourself."