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  • Zacha set for bigger Bruins role after unique upbringing helped him become pro Center followed father's program from young age

Zacha set for bigger Bruins role after unique upbringing helped him become pro Center followed father's program from young age

He plucked texts from the shelves of the medical and pedagogical facilities at the university in Brno, Czech Republic, books about tennis stars Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova. Pavel Zacha was 38 years old, not yet the father of the future NHL player named after him, but his mind was already whirring, as he picked up Arnold Schwarzenegger's book "Arnold's Fitness for Kids, Ages Birth to Five."



He ruminated on what the world would look like in 30 years, on how to marry health and happiness and success, knowing that he himself had always been happiest while playing sports. He thought about his other children, both girls, both athletic, and how he would raise this one differently, with purpose.

He studied the resumes of sports stars and artists and musicians, trying to search out commonalities from their childhoods, piecing together the ideal program, identifying tricks and tips and methods, constructing a future that would start at birth -- or, really, before.

His son, too, would play sports. He would make sure of that.

"I managed to convince my wife of this untraditional intention, which was absolutely crucial," the father wrote to NHL.com last spring. "Before Pavel was born, I already had all the conditions prepared."

The son, his destiny decided, was born on April 6, 1997.

They would name him Pavel.

The younger Zacha grew up knowing no other life.

"Since a young age, he had told me that I have to be a professional in some sport," the Boston Bruins center said of his father. "It was kind of like, 'OK, you can choose which one you want to do, but you have to be the best at it.'"

Zacha gets a chance to prove that now, to move up in the ranks, to fulfill a father's dreams, as he has in front of him the best opportunity of his professional career. With the retirements of the Bruins' top two centers, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, during the offseason, a position in the top six is there for him to take.

Zacha will get every chance to prove he belongs beginning with the Bruins this season. He had three shots on goal in 16:42 of ice time on a 3-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday. The Bruins next play Saturday at home against the Nashville Predators (7 p.m. ET; BSSO, NESN).

"The opportunity is huge here," Zacha said. "I think that's one of the reasons when I was traded here, it was like, learn as much as you can from the probably the top two two-way centermen in the League. I had the chance to play with them and then [this] opportunity showed up. I think that's something that's a little bit more pressure, but that's what every player wants to do.

"I think I got a great opportunity last year, but this year to take it to the next step is huge."

Getting here, though, started from the first moment young Pavel opened his eyes.

"I even thought it was possible to get kids used to moving and sport even earlier, almost since their birth," the father wrote, noting that his daughters started the program at 8 and 10, which he later deemed far too late. "And I found out there were no boundaries to it. I've created my own structure of upbringing where sports would merge with music, languages, being outdoors, painting or building blocks from toy kits all the time so that it was varied and interesting for the kid and the kid could develop and get better all the time."

Later, he would name it Kameveda

Pavel and wife Ilona dedicated themselves to their son, who was a happy baby. The father built a small gym for him when he was 5 months old and delighted when he started walking at 9 months. Before his third birthday, he required a second bike because he had already destroyed his first.

On a typical day, father and son would finish breakfast and head outside to the sports playground to ride scooters and in-line skates, to play tennis and ballgames, to run and jump. There was soccer, 1-on-1, or the father would act as the goalie in hockey games.

They usually finished with archery before heading back inside for imaginative painting and singing, accompanied by a guitar.

The ice rink was next, for skating or skills.

After lunch, the next stop was a nature reserve, biking and wading through the river, climbing trees and rocks, cooking on a campfire.

There were Legos and English practice.

pavel lego


There was work with a hockey club or tennis club, some rest, some time with his grandfather. In the winter, he would finish the day with 70 minutes of skiing or snowboarding in the evening.

He was 3

"Obviously I did not have a clue at the beginning about how far he would get in sports but I stopped worrying about his performance quite soon," the father wrote, noting that his son was routinely competing against older kids -- and besting them.

When he was 4, the family added basketball and soccer to the tennis and hockey clubs he was a part of, added athletics and karate. By the time he was 12, they would whittle the sports back down to his two best, his two favorites, tennis and hockey.

"I watched which sport he likes the most and each one also gave him something to his total sports potential," the father wrote. "It was tough but this is the healthiest approach for the kid because he is not overloaded one-sidedly but his development is compact, balanced and complex."

"From [when he was 8 years old], we started to travel abroad, and everything started to get even more adventurous. People told me he would be fed up with sports but the truth was the opposite.

"In all those years, he never said he did not want to go to practice or to a game. And even nowadays, he never misses an optional practice in the NHL."

The family had moved not long after Zacha was born from Brno to Velke Mezirici, where his father was from, for the fresh air and the healthy living. Then, at 12, Zacha and his father moved again, to Liberec, for Zacha to join the Bili Tygri Hockey Club, while Ilona remained home making money for the family with his sisters.

His dad was the only dad watching every practice, the only dad tossing his kid a protein shake after it was over, the only dad cooking meals so healthy they at times verged on inedible. ("We got in fights a couple times because I couldn't eat it," the younger Zacha said. "He got mad, so he tried it and he just threw it out because you couldn't even put it in your mouth. He got better.")

"When I planned all this, I considered this the highest sacrifice a father could give to his child," the father wrote. "One has to completely ignore his own ego and put his child to the absolute top of all actions and family values.

"And when our son went to the [Canadian Hockey League] one day, the next day all this was suddenly over and I realized I had just passed the most interesting part of my life."

The story is well known in Czech Republic, both from Zacha's fame and from the books his father has written on the topic, something that Czech legend and former teammate Patrik Elias said was controversial in the country.

When that word is mentioned to Zacha, he readily agreed.

"Oh, it is," he said.

There are three books, the first for young kids, entitled "How to Raise a Champion." The second has a picture of Zacha pulling on his New Jersey Devils jersey. The third includes fairy tales and games to be played between parent and child. All are available on his father's website.

When the story emerged in the Czech Republic, there were questions -- about the methods, about the lack of schooling, about all the eggs in just the one basket.

"He never doubted it," Zacha said. "I didn't either."

They were so single-minded that it was easy to leave even high school behind, figuring that there was no point after two or three months. It's a decision the younger Zacha now rues, thinking back to the former teammates from Brno that he has since encountered, players who own careers fizzled out with no backup plan.

Because he, too, had no backup plan. No education to fall back on.

"A lot of them are not doing as well," he said. "They also put everything on the card of playing hockey. And without the school, the system back home wasn't good enough. They quit school and started playing hockey and it didn't work out. ... Those are also the pressures."

Still, Zacha said he loved what his family did for him, the sacrifices they made, the sponsors they sought so he could play hockey. The one thing he wishes he could have had was his mom in the same place. For those five years, he was 2 1/2 hours from her, seeing her only when she would drive in on the weekends.

"People ask me if you would make it without all the dedication, the hard work, that I did with my dad being with me," Zacha said. "It's hard to say because I would never find out. Am I talented? Maybe. But he made sure I worked out two or three times more than everyone else back home. That was because he was there with me. He was able to cook, clean, everything, for me."

It wasn't until Zacha was 15 that reality started to bear down, that he started to understand the pressure underlying what he had always seen as an idyllic childhood, one to be envied.

pavel hokej


"It put a lot of pressure on me," the forward said. "And I think I didn't feel as much pressure until I was in Sarnia [of the Ontario Hockey League] when I got there. Because I was like, OK, there is so much put on me."

He arrived able to speak little English, and over his first 20 games he had only a point or two. The 2015 NHL Draft was already looming, and Zacha felt the desire -- no, perhaps, the need -- to be taken high, the hopes and plans of his family on his back. Their lives, he knew, had been put on hold for him.

"That hit me hard then," he said.

He was tough on himself, always looking at the details he missed, picking apart his game and his season. He was never satisfied, even in his good games. He was focused totally on hockey, still not attending school -- he quit a couple of months into high school -- working only on learning the language and learning the game.

"You dig yourself deeper and deeper," Zacha said. "That's the pressure that I felt, just creating in myself basically most of the time. That's something that I had to also work on a lot, to see the good things that I do, also learn, but acknowledge that I do something right, that I'm here for a reason."

He would be selected by the Devils with the No. 6 pick in the 2015 draft -- a moment his father called his "final exam" as a parent -- and there again was the pressure.

He worked through it himself, but also with the help of his agent, Patrik Stefan, a former player who understood exactly what Zacha was going through, having been the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NHL Draft but lasting only 455 games in a largely disappointing career in the NHL.

"You look at Pavel, he wants to please his parents, his dad, he wants to please the coach, he wants to please the outside people that write about him or trust him or believe him or talk about him," Stefan said. "And that's a lot."

Stefan could see so much of himself in Zacha. He still does.

"I got pushed really hard by my father," Stefan said. "So did he."

Nothing quite went right for Zacha with New Jersey. He had come in, yet again, with pressure, having been taken with such a high pick. He shared the ice in his NHL debut with Elias, playing on the same line in the final game of the Devils legend's career, and it felt like, just maybe, a torch was being passed.

pavel draft


But that wasn't what happened

"It wasn't easy for him," Elias said. "I think that it wasn't fair to get him as the No. 6 pick. When he came in, that year, the top five guys, if not 10 guys made the NHL right away. I don't think it was fair to him because everybody develops at a different time."

That 2015 NHL Draft included luminaries like Connor McDavid (No.1), Jack Eichel (No. 2) and Mitchell Marner (No. 4). Timo Meier went No. 9; Mikko Rantanen at No. 10.

In New Jersey, Zacha lacked consistency, Elias said, with a 15-game tear followed by 10 or 15 where "you wouldn't even know he was in the lineup."

Zacha felt he was never given the right opportunity, never given the space to be what they told him they wanted him to be. He wanted to be a center, but ahead of him were young players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and where, ultimately, did he really fit?

"You keep telling me that I'm going to be a center in the top six, but it's just not going to happen here for a long time," he said. "That's why I kind of struggled mentally a little bit too, because you want to be the best you can be and I just felt that this situation that I was in there didn't let me grow as much as I could."

Which is why Boston has felt so refreshing. Zacha was traded from New Jersey to Boston on July 13, 2022, for veteran center Erik Haula.

It has been a steal

"[I] played with him in Jersey and I saw the potential that he had," said Chicago Blackhawks forward Taylor Hall, who was Zacha's teammate with the Devils and Bruins. "Quite frankly, I saw him not really have a role there and not really have an identity as a player. ... I think once he got [to Boston], he was coached very well, he was given a lot of opportunity and he made the best of it."

Boston was a veteran team, a team that knew where it wanted to go and how it wanted to get there, a team where every line brought with it the chance for offense and excellence, a team that included a number of Czech players, including a childhood friend in defenseman Jakub Zboril and a mentor in Krejci.

"To me," Elias said, "he's playing without worry."

With the Bruins, there is a clear path to where he wants to be. With the retirements of Bergeron and Krejci, the center position is wide open.

"It was their decision to leave the game, and they did the best they could last year and everything before that," Zacha said. "It's a bittersweet moment for me to now try to take the torch from them."

He is soothed by the fact that he spent the past season learning from them, players whose details on defense matched their touch on offense. And with that, Zacha understands the player he wants to be, the player he's going to be relied on to be, now that he's a top-six center.

"I know I'm never going to be able to be like Patrice, but just as close as I can get to him, that's going to help the team be better in the future," said Zacha, who topped his previous NHL career high of 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) from 2022-23 with 57 points (21 goals, 36 assists) last season, better utilizing a shot that Elias called "one of the best shots I've seen in the NHL."

And the fact that his teammates and his organization see him, that they see the little things he does, that they appreciate them? That has made a world of difference to Zacha.

"When you work hard, you have a good shift, you win a battle and you come to the bench, they're like, 'OK, great job,'" Zacha said. "You're like, 'I didn't even have an assist or a goal.' It's not what I'm used to, being acknowledged for the little things that you do as a two-way player."

Zacha signed a four-year, $19 million contract ($4.75 million average annual value) on Jan. 14 that runs through the 2026-27 season, giving him stability and continuity and, it seems, a solid future.

"To see him in this environment and having this season, just seeing him to have a smile on his face?" Stefan said at the end of last season. "The guys around him and what kind of leadership and how much fun he's having? It's almost like a perfect fit."

The pressure has eased. His performance has soared.

This is the life that Zacha's father planned on: the steady, if perhaps not spectacular, career in the NHL. The life focused on athletics, succeeding in a sport that Zacha truly loves. This was what the father and the mother envisioned as they dreamed together about the child they might one day have and the way they might raise him.

As his father wrote, "Our common goal was unequivocal -- to play in the NHL one day. Pavel and our entire family has done the maximum to make it happen and we are happy he has reached his dreams.

"I believe it is even fair in a certain way as for his special journey up to here in Boston and for all those thousands of practices, he deserves it."

Zacha, however, did not get a say.

"Life was put to me a certain way," he said.

He never questioned it because the results were always there. He was always getting better, always moving up. He looked with pity at the kids doing something else with their time, going to class, while he had another tennis tournament. That, to him, was joy.

But did he feel like he had a choice?

"I just never thought about it that way because I had so much fun playing sports," Zacha said. "Like it was brought up to me in such a positive way. Sports, you can do what you love and make money in the future."

Now, though, he wrinkles his brow while pondering a question.

"It's just funny thinking about it, that they decided all that stuff, now when I'm talking to you about it," he said with a chuckle.

"I think the choice they gave me was the best they knew they could give me," he said. "It worked out. I love what I do, love sports. I can play tennis with anyone, even now. It's just one of the things you appreciate. I guess if I didn't love sports, it would be harder. If I ended up at a certain age being like, I actually want to be a teacher or a lawyer, it would be hard. But I never had that mentality. I always loved what I do."

But, he is asked, what will he do with his own children? He has none yet -- he got married this summer back home in Czech Republic -- but it's a thought that has crossed his mind.

"It's hard because I also know the pressure," Zacha said. "I would want them to do the same thing as my dad in the way that, give them the opportunity to play sports because I think it's good. ... Because I'm probably going to stay in the U.S. after my career, I would like to go through the route of giving them the opportunity to go through school, so they have something to fall onto."

He still feels good about the decision, about his childhood, about what he was designed and raised to become. He knows it's not the only way to become a professional athlete -- his brother-in-law played soccer for the national team in Germany and had a far different experience growing up -- but he also knows and believes that he had a worthy childhood, an enjoyable childhood.

"I always thought I had a better childhood than other people," he said. "I wouldn't change it all."


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