It’s been almost a year since an aging yet ageless Bruins captain joined his teammates for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, about 11 months since Zdeno Chara took the ice despite having had surgery to fix a broken jaw less than 48 hours earlier. The ovation Chara earned during introductions that night is still reverberating in some far corners of TD Garden, the appreciation of a sold-out home crowd making sure their team’s leader knew how they felt about him.
As hockey remains idled by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the memory of last year’s stirring Bruins postseason run feels as alive as it does distant. Of all the moments to stand out before the ultimate heartbreak of a Game 7 loss to the Blues, the reception Chara received in Game 5, the sound he elicited on June 6, 2019, is one he can still hear, too.
“I really felt a very special feeling, that kind of reception and appreciation, and I don’t take it for granted,” Chara said Tuesday during a video town hall chat with season ticket-holders. “It was very amazing, something I will never forget. It just shows how much fans and people care about hockey, about the players and their health.”
Chara is not wrong. The connection between fans and their favorite players can be visceral, deep-seated, and passionate enough to remind us the word “fan” is shortened for “fanatic.” But there is much to be gained for the players, too, with the urging of one unified voice amplifying the voices in their own heads urging them to play their best, that same chorus of cheers providing the celebratory soundtrack to the achievements in their own arenas. Yet as much as Chara relished the chance to revisit such a touching moment from a year ago, there was some sad irony in his voice, too.
Because he, like we, knows what has to happen if sports has any hope of returning any time soon. Fans will not be included.
“Well, that’s what it’s going to be if we start, that’s for sure,” Chara said, a later afternoon call between NHL leadership and the players association in his mind as he spoke. “We won’t be able to have fans in the stands. It will bring a little bit of memories back from years when we played as kids, when we didn’t really have any fans in the stands. Once I came to play juniors [in North America] I was amazed there were five, six, 10,000 fans watching games. Back home [in Slovakia] we didn’t have that many fans at all.
“It’s definitely something different that we have to get used to, but I guess that’s the only way we can continue to play at this point.”
And if anyone knows to relish any chance to play, it’s Chara. At 43, with more than 1,500 NHL games in his tank, reality insists there is only so much fuel left. Though his amazing 6-foot-9 inch body has more than stood up to the physical demands of the game, and while it shows no glaring evidence it can’t take a few more years of such in-game punishment, the contract extension Chara signed with the Bruins a year ago only extends through this season. So when he talks about the value of sports the way he did Tuesday, answering a young fan’s question about advice for starting out a hockey career, you know it comes from a place of sincere appreciation.
“You’ve got to love what you do, got to enjoy working hard,” he said. “Along the way you’ve got to accept there’s going to be some ups and downs, and fight through it. Mostly you’ve got to have fun, enjoy it, and realize it’s a huge opportunity. It’s a world of so many challenges, as we see right now with what’s happening, but I think that sports are one of those unique activities or events that always bring people together. So I feel like sports are something that as a people we enjoy watching the most. If you can be part of it, make it a part of your life, it’s a dream come true.”
Should the NHL figure out a plan to resume the season, Chara figures players will need 3-4 weeks to get back in skating shape and fine-tune their chemistry. Then add a month or more to stage some sort of playoff format with or without a few regular-season games preceding it and, above all, devise a system of precaution and testing that protects all involved, and maybe it could still happen.
If it does, the Bruins would certainly be confident of rechanneling the Presidents’ Trophy form they had when the season was suspended. And Chara would most certainly be at the forefront of getting them ready, his legendary devotion to staying in shape not simply seen in the deep tan he displayed on Tuesday’s Zoom call, courtesy of the outdoor workouts at his Florida home, but known just as much for its infectious impact on teammates.
But should the NHL fail in its well-intentioned efforts to complete this season in some fashion, then reality also tells us we may have seen Chara’s last game in Black and Gold. If that ends up being the case, the sound of Game 5 a year ago is one we should always remember.