Someday, Zdeno Chara will get what he deserves.
Maybe not next year, or for several more years. But his day is coming.
TD Garden will be mostly empty on Wednesday night when Chara returns to Causeway Street for the first time in his post-Bruins career. He will not be greeted by canorous cheers, a packed house welcoming home a franchise legend. No matter what kind of video is played for the television audience, it will not be a proper tribute. It won’t be quite right.
That’s fine by Chara. Even though a trip to Boston will never be strictly business, he is here to play two hockey games, his Capitals against the Bruins on Wednesday and Friday.
“It’s going to be exciting to be back,” Chara said Tuesday on a Zoom call, before stepping on the practice ice at Warrior Ice Arena. “Obviously, we all wish to have fans at some point — hopefully sooner — at our arenas. They always make the games more exciting. But this time we’re going to have to obviously wait and respect that safety and health is the priority.”
On Monday, Chara reunited with his family, which remains at their home in the North End: wife Tatiana; daughter Elliz, who turns 12 next month; and twin boys Ben and Zack, who turn 5 on Saturday.
“It was really nice to see them after a long time and be a dad for one day again,” said Chara, who had been with the Capitals since signing for one year and $795,000 on Dec. 30.
It would be an uncomfortable arrangement for anyone, but Chara acknowledged they are “trying to do our best. Obviously, with the FaceTime and phone technology, you can be in touch daily. It’s different not being with them at home. Those are the sacrifices we talked about before I made that decision and so far it’s been working. It was nice to see them last night.”
Ostensibly, not having fans in the building Wednesday and Friday would make it easier for Chara, who returns as a visitor for the first time since March 2006 with the Senators, less than four months before he signed the richest free agent deal (five years, $37.5 million) in Bruins history. It made it easier for Chara the first time he played the Bruins, Jan. 30 in Washington.
“Without the fans, the buildings are just the buildings right now,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’re almost like a neutral site because it’s not the fans pouring on for the home team and having to get through that.
“The emotion of that video and what a day might bring, he moved through the first two games without any problem in our building. So you’re right, it’s probably a little less challenging with the fans not being there, because they can really add to that. I’m sure they would be really supportive of what he did, and you’re right, it would be an emotional moment.”
There will be a smattering of fans allowed inside when the Capitals return here April 18, and maybe for a potential Boston-Washington playoff series. But nothing will ever top the ovation Chara received before Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, when he was given a warrior’s welcome after returning to play with a broken jaw. It was a moment on the minds of many Tuesday.
“It was unbelievable for Z to be in the lineup,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy recalled. “That morning, I just assumed he wouldn’t be ready to play. He was ready to go. Not surprised.”
Brandon Carlo, one of the slew of Bruins defensemen who learned under Chara’s wing, felt Wednesday’s crowd would have been “just as loud, probably” as Game 5.
“It would have been very special for him to have that,” Carlo said. “Still going to be great to see him back in Boston. He’s been doing great this year. We definitely miss him, but happy he’s succeeding.”
Indeed, Chara has played in all 21 of Washington’s games (2-4—6, plus-10) and his 19:24 average time on ice is second on the Capitals behind John Carlson (24:23). Chara is also second on the team in average shorthanded time on ice (2:42), behind Nick Jensen. The Bruins have missed Chara — Matt Grzlecyk, out since Feb. 10, could return Wednesday, but Jeremy Lauzon (broken hand) and Kevan Miller (knee soreness) are out indefinitely — but his teammates haven’t quite filled the void.
“You’d see him walking around the North End all the time and people loved to see him and he was always happy to see the people,” said Carlo, who praised Chara for becoming “part of the fabric” of the organization and the city, who was “for me, before I even got here, a guy I was idolizing.”
Cassidy, in his fourth full season as coach, fell in love with the team as a young Bobby Orr fan in Ottawa. He fully understood the weight of the moment before that Cup Final game two years ago: the longtime captain, enduring, relentless.
“I know Bruins fans appreciate the blue-collar, the effort. They love skill and they love toughness and the blend of both, but they appreciate effort. Z always gave you 100 percent,” Cassidy said.
“I think they also appreciate that when he came here and put the ‘C’ on his sweater, he had a goal in mind, how the Bruins were going to play going forward. And he achieved that. He made them a hard-to-play-against, defensive-minded, Stanley Cup champion. He was a big part of that team. I think that’s where the fans appreciated Z, and why they supported him that day. I’m sure if they were able to in the building tomorrow, they would again.”
David Krejci practiced in full on Tuesday, signaling his possible return after a four-game absence because of a lower-body injury. Cassidy said Krejci and Grzelcyk (lower body) would be game-time decisions. The latter has played in six of Boston’s 19 games … Winger Ondrej Kase, who has played just two games because of a suspected concussion, skated on his own before practice. His timetable remains unclear … Miller did off-ice work. Cassidy said he could return to practice this week … Even if Krejci returns, Cassidy said, Jack Studnicka will stick at center, his natural position. He practiced Tuesday on the fourth line, between Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. That assignment would have him taking more draws in the Bruins’ zone. “This will be good for his defensive game,” said Cassidy, who can use the left-shooting Kuraly to take faceoffs on the left dot, and Studnicka on the right. “We’ll see how he adapts to it, and go from there,” said Cassidy … Defenseman Jarred Tinordi, wearing No. 84, made his practice debut next to Connor Clifton. Tinordi, who was claimed off waivers from Nashville, would be available for Wednesday, though Cassidy wouldn’t commit to using him … The Capitals (12-5-4) arrive with a step on the Bruins (12-5-2) for first in the East Division, by virtue of two more games played, and two more overtime loser points. Entering Tuesday’s games, only two teams (the Lightning and Maple Leafs) had scored more goals per game than the Capitals’ 3.43. Washington was also seventh-worst in goals allowed (3.19).