Wednesday, Jan. 17. A date that Bruins fans and Claude Julien circled upon the release of the 2017-18 NHL regular season schedule.
Come 7:30 p.m. — in front of a nationally televised audience — the puck will drop on another regular season Bruins-Canadiens matchup at TD Garden. This one has an added significance with Julien, the winningest coach in franchise history, coming back to a place he called home for 10 years.
The first Bruins-Habs meeting Saturday night at the Bell Centre might have felt a little strange for a few Boston veterans during the first five minutes or so. But the likes of Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask and the other vets leftover from Julien’s tenure conducted a business-like attitude.
Perhaps a few hello’s were said before the game, and maybe the vets will exchange a few words with their former bench boss before puck drop. A video montage of Julien’s career highlights in Boston will be shown during the first TV timeout.
Beyond that, their business-like approach remains the same from Saturday.
“Well I’ll tell you what’s going to happen,” Tuukka Rask stated, “we’re going to start the game, and after that, there will be a video montage. And we’ll all tap our sticks and the crowd is going to clap their hands and give them a warm welcome and then the game is going to continue.”
Life will go on indeed, just like it did when Julien departed 11 months ago. But several Bruins still have memories of Julien’s tenure in Boston.
During his prime, Chara became a perennial Norris Trophy candidate from the late 2000’s to the mid 2010’s. He is still racking up minutes at the age of 40, and guiding a new crop of young defensemen, like Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, into top four roles – all while transitioning from Julien to Bruce Cassidy.
As he helps Cassidy and company guide the defensive core into a new era, Chara also gives credit to Julien during his prime years in Boston.
“Well obviously he’s a great coach [and] a great person,” the 6-foot-9 Bruins captain said after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday. “You know, he was talking a lot about how to play the game the right way in certain situations and he was such a great teacher. And anytime you have a [great] teacher, you want to learn as much as you can.”
The defensive-minded Julien taught Chara well. He also guided Bergeron into becoming the best two-way player of his era.
Under Julien, Bergeron earned four Selke Trophies and developed into a leader in the Bruins dressing room. From a personal and professional standpoint, Bergeron still praises Julien as the best coach he’s ever had.
Much like Saturday, Bergeron’s focus will go from a stick tap for Julien — during the first TV timeout — to the task at hand.
“I owe him so much, and I hope we’re able to shake hands,” Bergeron stated the day before the first Bruins-Habs meeting in Montreal. “He’s had a huge impact on us and we all know that, but once we look at the big picture it’s two big points and we have to continue to play the game and be good.”
Julien’s departure was far from pretty, but it was the only decision Don Sweeney could make.
Since Feb. 9, 2017, the Bruins are 42-18-9 under Cassidy and are well on their way to another playoff berth. The Habs, meanwhile, are eight points out of the East’s final wild-card spot and will likely become sellers at the trade deadline.
The disparities between the Bruins of last year under Julien and the Bruins of today under Cassidy are significant. But talk to any supporter in The Hub of Hockey and they’ll tell you that Julien is arguably the best coach in franchise history.
For that, he deserves the tribute and his own chapter of the historic Bruins-Canadiens rivalry.
“It’s going to be nice for him to come back. He spent a lot of time in his coaching career here and he won a [Stanley] Cup,” David Pastrnak, who spent most of his first three seasons under Julien, said. “It’s going to be fun, you know, and I’m excited for the game tomorrow.”