A subdued return to Boston for Zdeno Chara
To understand what Zdeno Chara’s arrival meant to the Boston Bruins, you had to start on July 1, 2006. The Boston Bruins were in the middle of an identity crisis following a dreadful 2005-06 campaign. Two supposed franchise cornerstones in Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov found themselves in new homes. The deal for the former to San Jose came out of the blue in late November.
Chara, fresh off a stellar run with the Ottawa Senators, came to Boston on a five-year deal worth $37.5 million. He set his giant 6-foot-9 footprint on the franchise through his work ethic and leadership by example.
The Bruins didn’t garner immediate results. But things fell into place for a championship run over the next few seasons. From a budding prospect system to adding significant role players, the Bruins grew into a formidable Stanley Cup contender. In 2011, they hoisted hockey’s ultimate prize.
Several key contributors from that 2011 squad eventually found new homes. Through it all, Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask, remained with the team. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for them as they encountered a tough transition period for the better part of three seasons. In that time, they saw Claude Julien, Boston’s all-time winningest bench boss, removed in Feb. 2017 in favor of Bruce Cassidy.
Over the past few years, the Bruins reclaimed their spot in the upper-echelon of the National Hockey League. Yet, they found themselves at a crossroads after their second-round exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer.
With the implementation of younger defensemen like Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon, the Bruins and Chara parted ways. The business side of things prompted Chara to sign with the Washington Capitals instead of ending his career in black and gold.
On Wednesday, Chara returned to TD Garden for the first time with his new team. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fans from attending. Instead of a loud roar — similar to his ovation before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final two years prior — Chara had to settle for hearing stick taps from the Boston bench after a welcome back video package.
“I felt a little bad for him that there wasn’t 18,000-plus fans giving him the ovation he deserves,” Cassidy said. “That would’ve been a really nice thing for him, but that’s not able to be done right now.”
“It wasn’t as emotional for me as it would have been if there were fans in the stands. I mean, it sucks having no fans in the building,” Rask said of Chara’s return. “That’s half the tribute when fans are there and cheering. I believe he would’ve gotten a standing ovation.”
The Bruins put forth an appropriate montage for Chara’s return featuring career highlights and Zoom recordings of fans expressing their appreciation. The tallest player in NHL history held back tears as his former teammates saluted him for 15 years of service in Boston both on and off the ice.
Chara’s Capitals earned a 2-1 shootout win on Wednesday. The Bruins and Caps have another meeting scheduled for Friday to conclude their two-game slate. Chara and company have another two-game visit to Boston on April 18 and 20. By then, they’ll face off in front of a limited amount of Bruins supporters.
At least a handful of fans will get to pay their respects to Chara in-person if the COVID re-opening plans remain in place. The future Hall of Famer turns 44 in a couple of weeks. Given his age and the pandemic situation, we won’t truly know if Chara will receive his deserved ovation from a full house of Bruins supporters.
Yet, his impact on the organization remains strong even in transition. Chara helped usher in Boston’s biggest boom hockey period since the Big Bad Bruins of the 1970s. Like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Milt Schmidt, Ray Bourque, Johnny Bucyk and Bergeron, Chara’s name is synonymous with the Boston Bruins organization.
Matt Grzelcyk witnessed Chara’s impact firsthand as a fan, then a teammate. In both instances, the Charlestown native and former Boston University captain garnered a wealth of knowledge from the humble Chara.
“He’s such a great guy, and he’s an unbelievable leader,” Grzelcyk said of Chara. “Especially as a young guy, he was always positive, never speaking down to us, always making us feel welcomed in the locker room. That can be nerve-wracking for a young guy trying to make your way in the league. To have him come up and speak to me not only about hockey but life in general, I think that’s something I’ll always cherish.”
Chara will get his deserved due at some point from Bruins fans be it with the Capitals or when he has his number raised to the Garden rafters. It won’t be long until he resumes his biking activities around the North End, either.
Wednesday altered the pomp and circumstance of a traditional return for a former teammate. But it won’t be the last time Chara’s teammates and loyal Boston supporters give thanks to their gentle giant.