BOSTON — Brad Marchand saw enough of Zdeno Chara as his teammate to know how to approach the future Hall of Famer as an opponent.
“You don’t want to poke the bear,” Marchand said.
Even though he’s no longer a Bruin.
A 6-foot-9 behemoth who seemed larger than life on the ice and in the Boston locker room, Chara will face off against his former team on Saturday for the first time since signing with the Washington Capitals as a free agent.
And his former teammates are planning to keep their distance.
“I’m not going to poke the bear in any way,” Marchand said. “The biggest thing is to skate away from him. That’s all I can do is try to skate away from him, because if you get within that reach, you’re within his grasp. You’re not going anywhere.”
A seven-time All-Star and the 2009 Norris Trophy winner, Chara spent 14 years as the Bruins captain and was the last one to hoist the Stanley Cup, after leading the team to the 2011 NHL championship.
Marchand was in his first full season then, so his entire pro career had been spent under Chara’s tutelage. That changed when the 43-year-old Slovakian signed with the Capitals.
“He bled black and gold here for the Bruins for years,” said Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who took over on the bench in 2017, when Chara had already been there for a decade.
“It’ll be odd not seeing him in a Bruins jersey, but it’ll be good to see him,” Cassidy said. “He’s a good person. I’ve always liked ‘Z,’ and hopefully we’ll have a friendship down the road. He’s a guy that helped me a lot when I first got here. He helped me a lot more than I helped him.”
Chara played his first eight seasons with the Islanders and Senators, then came to Boston and established himself as one of the best defensemen in NHL history. In 14 years wearing the spoked “B,” Chara was named the league’s top defenseman in ’09 and five other times finished in the top five.
In 23 seasons in all, Chara has 206 goals and 453 assists. He is third in ice time since the league began tracking the stat in 1997-98; his 1,561 career games played is 14th all-time, and with a full season in 2021 he would move into the top 10.
Although he is the NHL’s career leader in ice time his time decreased from a high of nearly 28 minutes per game in 2006-07 to just over 21 minutes last season. The Bruins were talking about a diminished role, so he signed with Washington instead.
“I think he’s going to want to show his teammates, and everyone in the organization, that he can still bring it,” Cassidy said. “I would expect nothing less.”
Chara denied there will be any special motivation to show his former team that he can still carry a heavy load.
“I’m not here to improve my stats. I just want to help the team,” he said. “I respect those guys very much. I love them like my brothers.
“We were able to win a Stanley Cup together, so it goes a long way. We understand that this is a business and we have to play for our teams and compete out there, but at the same time, we have something that’s very deep. It goes far back.”
The Capitals are happy to have him. After his first goal for Washington on Thursday night, his teammates had an over-the-top celebration when Chara returned to the bench.
“They’ve really helped me make this transition as easy as possible, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “So, I just wanted to share that joy with them. It was a great — a moment and a great connection. That’s probably something that I’ll always cherish.”
Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said it was “one the coolest things I’ve seen in a while with regard to a teammate.”
“Everybody is pulling for ‘Z’ to be the great player that he is,” the coach said. “So when that moment (arrived), his teammates, they let him know. It was pretty awesome.”