ARLINGTON, Va. — Zdeno Chara said his first two days of practices with the Washington Capitals featured a series of adjustments.
From finding his way around the practice facility to meeting familiar former foes such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, some of the Capitals’ younger players and new coach Peter Laviolette, to learning a new system, the 43-year-old defenseman has had a lot to do. But the oldest player in the NHL is embracing it all as he prepares to begin his 23rd NHL season when Washington opens at the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 14.
“It was exciting to put the Washington Capitals jersey on and it was nice to be on the ice after the quarantine protocol,” Chara said Wednesday. “I think that it was really nice to meet all the guys, get that practice in and do the drills, get in the flow and work hard.”
It’s been a whirlwind week for Chara, who left the Bruins after 14 seasons and agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract with the Capitals on Dec. 30. He quickly traveled to the Washington area and had to quarantine in his hotel room and go through testing for COVID-19 before being cleared to join the Capitals for his first practice Tuesday.
After practicing with a group of mostly young players Tuesday, Chara was back on the ice with the Capitals’ main group Wednesday morning, skating with Nick Jensen on the third defense pair.
“Even when I was at the hotel and doing my quarantine, you’re still working out almost every day to stay in shape,” Chara said. “Of course, you miss the days when the guys were skating, but in the last 12 or so hours I was able to do two practice sessions, go over the drills. So I feel pretty good. I’m sure I’m going to continue to drive to be better and better from day to day and hopefully we’re going to be where we want to be a week from now.”
Chara (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) is an imposing presence. His resume, which includes 1,553 NHL games with the Bruins, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators, a Stanley Cup championship with the Bruins in 2011, a Norris Trophy in 2009 after being voted the best defenseman in the NHL, and six NHL All-Star Game selections, can be intimidating as well.
“The experience of being able to play with a player of that status who’s been in this league forever and has as many games and achievements as he does, [I] had to take a minute to kind of take that in,” Jensen said. “But as a player, he’s real easy to jump right in with. He’s very vocal, easy to communicate with, so there wasn’t many adjustments that had to be made.”
Laviolette said Chara and Jensen will likely play together in the Capitals’ scrimmage Thursday but called it starting point.
“There are pairs in place, and we didn’t want to just throw everything away and what we had worked on in the last couple days,” Laviolette said. “So what we would like to do is get to the scrimmage and just evaluate and see how things look. We will be able to watch it live and obviously we will be able to go back and watch it on videotape and just see what we’ve got going.”
Chara said he has enjoyed interacting with his new teammates, old and young. During practice Tuesday, he chatted with 18-year-old forward Hendrix Lapierre. Selected by the Capitals in the first round (No. 22) of the 2020 NHL Draft, Lapierre was born more than four years after Chara made his NHL debut with the Islanders on Nov. 19, 1997.
“I obviously didn’t know many of these younger players, but these guys work really, really hard,” Chara said. “They’re highly motivated. I think it was really good to be going out there and practicing with that group. We had a great practice. I enjoy talking to younger players when they have questions or they’re kind of asking me for stories or asking what it was like many years ago playing in the NHL. But it’s really nice to have these kind of conversations and starting kind of new friendships.”
Photos courtesy of Zach Guerette/Washington Capitals