Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Dale Hunter is ready to fight for the Washington Capitals, as always

Knowing the unlikelihood he would have a goal or assist as a rookie at the end of a blowout, Dave Allison tried the only other way he knew how to be included on an NHL score sheet: He pleaded nicely for Dale Hunter to drop his gloves in 1984.

“All right,” Hunter finally said, obliging for the good of the game.

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The Post Sports Live crew debates the role that Alex Ovechkin played in the Capitals' decision to fire Bruce Boudreau and forecasts his relationship with new coach Dale Hunter.

The Post Sports Live crew debates the role that Alex Ovechkin played in the Capitals' decision to fire Bruce Boudreau and forecasts his relationship with new coach Dale Hunter.

Allison, who briefly coached the Ottawa Senators, played just three games in the NHL. But he fought Hunter.

Dean Evason, the Washington Capitals’ assistant coach, played 13 NHL seasons. He once fought Hunter three times in 11 minutes in the first period of a game, including penalty minutes. Hunter also squared off with another Caps assistant, Jim Johnson. He even put up his dukes once with his brother Mark in an NHL game.

Everybody in hockey, it seems, fought Dale Hunter, whose 3-to-1 penalty-minutes-to-points career ratio says everything about General Manager George McPhee’s coaching change on Monday in Washington.

From Gabby to Crabby, just like that.

“He played in the eye-for-an-eye NHL,” said Alan May, Hunter’s teammate while in Washington and now a Comcast SportsNet hockey analyst. “He told me early on, ‘Anytime we’re in a scrum and my stick goes up, you get your [butt] in there and take care of business.’ I learned right from the start.”

In one season, Hunter amassed 240 penalty minutes, the equivalent of four games.

“Fighting? It’s still part of the game,” the guy who replaced Bruce Boudreau was saying Thursday morning before Sidney Crosby and the Penguins made their first Verizon Center visit this season, a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory in Hunter’s second game behind the Capitals’ bench. “Some people are against it, but as long as it’s part of the game it’s still okay to do it.

“It’s a physical game now, too,” Hunter added. “There’s big hits. When I played, we used to get blocked by the other defensemen and the winger. It was like running a gantlet to get in. Now the defenseman takes big hits because guys don’t have to hold up. Guys are bigger, faster and stronger. The speed of the game is unbelievable.”

Whatever is gleaned from this hiring — and I’ve always been in the camp that the team’s four-headed nucleus of stars, from Alex Ovechkin on down, were the fault of unfulfilled promise much more than Boudreau — there is only one question out there to be answered over the next six months, and McPhee needs its answered in the affirmative:

Can a rugged scrapper and great leader from another NHL era impart physical courage and mental toughness on what has thus far been a cupcake of a Stanley Cup playoff team?

Dale Hunter can do a lot of things differently from Boudreau. He can try and make Ovechkin a force as a forechecker, turn him back into the free-skating scorer he once was. He can stare right through the soul of Alexander Semin and literally startle him into finally realizing his potential.

But he can’t play.

“I’m too slow,” he said. “I’m still learning a lot of things. But I can tell you one thing I do know: There’s nothing like having 20 guys in the dressing room joking after a big win.”

Still the squat, barrel-chested and steely-eyed competitor from his playing days, the only giveaway that Hunter is the coach is the grayish portion of a thick thatch atop his head. He is often monosyllabic in his delivery.

“Big game,” he said of the Pens coming to town. “Emotional.”

Spare and fussy with words, he has little of Gabby’s gift of gab. Hunter has the overall demeanor of a grizzled precinct detective — the hard-boiled, means-business character who clumps into the interrogation room after the good cop has left.

“He just had to say one word to you and that one word was like a paragraph or an essay,” May said of Hunter’s captaincy with the Capitals from 1994 until he was traded to Colorado late in the 1998-99 season. “Sometimes he would just look at a guy and that was all that was needed.”

Yes, from the Most Masculine Man in the World, one finger maims; two kills. Instantly.

We could ruin the tough-guy fable and tell you about the playful side of Hunter, like after Jeff Halpern’s second game in the NHL in 1999, a win over Buffalo, when Hunter was a player-development coach after retiring as a player. “I was wearing these brown docksider shoes with my suit, which in the NHL is taboo or frowned upon,” Halpern said Thursday afternoon. “And so after the game I came in the locker room and my shoes were painted with zebra stripes. I had to walk out to the bus in that. It didn’t take long to figure out who had done it. Dale was the number one suspect. I’m pretty sure it was him.” (“I don’t divulge who did that,” Hunter said, busting up laughing at the memory. “He might get me back.”)

Or the sentimental fact that Hunter always looks up at the arena’s video scoreboard when his Game 7-winning breakaway goal against the Flyers is shown from 1988. (“All the young kids say, ‘Holy . . . look how slow you were.’ But I did get a breakaway.”)

And, finally, how much it burns him to this day that the Caps lost a 3-1 series lead to the Penguins in 1992. (“We battled for seven games,” Hunter said. “And then they went on and won the Stanley Cup. We had the team, too. We had the team.”)

But on the night when Sid the Kid is back in town and Hunter is again at the forefront of Caps-Pens, only one fact matters: The present.

No sense going back in time and beating himself up for a missed opportunity. Beginning Monday, Dale Hunter, a fighter, leader and player of great renown, got a chance to rectify everything in the past.

 
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