Since the Washington Capitals began training camp in September, the mantra around Kettler Capitals Iceplex has been accountability. After consecutive playoff disappointments, Coach Bruce Boudreau tried to install a more disciplined approach in the dressing room and on the ice.
But from Boudreau, a gregarious players’ coach known affectionately as “Gabby,” the message, to some, did not seem genuine. When the Capitals began to struggle in November, Alex Ovechkin and many of his teammates stopped responding to Boudreau, who was fired Nov. 28.
Enter Dale Hunter. Whatever anyone thinks of Hunter — and he’s adored and despised by fans in near equal numbers — he’ll never be accused of pretending to be anything he’s not.
“He’s kind of soft-spoken, but when he does talk, he’s right on,” said Kelly Miller, an assistant coach at Michigan State and Hunter’s linemate in Washington in the 1990s. “He cuts right to it. He’s very direct.”
Capitals General Manager George McPhee is hoping Hunter can do what Boudreau and his predecessors couldn’t: guide the star-laden Capitals to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The very early returns are mixed. After Friday’s 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Capitals find themselves in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. In six games since Hunter replaced Boudreau, they are 3-3.
Although Hunter’s success in his first NHL job is far from assured, one thing is certain: His message won’t change.
Dino Ciccarelli played alongside Hunter in Washington from 1988 to ’92 and, more recently, watched Hunter transform the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League into one of the most profitable and successful junior teams in Canada.
“He won’t play games,” Ciccarelli said. “Everyone is going to get an opportunity to play, and the top guys are going to play a lot. But if they’re not playing well, he won’t care who it is. He’s not going to worry about that. It doesn’t matter if you’re making $100,000 or $10 million, it’s not going to affect his decisions.
“He’s there to win.”
Hunter’s fix-it list is long. Among the items on it: Help Ovechkin rediscover his game, install a system that stresses team defense and repair the power play.
But those who know Hunter best say it’s a challenge the 51-year-old has been preparing to meet for the past three decades, the past 11 years as co-owner, president and coach of the Knights. Hunter owns the highest winning percentage in OHL history (.691).
Hunter was named the Ontario Hockey League’s coach of the year in 2004 and 2005, the year he guided the Knights to the Memorial Cup. Through the years, he coached future NHL players Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Dave Bolland, Sam Gagne, Steve Mason and current Capitals John Carlson and Dennis Wideman.
Carlson said Hunter’s style of play is not much different now that he’s back in the big leagues.
“The basics are the same,” Carlson said. “The D-zone is bang on. It’s different coaching 16-year-olds and coaching 37-year-olds. So you have to change a little bit. But he’s played, so it’s not like a guy who’s been coaching in juniors and comes in and doesn’t have any pro experience.”
In his coaching debut, Hunter scratched struggling defenseman Jeff Schultz. When Alexander Semin complained about shoulder soreness before the Dec. 3 game against Ottawa, Hunter told the enigmatic winger to take the night off. He gave him the next game off, too, just for good measure. An NHL source confirmed that Semin was healthy enough to play in both games.
Hunter also keeps his distance from the dressing room. Defenseman Karl Alzner noted the stark contrast with the man Hunter replaced.
“You don’t see him hanging around the room much at all,” Alzner said of Hunter. “He’s pretty much always in that coach’s office.
“It’s good, though. When he only says a few things, it’s easy to remember them. It’s not a long speech, where you’re trying to remember: ‘What did he say at this part? What did he want on this play?’ ”
A feisty center, Hunter notched 323 goals and 697 assists in 1,407 career NHL games with Quebec, Washington and Colorado. But the statistic that came to define his 19-year career was this one: He’s the only player to record more than 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes.
The first number speaks to the skill he possessed in his prime. The second represents the borderline dirty style of play the country-strong farmer from Petrolia, Ontario, brought to the rink every night. It was the type of snarl required from a player who was generously listed at 5 feet 10, 198 pounds.
“Opponents were terrified of him,” said Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May, who played with Hunter in Washington from 1989 to ’94. “Opponents hated him because he was mean and competitive. But he’s the guy everyone wanted on their team.”
Hunter spent so much time in the penalty box at the Capital Centre, the box itself was presented to him on the night his No. 32 jersey was raised to the Verizon Center rafters in 2000.
Hunter’s most memorable goal was the Game 7 overtime winner against Philadelphia in the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals. The high-water mark of Hunter’s career, though, was captaining the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Although he was a role player by then, it was as close as he got to touching hockey’s Holy Grail.
The low point is also easy to recall. It was the suspension Hunter received for his infamous blind-side check of Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs. Hunter missed the first 21 games of the next season, forfeiting $150,000 of his $600,000 salary.
“I wasn’t surprised that it happened,” said May, who was sitting on the bench as Turgeon slammed into the wall after scoring a goal, a blow that left the New York Islanders center with a separated shoulder. “I always thought [Hunter] was the most calculating player in the league. It was about getting respect back and he didn’t have to lift his heart rate. He was stone cold. He was mean.”
Teammates also got to see Hunter’s softer, fun-loving side. No conversation with one of his former teammates is complete without a story about one of Hunter’s legendary pranks.
May thought he had gotten his teammates good in 1989, when the team filmed a now-infamous music video.
“I put Tabasco sauce in their chewing tobacco, their beer, all the instruments’ mouthpieces,” May recalled. “I got the entire team.”
Hunter never asked questions.
“The next day at practice, my skate laces were broken,” May said. “There was heat [rub] inside my shin pads and my jock. My elbow pads had Vaseline and heat in them. I put on my helmet and baby powder poured out. There was Vaseline in there as well.”
“All my sticks were cut,” May continued, laughing. “I went to pass a puck, my stick broke. Then my next stick broke. I had the worst practice ever. I even got kicked off the ice by [then Coach] Bryan Murray for being so bad at practice. I got benched in practice.”
At the end of the hour-long skate at Piney Orchard, Hunter pulled up beside May.
“Got it, kid?” he said with a smile.
Hunter’s sense of humor, teammates said, was a reflection of his persona: uncomplicated and genuine.
“He understands people and has a good sense about them,” said Neil Sheehy, Hunter’s roommate on the road. “What you see is what you get with Dale Hunter. There’s never anything hidden.”
Since arriving in Washington the night before he was introduced as the team’s 15th coach, Hunter has been living out of a suitcase in an Arlington hotel and hasn’t even brought his pickup truck to Washington yet. Instead, he walks from the hotel to the practice rink and hitches a ride downtown and to the airport.
“He would wear a lumberjack jacket and jeans,” said Kevin “Killer” Kaminski, who played with Hunter from 1993 to ’97. “He was the most simple guy that there was. There was nothing fancy about him. And that’s kind of the way he played: hard-nosed. He came to work every day, wearing his hard hat.”
On the day he was introduced, Hunter made a joke about owning one suit, a blue one he has been wearing since 2006. His brother, Mark, said the story is exaggerated — a little bit, at least.
“He’s got more than one suit now,” said Mark Hunter, who played 12 seasons for Montreal, St. Louis, Calgary, Hartford and Washington. “But is he a big suit guy? No, he’s not. The money he would spend on suits, he puts into farmland. That’s where his roots are. He doesn’t believe in that materialistic stuff. Our whole family is like that.
“Our dad brought us up that way. We’re not flashy people. He brought us up to make decisions and be men.”
Hunter said the time was right for him to fulfill his dream of coaching in the NHL. His three children — Dylan, Tucker and Shalen — were grown. The family business was booming and he left it in good hands. Mark Hunter took over as coach from Dale; Dylan will remain as an assistant.
It was time for the next challenge in Hunter’s life. And, at the same time, resume the pursuit of the one thing he feels is missing from his resume.
Hunter, in fact, has appeared in 186 career playoff games, recording 42 goals, 118 points and 729 penalty minutes. No one has played in more games and not hoisted the Cup.
“That’s definitely on his mind,” said Craig Laughlin, a Comcast SportsNet analyst who played with Hunter during the 1987-88 season. “You know what bothers him most about that? He was frickin’ dominant in the playoffs and he could never get a Stanley Cup. Dale deserves a Stanley Cup for what he did in the playoffs. If I was building a team for the playoffs, he exemplifies the perfect type of player you need for the playoffs to be successful.
“That’s Dale Hunter.”