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.”
A tough road ahead
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.”