If the personality transplant is successful, the Caps could make the jump to Stanley Cup contender rather than annual spring pretender and NHL joke.
Hunter, the captain of the only Washington team that ever reached the Stanley Cup finals, was so rugged, bordering on nuts, that on the team’s night to honor him, he was presented with the old Capital Centre penalty box.
Hiring Hunter, a gentleman off the ice and a model first-to-practice player for 19 years, is an extreme measure. It’s not quite like getting Rooster Cogburn to clean up your Wild West town, but, considering he’s the only NHL player with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes, it’s close enough.
The stakes are high. If this true-grit personality graft doesn’t take, if the no-longer-so-young spoiled stars who have driven ex-coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee to distraction the last couple of years, don’t welcome the work and toughness that Hunter symbolizes, then the Capitals’ grand experiment of the last few years may come to a treacherous crossroads.
There’s no doubt why Hunter was summoned, even though he has no coaching experience above his 11 exceptional years in Ontario working with junior hockey for 17- and18-year-olds. “We’ve got [the players’] attention now,” McPhee said after firing Boudreau at a 6:15 a.m. meeting. Who says executions at dawn are passe?
“Hopefully, they respond in the right way,” added McPhee, fully aware that his team quit on Boudreau over the last couple of weeks. Watching those losses by scores of 7-1, 6-3 and 5-1 was shameful; some players might as well have held up signs: “Fire our coach.” And no Capital played further below his ability than captain Alex Ovechkin. Hence, a new sheriff.
“Dale was an intelligent player. He had a talent. He was tough. And he was downright mean sometimes,” said McPhee. “The best thing you could ever say about Dale Hunter was, home or away, injured or healthy, winning or losing, that guy played the same way every night — and it was hard.
“The players will probably say he’s ‘a player’s coach’ because they’d be too afraid not to say that,” said McPhee, straight faced. “But Dale, as we all know, is no-nonsense. And he will push these guys.”
Some Caps, toddlers in ’93, may not know Hunter committed a cheap-shot hit that set a new record (a 21-game suspension) for an on-ice crime. Pierre Turgeon of the Islanders stole the puck from Hunter in the playoffs, scored, skated to the boards, arms up to celebrate and was blasted in the back, suffering a separated shoulder. You have to see it to believe it. And, on YouTube, you’ll see it forever. Hunter said he was wrong, years later.
“I’m a player’s coach, but also the players will know when I’m mad at them,” said Hunter, 51, on Monday. “I’m stern on them because that’s the way you have to be to win games.”
Switching from the easy-riding, run-and-gun coach to the strict ex-star is such a cliche (in several sports) that you wonder why it would ever work. Yet it sometimes does. But, for the Caps, is it too late?