Dale Hunter will mold the Capitals in his own image

Thomas Boswell
Columnist November 28, 2011

Dale Hunter has come back to town to give the Washington Capitals a new identity.

His.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

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?

Has the team, especially McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis, been too patient, too decent and too reluctant to admit previous mistakes?

Did they wait so long to fire the adorable, grumpy Boudreau that the damage has been done? Has four years of a coach whose nickname is “Gabby” and who constantly yells “work harder” at players while having another piece of pizza himself, too much cognitive dissonance for too long?

During the offseason two ex-Capitals went public about the country club atmosphere that undermined discipline on the team. Once you’ve tolerated a star system for years, how can the same coach possibly reverse the trend?

In a crisis, when unpleasant realities need to be faced, the Caps’ ability to deny the obvious and believe their own cheerful talk is sometimes stunning.

In May, the day after the Caps were swept, McPhee said, “I don’t think anything is missing,” then cited injuries and backed Boudreau. A few minutes later, Boudreau blamed “bad breaks.” I left shaking my head. The Caps run an admirable organization.

They have done innumerable things correctly to earn their Rock the Red sellouts. But they really hate to admit bad decisions. Which leads to more of them.

On Monday, after Boudreau was fired, McPhee said: “I didn’t think it was Bruce’s fault we lost in the playoffs and I didn’t want to finger him. . . . I don’t view this as a negative or a failure at all. I think Bruce came in and did a great job and his time was up.”

When you fire your coach, that’s a failure. It means you wasted six months. Now, you must bring in a rookie coach on the fly in midseason to work with Boudreau’s staff. That’s a negative. It’s not a sin. You made a tough decision in May; by November, it was a flop. But admit it. How can you expect players to admit and correct shortcomings if the bosses don’t?

“I don’t think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin,” added McPhee when asked about the star’s deep season-long slump. “I think it has everything to do with the team not playing well. . . . It’s not an individual.

“You can’t look the other way,” concluded McPhee.

Actually, the Caps are pretty good at it. The elephant in the room is Ovi and his pachyderm-sized contract. How do you get him to play better, enjoy it more and buy into defense?

“I told Dale, ‘You do what you want with the lineup. You make the decisions on who plays where and how much and everything else,’ ” said McPhee. Was it possible Hunter might reconsider Ovechkin’s captaincy?

“That’s not going to happen,” said McPhee. Oh, okay.

The Caps’ chain of accountability needs to start higher up the ladder than Boudreau. But Gabby wasn’t the only one the Caps tuned out. For months they’ve heard themselves accused of being an undisciplined team. They didn’t just ignore Boudreau. They ignored McPhee and their owner, too. Recently, they’ve almost tried to prove their critics correct.

The Boudreau firing and the Hunter hiring should be an opportunity for the Caps, including those at the top, to take their share of the weight. Not too much, because the Caps’ world really is still a bountiful one. Just some.

The Caps often compare players to students who need to be taught. But kids sometimes respond better to teachers who don’t know all the answers.

More on Boudreau firing/Hunter hiring:

Hunter addresses the media

What should Hunter do first?

Capitals fire Bruce Boudreau; Dale Hunter named coach

Video: McPhee on Boudreau, ‘The tank was empty’

Poll: Was it the right move?

Leonsis thanks Boudreau

D.C. SportsBog: 10 Boudreau moments

Hunter jumps from OHL to NHL

Q&A: Boswell on firing

Photos: Boudreau fired

Box Seats: He’ll be missed, but it was necessary

Bog: Dale Hunter, cockroach pranks, and the biggest goal in caps history

Box Seats: Why Bruce had to go

Ovechkin on Boudreau

Ex-teammates praise Hunter

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