The Washington Capitals took to the ice at their practice facility in Arlington on Monday afternoon on what could have been any other day, until the man whose image is adorning a banner on one end of the rink stepped out to join the team.
Dale Hunter emerged from the dressing room to the cheers and applause from a crowd of more than 100 fans at Kettler Iceplex as the former Capitals great made his practice debut as Washington’s head coach. Hours earlier, Hunter, 51, was named the 15th head coach in the Capitals’ 38-year history as the team announced he would be replacing Bruce Boudreau.
General Manager George McPhee attributed the need for a coaching change to the Capitals’ recent struggles — they are 3-7-1 in the last 11 games and fresh off a humbling loss to a depleted Buffalo Sabres squad heading into Tuesday’s matchup with St. Louis — and because “players were no longer responding to Bruce.”
So for his first-ever NHL coaching job, Hunter inherits the task of elevating the Capitals, individually and collectively, to a performance level fitting of a team that can be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup come spring. It’s a position that includes hurdles such as buttoning down Washington’s defense, which is second worst in the NHL, giving up an average of 3.27 goals per game, and igniting the play of struggling captain Alex Ovechkin to his former MVP self.
But Hunter, although a decorated NHL player and established coach at the junior level, has no previous professional coaching experience on his resume. His hiring marks the fourth consecutive coach the Capitals have brought in who had never been an NHL head coach before arriving in Washington.
“Coaching is coaching,” McPhee said, “and he’s been coaching at a good level and at a high level. The same questions were asked of Bruce when he came here and he had an outstanding record here. The man played in the league for 19 years. He’s played for a lot of coaches. Dale really understands this game. He knows two things — farming and hockey. He’s really good at both.”
McPhee added that he’s been in constant contact with Hunter for 12 years and that he always hoped that the timing would eventually work out so that the former Washington captain would return as coach of his former team.
Hunter was in the midst of his 11th season as coach of the Ontario Hockey League franchise he owns, the London Knights, when he accepted McPhee’s offer. He became the fastest coach in OHL history to reach 450 wins on Saturday, along the way helping to mold NHL stars such as Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Rick Nash and Dan Girardi along with Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Dennis Wideman.
The Petrolia, Ontario, native is identified with the hard-working, borderline-nasty style of play that made him endearing to fans and aggravating to opponents during his NHL career. As a coach with the Knights, he established a no-nonsense reputation that demands commitment from the entire lineup.
“I’m a players’ coach, and also the players will know when I’m mad at them,” Hunter said Monday. “I’m stern on them. That’s the way you have to be to win games. Mistakes — everybody makes mistakes out there. But if they continue making mistakes, then there’s repercussions.”
Second-year defenseman Carlson, who played for Hunter during the 2008-09 season, said the Capitals can expect to be held to a high standard.
“I think I was one of the better players on my team there,” Carlson said, “and I certainly didn’t get a free pass. Can’t see much changing there . . . . Every practice if I wasn’t on my game I certainly wasn’t going to go into the locker room like nothing happened.”
In his first day in his new capacity with the Capitals, Hunter made it very clear to the players what he wanted to see during practice. He didn’t alter the drills or line combinations because he wanted players to be comfortable enough to maintain an up-tempo session.
“It just kind of happened quick,” Karl Alzner said of Hunter’s meeting with players. “He went over the stuff that he wanted to make sure we did. As soon as he left the room, me and Wides kind of looked at each other like, ‘Don’t mess up.’ He’s strict about what he wants and that’s great. I think it’s really going to shake things up here and that’s nice.”
As the practice progressed, Hunter appeared to interact with every player. He jokingly shoved Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks, he skated across ice and sought out Alexander Semin, and held court with Ovechkin.
Hunter may be new to the NHL coaching ranks, but his 19 seasons, 1,407 regular season games, 1,020 points, tenure as a captain along with the retired No. 32 hanging on the wall in Arlington and in the rafters at Verizon Center speak to the players.
The bulk of his career came in Washington, where he played 872 games from the 1987-88 to 1998-99 seasons and spent parts of five seasons as captain. He amassed 181 goals and 556 points as a Capital, along with a franchise-record 2,003 penalty minutes, and became one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
“Thinking just about Dale as a coach, he’s played on every line,” said center Jeff Halpern, who was a rookie with the Capitals in 1999 when Hunter was the team’s director of player development. “It’s different personalities you have to deal with. But I think he’s done all those jobs and all those roles. So for myself or people that knew him as a player, you have a ton of respect for him. I think you know that he can appreciate what every guy brings to the table.”
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