A Long Wait for Capitals' Hunter
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page D1
Dale Hunter has a salt-and-pepper beard and he has heard players teasingly call him "Grandpa" and sometimes he feels just as his father did Thursday night he feels like a father to them all. He's 37 years old, and he's been around this league longer than any of them, and around this team for 11 long, often difficult years.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind, then, that when the Capitals received the Prince of Wales Trophy Thursday night in Buffalo, Hunter was the one to receive it. And while Dick beamed with fatherly pride, the players looked at the man they called "Huntsy" with all the excitement of young kids.
"It's a big thrill, because it was a long time coming, you know," Hunter said, grinning. "In 18 years, I've been to the conference finals three times, I was swept all three times. Now, to be in this situation to be playing in June like this is unbelievable."
He knows what these sweet Junes feel like, but only from his brothers' descriptions. His brother Dave won three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers in the mid-1980s. His brother Mark won one with the Calgary Flames in 1989. For years, Dale was the little brother longing for the day when he'd grow up and get what his big brothers already had.
"I was the only one missing out," he said.
Lately, though, Dale has wondered if the growing up part had come and gone and the Stanley Cup part had simply passed him by. It was hard not to think about that when he had that 37th birthday last summer, the summer after he failed to make the playoffs for the first time in his career. Things weren't looking too good for the Capitals. And, by extension, things weren't looking too good for Dale.
"Sometimes you do wonder," he said. "You don't make the playoffs, things don't go your way for a while, and then sure, you figure at my age, there aren't too many chances left.
"The Stanley Cup is something you dream about as a kid," he continued, "and if it never comes through for you, no matter what happens in your career, then you're always going to be missing a piece."
Not that Dale said much about it. That wasn't his way. Each year, when the season ended in the spring ended disappointingly, for the most part he returned to his farm in Ontario and started his usual summer. "I'd plant soybeans," he said. And his father watched and prayed quietly that the chance would finally come for his youngest son.
"I hope so badly he gets a ring," Dick Hunter said Thursday, still giddy from seeing Dale hold the Prince of Wales Trophy at center ice. "He never complained. He's the kind of kid who doesn't worry about anything he just takes it the way it is. He's like his mother was, in that way. He just plays and that's it. But now he's got his chance. I really wanted him to get this chance."
He's not the only one. After Thursday's game was over, an ESPN camera crew hustled to find Joe Juneau, the 30-year-old forward whose overtime goal put the Capitals into these Stanley Cup finals. Juneau is used to being a big-moment hero. He has four game-winning goals in this postseason alone. On this night, though, he was distracted when the cameramen shined the light in his face and asked how he felt about beating Dominik Hasek one last time.
"Look at Huntsy!" he said, ignoring questions and pointing to Hunter, as he made his way to center ice. "You don't want to miss this! Look at him! You don't want to miss this!"
Like many of his teammates, Juneau couldn't help but look to Hunter Thursday night and feel a special measure of pleasure. Around the dressing room, player after player Olaf Kolzig, Phil Housley, Reekie made a point of talking about how great this is for Hunter, their sentiments unprompted and impassioned. And the feeling didn't stop there.
George McPhee may be the general manager, long retired from his career as a player and already privy to one trip to the Stanley Cup finals, as the assistant general manager for Vancouver in 1994. But he's only a year or two older than Hunter, and he hasn't even been around the league as long as the man who is captain of his team. He was thinking of Hunter on Thursday, and he was thinking of him last Tuesday night, during Game 5 at MCI Center, when the Capitals had a chance to end the series on their home ice.
"I was really hoping that he could have carried the trophy at home the other night," McPhee said. "I don't get too wound up at games, but I wanted to win it at home and I wanted Dale Hunter to hold it.
"I am very proud and happy for Dale. They don't come any better than that guy, and the way he plays they just don't come any better. He's been a great role model for this team."
McPhee had to wait until Thursday to see Hunter get his reward, but the Capitals made certain that it was Hunter who first touched the Prince of Wales trophy. Who else could it be? There was no one better to represent this franchise, and its long wait, than he. Perhaps the only person more long-suffering and more deserving of this moment is Abe Pollin, the owner, whose superstitious nature prevented him from attending the game in Buffalo, for fear he'd put a hex on the 6-1 road record the Capitals had acquired in his absence.
So McPhee watched Hunter hold his trophy, then he made sure to call Pollin. And when he made that phone call, he quickly found himself scouring the locker room for Hunter.
"Where's Huntsy? Have you seen Huntsy?" McPhee asked players, until he was directed to a back dressing room where he found Hunter what else? celebrating the moment with his father. "Mr. Pollin wants to speak to you," McPhee told Hunter. And Hunter crossed the room to the telephone, where the longtime player and the longtime owner shared the celebration briefly.
"He just said he was so proud of us and how we stuck together," Hunter said of that conversation. "He just really wanted me to go tell all the guys how proud he is. He was excited. He was as excited as I am."
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