Washington Capitals center Dale Hunter will miss 21 games -- one quarter of next season -- and lose approximately $150,000 in salary for his post-whistle check on New York Islanders center Pierre Turgeon in the final game of their playoff series last week, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman announced yesterday.

The penalty is the stiffest ever handed out by the league for an on-ice incident and signaled a change of attitude in the NHL.

"This is the way I'm going to deal with these types of incidents," Bettman said. "I'm not and the league is not going to tolerate this. If this is not enough of a deterrent, then we'll have to find something that is. But I happen to believe this will be a deterrent because I believe this is a severe penalty."

Hunter will be prohibited from games (including exhibitions), practices (including training camp) and group workout sessions. He can use team facilities to work out on his own and receive medical treatment from club trainers. He can resume practicing with the Capitals two weeks before his suspension ends.

Hunter, a 13-year veteran who will be 33 in July, was the Capitals' leading scorer in the Patrick Division semifinal series against the Islanders. But his points were overshadowed when he delivered a check and punch that sent Turgeon, who had just scored the final New York goal, into the boards with 8:31 left in the third period of the Islanders' series-clinching victory. Turgeon suffered a separated shoulder, which kept him out of the first two games of the division finals against Pittsburgh. It is not clear when Turgeon will return.

News of Hunter's suspension elicited contrasting reactions from the two teams. While Islanders management thought the punishment too lenient, Capitals management deemed it too severe.

Hunter said in a statement released by the team yesterday that he thought the suspension was "unwarranted." Later, in a phone conversation from his offseason home in Petrolia, Ont., he said the process was fair.

But when asked if he thought the suspension was fair, he said: "Well, that is their decision. I know I'm disappointed. It's a lot more than what was done in the past. When {the Flyers' Dave} Brown broke {the Rangers' Tomas} Sandstrom's jaw with a cross check {in 1987}, it was only 15 games. It is a different era, I guess."

Several players have received longer suspensions for violations of NHL drug policy. But until now, the Chicago Blackhawks' Tom Lysiak's 20-game suspension in 1983, for abuse of a linesman, was the longest ever assessed for an incident during a game.

Islanders officials were skeptical that the suspension is severe enough to curb violent behavior on the ice.

"I'm not sure it's going to be a deterrent," Islanders General Manager Don Maloney told reporters last night in Pittsburgh prior to Game 2 of that series.

Capitals General Manager David Poile said Monday afternoon that he didn't expect a decision until later this week, in part because it was unclear how quickly Turgeon would return to the lineup.

"I didn't anticipate he would make the decision today," Poile said, "and I have a personal opinion on that too."

Poile would not elaborate, saying only that the punishment was a "tough pill to swallow." It is, Poile said, "very unfair to the player, Dale Hunter, and it certainly puts the Washington Capitals behind the eight-ball with one of our best players out for the first quarter of the season. That is a big penalty to pay."

Poile has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the job of NHL senior vice president for hockey operations. In such a job, he would rule on these sorts of cases.

"This is a clear message that Gary Bettman is sending to players in the NHL," Poile said. "I can only think of many incidents that happened in the past, which were much worse than this. So, if they were repeated today, I wouldn't dare guess what the suspensions would be for those."

Capitals Coach Terry Murray seemed surprised when informed of the decision.

"That is very severe and a tremendous loss," Murray said. "Boy, that is a very harsh penalty in my opinion."

Bettman, who asked an independent doctor to look at Turgeon's medical charts, said the extent of the injury was a consideration, but not the determining factor. Bettman declined to comment when asked if he believed that Hunter struck Turgeon without realizing that Turgeon had scored a moment earlier. Hunter explained after the game that he thought play was still in progress.

Under terms of the suspension, the Capitals will withhold $150,000 of Hunter's salary and pay that sum to the league. The money will go to a league-run emergency fund for players.

Bettman said the team would not be fined additionally because Murray was not responsible for Hunter's actions. Bettman also said it didn't make sense to suspend Hunter for future playoff games.

"When you punish somebody, it should be as quickly as possible," he said. "Secondly, if you decided to suspend him for the playoffs and the Capitals didn't make the playoffs, then there is no penalty to be served. Finally, in the competitive aspect, it is conceivable that this penalty will keep them from making the playoffs, which, effectively would have the same result. And I reject the notion that the regular season is not important."

During this season, players who were disciplined generally were suspended for non-game days, meaning they lost pay. However, Bettman said that policy is likely to change and that punishment likely will become more severe.

"While I reserve the right to look at it more closely again over the summer, my initial inclination is that we are going to discipline in accordance with the Dale Hunter mode as opposed to what we have done prior to this season," Bettman said.

Even Hunter conceded that the philosophy espoused by Bettman is likely to change players' behavior.

"The commissioner is giving stiff penalties and trying to stop anything," Hunter said.

Hunter will not be allowed to play with the Capitals until the 21st regular season game is complete, which is likely to be in late November. Hunter will enter in the second year of a three-year contract that pays him $600,000 a season.

Bettman said the suspension will stand even if Hunter is traded or claimed by another team in the expansion draft. However, there is no indication that the Capitals are planning such a move.

Despite negative publicity surrounding the incident -- which was endlessly replayed on sports shows in the days after the series -- Hunter remains one of the most respected players on the Capitals. A tough competitor who generally steps to the side when the spotlight sweeps his way, Hunter exhibits a strong desire to win and has earned a reputation for his aggressive style of play.

"Hockey is a big part of my life and that's the hard part," Hunter said. "I will miss much of it until November. It hurts."

He added: "It's tough on the family. I've got kids old enough to understand. They don't come out and say anything, but it's hard."

21 GAMES: Dale Hunter, Washington, 1993, for a blindside check of Pierre Turgeon of the N.Y. Islanders after a goal in a playoff game.

20 GAMES: Tom Lysiak, Chicago, 1983, for intentionally tripping a linesman.

16 GAMES: Eddie Shore, Boston, 1933, for hitting Toronto's Ace Bailey over the head with a stick.

15 GAMES: (3 regular season, 12 playoff games) Maurice Richard, Montreal, 1955, for leveling linesman Cliff Thompson during a scuffle with Boston's Hal Laycoe.

15 GAMES: Wilf Paiement, Colorado, 1978, for swinging his stick and hitting Detroit's Dennis Polonich in the face.

15 GAMES: Dave Brown, Philadelphia, 1987, for cross-checking Tomas Sandstrom of the N.Y. Rangers across the face.

14 GAMES: Wayne Maki, St. Louis, 1969, for slashing Ted Green in an exhibition game. He served his suspension in the minor leagues, after being assigned to Buffalo (AHL).

12 GAMES: Ron Hextall, Philadelphia, 1989, for attacking Montreal defenseman Chris Chelios in a playoff game.