It took a while until Dale Hunter was able to say it out loud, even to his wife, Karynka. He was ready to retire -- his aching back and shoulders told him so, even if he ignored all the gray hair -- but it was still hard to talk about.

Finally, yesterday, Hunter, 38, stepped up to a podium and made it official: After 19 seasons in the NHL, he is no longer a professional hockey player. He will rejoin the Washington Capitals, a team he played with for 12 years before a brief stint in Colorado last spring, but he will be working out of the spotlight, coaching the team's young prospects in his new position as player development instructor.

And unlike a few months ago, when he and Karynka could barely say "retirement" around each other, the words came out much more easily than he expected yesterday.

"I just didn't want to be sitting there when I was 60 and think, `If only I had worked harder,' " Hunter said at an MCI Center news conference. "But I can leave knowing that was not the case with me. I pushed this little body to the limit."

Hunter was listed at 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds. He always seemed a little smaller when you met him on the street, but much, much bigger when you met him on the ice. He was best known for nettling opponents to distraction, starting fights exactly when his team needed a boost and throwing his body in front of oncoming pucks and players. He is the NHL's all-time leader in playoff penalty minutes, with 729 over 186 games.

But Hunter made significant offensive contributions, retiring as the only NHL player to record more than 300 goals and 1,000 points while still racking up more than 3,000 penalty minutes.

He holds virtually every postseason Capitals record, including games played, goals, assists, points, power-play goals and, of course, penalty minutes. Overall, Hunter finished with 1,020 points and 3,565 penalty minutes in 1,407 games, although he will likely be remembered in Washington more for a few particular goals than for statistics.

In 1988, he scored the overtime game-winner in Game 7 of a best-of-seven playoff series against Philadelphia, completing the Capitals' comeback from a three games-to-one deficit. Hunter smiled yesterday as a video of that goal played on a nearby monitor, and his expression grew to a grin as the highlight tape advanced to Washington's 1998 run to the Stanley Cup finals.

But he still is wistful when talking about the opportunity he lost when Detroit swept Washington in the finals.

"It's always going to be a nick out of my career," he said, looking out from the podium to several of the Capitals prospects, who are in town for a brief training camp. "Boys, the closest I ever came to it was after 18 years in the league, so don't think you can just wait until next year or the next year after that. You have to work your hardest all the time."

Hunter has spent the last week working with the prospects, adjusting to his new role. Once the hockey season starts, Hunter will travel around to visit the prospects as they play for their junior and European league teams, providing advice and coaching both on and off the ice.

He will also spend some time each month working in Portland with the Capitals' minor league affiliate and in Washington working with the Capitals' own young players.

His former teammates will be happy to get the visit, although they'll miss him when he is traveling or working out of his home town of Petrolia, Ontario.

"It's too bad for me that he didn't retire two years ago because of all the pucks he shot at my head," goaltender Olaf Kolzig joked. "My blood pressure will probably go down a little bit now, but seriously, he'll really be missed. A little bit of the fun will be gone, and dinner will get a little quieter on the road because Hunts won't be there telling all those stories.

"I guess now we'll be telling stories about the time when we played with a guy named Dale Hunter."