The eager 24-year-old rookie and the grizzled 39-year-old stood alone on a sheet of ice. They found a corner of the rink and made it their own, dropping puck after puck, working on faceoff techniques. It was difficult to tell who was having more fun.
Washington Capitals forward Jeff Halpern is the youngster. The teacher is Dale Hunter, the Capitals' recently retired captain, the gutsy center who played with the zest and enthusiasm of a rookie until the very end. Hunter is adapting to life after playing hockey, though the sport remains a big part of his life. He's a few months into his role as the team's player development instructor, and though the rush isn't quite like what he experienced during his 19 years playing in the NHL, he still savors being near the game.
"I'm really enjoying working with the young guys," Hunter said. "That's the fun stuff. I'd love to see a guy like Jeff go out and score a goal after we work together and apply some of the things we're working on. When you see a kid work hard and get rewarded for it, it's a great experience.
"It's not the same as playing, but I like being around the guys and I love hockey. I played this game for 19 years, so I must love it. But I made a decision to retire and it was the right time and things are going good. I'm having a good time."
As it turned out, Halpern, a Potomac native who grew up watching Hunter, netted his first NHL goal a day after the extra session with his mentor. Class is always in session.
"There's a certain gravity to everything he says," Halpern said. "He tells you you should jump off a bridge before a game, and you're nodding along with him. He was always a guy I looked up to."
Following 12 seasons in Washington, Hunter ranks second in franchise history in games played, third in assists and points, and first in all playoff categories. Hunter's penalty minutes total is second in NHL history, and he's the only player to score either 300 goals or 1,000 points while accumulating at least 3,000 penalty minutes. All of it might culminate with an induction into the Hall of Fame.
The only thing to elude Hunter was the thing he wanted most--the Stanley Cup. Last March, the Capitals dealt Hunter to Cup contender Colorado, but the Avalanche ended up blowing a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals to Dallas. Hunter knew it was the end for him and tears trickled down his cheeks after the Game 7 loss. But in that pain Hunter found a new calling. His former teammate, Michel Goulet, is a roving instructor for Colorado, and Hunter realized he might enjoy a similar role in Washington, exactly what the organization wanted to hear.
"I always said the easiest thing about retiring was staying in the game, and staying close to the game," assistant coach Tim Hunter said. "I can see that with Dale, too. He really enjoys being around the room, talking to the guys. And he still has an input like he did when he was playing here."
Besides working with young players in Washington's system--whether in the NHL, the minors, junior or college hockey--Hunter watches the Capitals' games from the press box and discusses nuances with players between periods and at practice.
"He's not by any means squealing on anybody, but he knows the guys," Coach Ron Wilson said. "And if you ask him what he thinks is going through a player's mind, he has insights into how to reach a guy.
"You can ask him why is someone struggling, and Dale will say, 'Don't say this, because when you said that the last two years it seemed to work against you.' Dale's seen all that stuff. He's been a big part of this [locker] room."
"We love to have him around," said defenseman Calle Johansson, Hunter's friend of 10 years. "This business needs him and he needs this business. We've done everything together for 10 years and it's great to still see him."
Capitals Notes: The Capitals sent forward Miika Elomo back to Portland and will recall Alexandre Volchkov today. . . . Defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Jamie Huscroft, who have been ill, both practiced yesterday and are expected to play Saturday. . . . The Capitals plan to unveil a new TV commercial tonight at 6 p.m. on their Web site, www.washingtoncaps.com.