Dale Hunter likes to say that he considers the Washington Capitals to be his team, no matter where his career takes him. But once again they will be his team from afar, following the announcement Monday that he will not come back to Washington for another season as coach.
Two days after the Capitals were eliminated from the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the New York Rangers, Hunter decided to return to his home, family and the junior hockey team he co-owns with his brother in London, Ontario, rather than extend his first coaching stint in the NHL.
“This was a tough decision,” Hunter said Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It always is, but weighing both sides and going home to be with the family and running the family business outweighed it. I’d love to win the Stanley Cup coaching, but even if they win a Stanley Cup next year, I’ll feel a part of it. I’ll always feel a part of it here.”
While most of the players said they were taken aback by Hunter’s decision, star left wing and captain Alex Ovechkin was unfazed.
“Family is always in the first position. It’s his decision,” Ovechkin said. “It’s his decision, so we have to live with it.”
When Hunter was hired to replace Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, he agreed only to finish out the rest of the 2011-12 season and then “revisit” a longer tenure at the end of the year. Hunter made it clear he enjoyed six months behind an NHL bench guiding the Capitals to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals but the draw of going home and resuming his daily duties with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights and help with the family farm in Petrolia, Ontario, was significant.
The Knights have been a lucrative and comfortable family business for the Hunters since they bought the team in 2000. Dale’s brother, Mark, is the general manager and served as coach once Dale joined Washington. His son, Dylan, is an assistant coach, and his father, Dick, still scouts for the team. Hunter plans to join the Knights later this week as they prepare to take part in the prestigious Memorial Cup tournament in Quebec as the OHL champions.
Asked if there were any scenarios that would prompt him to consider returning to the NHL to coach again in the future, Hunter was characteristically blunt.
“No. There are none,” Hunter said. “I’m going back to the farm, the team and family.”
General Manager George McPhee was disappointed but admitted that the news wasn’t completely unexpected. McPhee added that Hunter will remain connected with the Capitals and plans to work with the scouting staffs at the entry draft in late June.
While Hunter’s departure may not have caught management completely off guard, players were surprised by the decision and although they understood his reasoning, the majority were upset that grizzled 51-year-old would not be their coach in 2012-13.
“I asked him if there’s anything I can do to convince him to stay,” Brooks Laich said. “He taught us as much about leadership and team aspects and respect amongst players and trusting your teammates as he did about hockey.”
Said Nicklas Backstrom: “We played good hockey in the playoff and I think he’s been doing so many good things for this team. I really wanted to see him back next year but unfortunately he’s not. It’s not good.”
Hunter wasn’t afraid to disrupt egos of players as he made decisions throughout his time with Washington, from benching veteran players to limiting the ice time of stars like Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. He demanded that every player fall in line to their roles, block shots and make the effort that he expected from them. It wasn’t always the smoothest ride as players voiced grievances throughout the regular season, but by the playoffs the uniformity within the group was evident in every game.
“I thought Dale got a lot of really good messages across with this team,” Jeff Halpern said. “Did a lot of things that this team needed as far as a commitment in certain areas of the game, whether it was defensively – or just, the word ‘accountable’ was kind of beaten to death in the beginning of this year, but I think he got it to the point where everyone expected a certain style of play from each other. And I thought that was the best imprint that he made on this team.”