Thursday, December 1, 2011
Is Dale Hunter perfect choice for Caps?
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Before Dale Hunter's first game as head coach of the Washington Capitals, the video scoreboard showed a montage of Hunter moments when he was a player here.
Most of the clips involved the famous bug-eyed stare that opponents knew to mean some sort of violence was about to rain down upon them.
And then in small print on the screen appeared the words: "History says, Welcome Back."
The past three or four days have done little to diminish the significant mythology that surrounds Dale Hunter in this market.
Every day when the players step onto the ice at the Kettler Ice Complex in Arlington, Va., where their practice facility is located, they see a banner of their new head coach fluttering at one end of the rink along with images of other Caps luminaries.
It is different from the mythology that surrounded Wayne Gretzky when he took over the coaching duties of the Phoenix Coyotes after the lockout. But it is significant nonetheless.
Hunter is irrevocably connected to this franchise in a way that few players are.
During one of his first full practices, several dozen fans crowded around to get autographs, a number of them with Hunter jerseys from his playing days.
"I'm not surprised that Dale Hunter became the head coach of the Capitals," former Caps general manager David Poile told ESPN.com. "It totally makes sense to me."
Poile would know. The current Nashville Predators GM acquired the rugged forward from the Quebec Nordiques back at the 1987 draft in Detroit.
Hunter, already an established player, had driven down from the family farm in the Petrolia, Ontario, area to take in the proceedings when he found out he'd been traded.
When the trade was made, people were motioning for Hunter to come down from the stands. His thought was, "Oh no, I don't want to meet people. I'm just here to watch."
"That's Huntsy. He was just first guy on the ice, first guy at the rink in the morning," former Capitals teammate Olaf Kolzig said of Dale Hunter. "I think that more than anything was his leadership ability."
"Then it was like, no, you really need to come down," Hunter recalled with a grin.
"That's how interested he was in the world of hockey," Poile said.
Over the years, Poile found that Hunter could talk hockey nonstop.
"He was very interested in the game, the league, the teams, the strategies," Poile said.
He didn't know it at the time, but Hunter was storing away bits of information that would help him forge a wildly successful, not to mention lucrative, post-playing career as coach and owner of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Empire is not too strong a word for what Hunter and his brother Mark, another longtime NHLer, built in London. The team and the sprawling 2,000-acre family farm have been the twin pillars of Hunter's life for the past decade or so.
Often the two worlds would bleed into each other.
"Especially at harvest time or planting time we go from the arena, me and Mark both, we have combines and we have planters and we help out until it's too dark to see," Hunter told ESPN.com.
"We combine until 12 o'clock or so and then shut 'er down and get ready for the rink again."
Capitals GM George McPhee has known Hunter for years and the two communicated regularly. He recalled after Hunter joined the Caps approaching him during the season about renewing his contract. Hunter stopped McPhee and told him they would talk in the summer.
"He said, 'If you want me to come back I'll sign,'" McPhee recalled.
Then Hunter added something to the effect that he wasn't worried about getting a deal done and that he wasn't interested in stealing anyone's money. He ended up staying in Washington for most of 12 seasons. He played in 1,407 regular-season games and another 186 postseason contests. He made it to the Stanley Cup finals once with the Caps in 1998.
Longtime Washington Capital Peter Bondra said he was always pleased to have played alongside Hunter as opposed to playing against him. Still, it didn't stop Hunter from every once in a while sticking his elbow in Bondra's ear during practice.
"I wouldn't give this title to just anyone," Bondra told ESPN.com. "But if I could just label him now, I would call him 'old-time hockey.'
"The way he practiced, the way he played, you had to respect him. I was lucky to have him on my side for nine years."
Another former teammate, Olaf Kolzig, is now a goaltending consultant with the Caps. As a rookie, Kolzig became close friends with Hunter even though the forward had already been in Washington for a couple years.
"He lived for the playoffs," Kolzig said. "He was a guy he couldn't wait for the playoffs to come around and just one of those guys that would just seem to bring everybody along for the ride in playoffs by the way he elevated his game and his tenacity and his play right through the whistle. Even though he maybe didn't hear the whistle.
"That's Huntsy. He was just first guy on the ice, first guy at the rink in the morning. I think that more than anything was his leadership ability."
Now, as the scoreboard noted, history says welcome back.
If this looks like some sort of nostalgia trip meant to appease fans, well, that would be a shame. But that's hardly Hunter's style, and it's not how McPhee does business.
And separating the mythology from the man who is now charged with getting this talented Capitals team into the playoff hunt and beyond will be an interesting exercise.
Certainly there are lots of examples of coaches who have struggled to make the jump from coaching junior hockey to coaching grown men at the NHL level. There are also lots of people who think Hunter is exactly the right person for this job at this time.
"He understands the game as well as anyone I've ever met," McPhee said. "He was a highly intelligent player and he's a highly intelligent coach. He just has a great way with people."
When the team started to go sideways after a 7-0 start, McPhee said he really considered making only one move -- bringing in Hunter.
He wasn't looking for an anti-Bruce Boudreau or someone to run against type, but simply to bring in Dale Hunter.
"I wasn't looking for a contrast," McPhee said. "I was looking for a good hockey coach and a good hockey man."
There is no pretense about Hunter. There is an earthiness about him, a simplicity that is appealing but which should not be mistaken for a lack of intelligence. Just as opposing players underestimated Hunter, to their own peril, no one should underestimate his ability to do this job, Poile said.
Hunter didn't have to take this job. But the lure of coming home, at least to his longtime NHL home, was great, as was the chance to tackle an even greater challenge.
"It's because it's the Capitals," Hunter told ESPN.com. "It's a challenge.
"It does feel good. A lot of good memories here. A lot of the same people. It's memories. Lots of battles, finals, even when we got beat by Pittsburgh two years in a row, they won the Stanley Cup, stuff like that, we were right there with them. A break here or two, but that's hockey and that's what makes it fun."
Like the Caps, Hunter is searching for his first ring.
"I wanted to go and coach and see if we can get a winner here," he said.
"It's a challenge and everybody needs challenges in life and, for myself right here, it's a challenge. I have to use the noodle very much," Hunter said with a laugh.
"It gets the old spark going again. You know what I mean?"
Much will be made in the coming days about getting Alex Ovechkin going and his relationship with the team's franchise player. Hunter doesn't view it that way.
"He's keyed on every night so it's a tough job," Hunter said of his captain. "It puts pressure on these guys. Every top-end guy feels it. But I try and rally everybody, it's a team game, it's a team game.
"It's not one guy doing it. We need him to go just like we need our checkers to check, we need our D to play D, we need our offensive D to make good plays, you know what I mean? We need goaltending. No one individual ever won the Stanley Cup. It's always a team game."
And does he really have only one suit?
Hunter laughs again.
"Yeah, that's true," he said. Then he whispers conspiratorially that he's got a new tie, one that came courtesy of owner Ted Leonsis.
"I got a new red tie. Ted bought that. I got rid of my green colors of the [London] Knights. He said you've got to get some red."