Photo credit: Robb Carr
Dale Hunter played 872 games as a Washington Capitals player. He lasted just 74 behind the team’s bench.
“When I retired as a hockey player I had to retire because I was not that good anymore,” Hunter said with a laugh at his final press conference at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “But this was a tough decision.”
Hunter’s choice was not easy to make. But the reasons that ultimately lead him to make the determination seem clear. The 51-year-old former Caps captain is heading back to London, Ontario to rejoin his family and his empire. There, he co-owns the OHL’s London Knights with his brother Mark. The siblings run everything. Before taking over as Washington’s bench boss, he served as the junior club’s general manager and head coach, positions that his brother assumed in November. The team finished this season with a 49-18-1 record, winning the OHL championship. They now have a chance to take home the biggest prize in juniors, the Memorial Cup.
“I’m going home,” Hunter said Monday. “I’ve got a good thing going at home there and I’ll stay there.”
The Knights are entwined in the Hunters’ DNA. Mark (who is also a former NHL player) and Dale have owned the team since 2000. Since then, they’ve overseen the construction of a nearly 10,000 seat arena for the club, three OHL championships, and a Memorial Cup victory in 2005. The Hunters have also been part of the development of many NHL players, including current Caps John Carlson and Dennis Wideman along with stars like Patrick Kane.
“It’s family business,” said Hunter. “My dad is 76 and he still scouts for us.”
He added: “I’ve been home for a while there. Everybody is a part of the team there, the farm is there, so we’re all a part of it there and something you’ve just got to go home. … My dad and my other brothers, they all go [to Knights game]. My sisters, they go to the games. My other son lives two or three doors down, he goes to university there and my daughter lives there, so pretty much everyone is there.”
After Hunter informed Capitals General Manager George McPhee of his plans at 10 o’clock Monday morning, the GM said he didn’t try to change his mind — he understood his motivations.
“He’s going to head back to London and I guess we’re all fathers and sons and husbands first, before anything else, and if we have our priorities right in this life family comes first,” McPhee told reporters. “Dale needs to go home.”
While Hunter seemed content with this decision — he was chuckling throughout his last session in front of D.C.’s hockey media — his players were clearly disappointed. When Hunter took over the Caps were a disjointed mess. And for few months under the new coach, they remained that way. But as the season slogged on, they began to embrace Hunter’s low scoring and tight-checking system. Players used to scoring goals started playing defense and blocking shots and seemed to take their diminished ice time in stride. Players used to playing defense and blocking shots started playing more defense and blocking even more shots — sometimes with painful consequences — as their roles became pivotal. But most importantly, the team seemed to be playing as a single unit, composed in even the most adverse moments. And that stemmed from the man standing behind them on the bench.
“He made everybody extremely accountable,” young defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He really transformed this team, I think, into a team that works extremely hard, is very honest, one that I think that other teams don’t like playing against.”
Brooks Laich — a well known a fan of previous coach Bruce Boudreau — agreed.
“He taught us as much about leadership and team aspect and respect amongst players and trust in your teammates as he did about hockey,” said the forward. “There were some things culture-wise that had to be adjusted in order for our team to succeed and I thought he did a great job of doing that, put it a step in the right direction.”
For the first time in 10 years, the Capitals are without a head coach as they head into the summer. It will be McPhee’s first offseason search for one as a general manager, a choice that he will take his time with. But he isn’t bitter over Hunter’s decision. Like his players, McPhee believes Hunter’s lessons were invaluable. And regardless of the next coach or playing style, GMGM thinks they will stick.
“I’d rather have him for six months than not at all,” McPhee said. “He had quite an impact on this club. He really taught this club the how of how to win. They all wanted to win, they just didn’t know how. The how is being a team and sacrificing and he sure got that out of this club.”
Additional reporting by Ana Hansen.