Hunter’s life now a tale of two cities

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

LONDON, ON­TARIO | Grow­ing up on a farm, Dale Hunter was no stranger to early morn­ings. This wasn’t just any morn­ing.

It was Nov. 28, and he was leav­ing his old rou­tine and old life with the London Knights be­hind to coach his for­mer team, the Washington Cap­i­tals.

He hopped in as­sis­tant coach and gen­eral man­ager Misha Don­skov’s car and took the two-hour ride to the air­port in Detroit. This was Hunter cross­ing the bor­der from the com­fort­able to the un­known, and the con­ver­sa­tion played that out.

“We talked a lot about a lot of dif­fer­ent things over the course of the last two years,” Don­skov re­called. “A lot about hockey, a lot about Dale’s new chal­lenges. A lot about London and what he built here and the time that he was here with Mark, our play­ers, Washington play­ers, ex­pec­ta­tions in the NHL, where he’s go­ing to live, what the next week’s go­ing to look like.”

True to Hunter’s 24/7 hockey think­ing, they even talked about what he would do for prac­tice that morn­ing. Now 51 and more gray­haired than he was when he left the NHL as a player in 1999, he was ready for a chal­lenge that his brother Mark be­lieved was well over­due.

“It’s hard to leave, but the op­por­tu­nity to come here to coach the Caps, I played here for a long time and never won a Stan­ley Cup,” Dale Hunter said. “It’s your home­town. Ev­ery­body will say you miss your home­town. It’s good peo­ple there and I en­joy it. But the op­por­tu­nity to come coach here and try to win Stan­ley, it’s the per­fect op­por­tu­nity.”

Per­fect be­cause Hunter didn’t

have to com­mit too long, ei­ther. His con­tract lasts through the end of this sea­son, af­ford­ing him the flex­i­bil­ity at year’s end to de­cide on his fu­ture.

It’s the big­gest mys­tery around the Cap­i­tals’ im­me­di­ate fu­ture: Will Hunter re­turn to chase the Cup or re­turn to London and the Knights fran­chise he and Mark built into the envy of the ju­nior hockey world?

“He isn’t pres­sured, be­cause he can come back here,” his fa­ther, Dick, said. “A lot of coaches have no other place to go. If they get fired, where are they go­ing to go? But he’s got a heck of a po­si­tion right here. He can come back any­time.”

Leav­ing the rou­tine

Hunter had his London rou­tine down pat. In the fall, he’d help his fam­ily harvest soy­beans on the farm in Petrolia while com­mut­ing to prac­tice. Work­ing on the farm, work­ing in hockey — it doesn’t get much bet­ter for him.

Hunter racked up more and more wins on the way to be­com­ing the fastest coach in On­tario Hockey League his­tory to reach 300 vic­to­ries, do­ing so in 460 games, and then 400, get­ting there in 599 games. At 451 wins and with crop sea­son over, he agreed to Washington gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge Mcphee’s re­quest to coach the Cap­i­tals.

“He’s in his rou­tine. He knew what to do, so it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, even men­tal­i­ty­wise, when you’re go­ing from kids to pro­fes­sion­als,” his son, Dy­lan, said. “But he’s a pro­fes­sional at what he does and he loves hockey, so I don’t think it was too dif­fi­cult.”

Talk of Hunter re­ject­ing pre­vi­ous over­tures from NHL teams has sur­faced. Ini­tially, how­ever, he chose to stay in the com­fort of London, a city that reveres him for what he has done with the Knights. Mark Hunter said he al­ways thought Dale was ready to jump to the pros, but their fa­ther ac­knowl­edged he was sur­prised when it fi­nally hap­pened.

“Yeah I was, but I also know him and Ge­orge Mcphee are good bud­dies, you know? Him and Ge­orge al­ways got along good, and Ge­orge is a heck of a guy,” Dick Hunter said. “I don’t think he would’ve went [to] any other place. But Ge­orge gave him the call, and that was it.”

Leav­ing con­trol of the team in Mark’s hands helped, too. “Seam­less” was how many de­scribed the tran­si­tion.

Con­stant con­tact

Dale Hunter is plenty busy with the Cap­i­tals, but he didn’t leave the Knights en­tirely be­hind. Mark and Dy­lan Hunter and Don­skov all talk to him mul­ti­ple times a week, ei­ther on the phone or via text mes­sage.

“I talk to them ev­ery day, and I got the OHL pack­age. If I’m not play­ing, I watch it,” Hunter said. “I put it on my com­puter and I watch it at night. If we don’t play on a Fri­day night, I’ll sit in my room and watch it.”

Be­ing able to cede the coach­ing du­ties to Mark, who was be­hind the bench and on the ice for prac­tice even be­fore the change, al­le­vi­ated some of this. But Dale still wor­ries.

Dy­lan noted that help­ing mold young play­ers into grown men was his dad’s fa­vorite part of the job. Lis­ten to Dale Hunter talk about just one of his for­mer pupils, such as David Bol­land, Rick Nash or Corey Perry, and one will re­al­ize he cared be­yond goals, as­sists and wins.

“Coach­ing these kids, you get at­tached to them,” Hunter said. “I knew [Don­skov] was a good guy and I trust him with any kid to make sure he’s taken care of prop­erly, and he does. He makes sure the [host fam­i­lies] are good, the food’s good. So I know they’re taken care of.”

Jim Mckel­lar, who served as the Knights’ as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for 11 years be­fore tak­ing a job as a Chicago Black­hawks scout, said he couldn’t count how many times Dale and Mark Hunter showed an in­ter­est in ex-play­ers’ lives, “whether the player’s a fire­fighter or he’s a star in the Na­tional Hockey League.”

How much Dale Hunter serves as a caring fa­ther fig­ure is a de­par­ture from his no-non­sense, hard-nosed per­son­al­ity as a player.

“I think once you get to know Dale, you get to know the kind of per­son he is,” Don­skov said. “He cares. He cares about his hockey play­ers, he cares about his fam­ily, he cares about his team. He cer­tainly cares about the London Knights.”

Cup dreams

Hunter man­aged to win ju­nior hockey’s Holy Grail, the Me­mo­rial Cup, in 2005, but the tro­phy he re­ferred to on a first-name ba­sis has eluded him.

He played 19 NHL sea­sons, and 1998 was the clos­est he got to win­ning the Stan­ley Cup, when the Cap­i­tals were swept in the fi­nals by the Detroit Red Wings. A 1999 trade to the Colorado Avalanche to give him one last shot ended with a seven-game-se­ries loss to the Dal­las Stars in the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nals.

Even as coach of the Knights, he kept a close eye on the Cap­i­tals, watch­ing just about ev­ery game, and kept in touch with Mcphee reg­u­larly.

“I know that Dale, at least in the time that I’ve known him, he al­ways had his sights on want­ing to go to the Na­tional Hockey League and win a Stan­ley Cup as a coach,” Don­skov said. “He gave up a lot here, but at the same time it was a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity for him and some­thing he wanted to dive into head-first and make a big im­pact.”

The Cap­i­tals would need to make an im­prob­a­ble play­off run to give Hunter the sat­is­fy­ing com­ple­tion of a quest he be­gan as an NHL rookie in 1980. En­ter­ing Thurs­day’s game at the Philadel­phia Fly­ers, the Cap­i­tals were 25-21-5 since Hunter took over, and the play­offs are not cer­tain with eight games left.

It would make for a fun enough spring in Washington that ex­tra help with the crops could wait.

‘No one will know’

As Cap­i­tals owner Ted Leon­sis cor­rectly pointed out, Hunter is a man of few words, es­pe­cially when asked if he has given any thought to the pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn­ing to London as early as this off­sea­son.

“It’s like ev­ery­thing. You’re here. You’re here to win. What­ever hap­pens in the fu­ture hap­pens. You know that,” Hunter said. “That’s the hockey way it should al­ways be. It’s like a hockey player. I’m go­ing to play and play my darn­d­est un­til some­one says no, right?”

There are a lot of dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios that could un­fold, not the least of which is the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Cap­i­tals mak­ing or miss­ing the play­offs. As­sum­ing Mcphee is still mak­ing the calls and wel­comes him back, as he has said he would do, it’s all up to Hunter.

Ever-fo­cused on his job, like his brother, Mark Hunter said he hasn’t re­ally thought ahead to whether he’ll keep coach­ing the Knights be­yond this sea­son.

“We’ll just wait and see how we do in the play­offs and I’ll re­act to that,” he said. “His fo­cus is on get­ting the Caps in the play­offs right now, and our fo­cus is hope­fully win­ning in the play­offs.”

Dy­lan Hunter didn’t learn his dad was leav­ing London for Washington un­til Nov. 27. “He plays stuff pretty close to the chest,” Dy­lan said.

Ob­servers around London are split as to whether they think Hunter will re­turn. It’s a cushy safety net if he wants it, but one year with the Cap­i­tals and back would likely ham­per his chances of get­ting an­other NHL job.

The “God­fa­ther of Sports” Pete James, a sports ra­dio and TV per­son­al­ity in London since 1955, has seen plenty of coaches come and go from the ju­nior ranks. He pointed to Brian Kil­rea, the win­ningest coach in Cana­dian Hockey League his­tory, who spent two years in the NHL as a New York Is­lan­ders as­sis­tant be­fore re­turn­ing be­cause his pas­sion was teach­ing chil­dren.

“Whether it’s Dale’s [path] or not, time alone will tell. . . . All I can say is this: He’s an ex­cel­lent teacher. And he’s taught an aw­ful lot of kids how to play this game, ob­vi­ously, to get them to where they are now,” James said. “It wouldn’t sur­prise me one way or an­other.”

Dy­lan Hunter ac­knowl­edged he had an “inkling” when his dad was on the way out. But noth­ing more than that. And if his de­par­ture was any in­di­ca­tion, Dale Hunter’s decision won’t be public knowl­edge un­til he wants it to be.

“That’s one of the Hunter qual­i­ties: Noth­ing ever leaks out,” Knights ra­dio color an­a­lyst Jim Van Horne said. “There’s an in­ner cir­cle there that’s pretty tight, and when it hap­pens it hap­pens, and no one will know be­fore.”

Spend any time in London, at any bar or res­tau­rant or a Fri­day night at John La­batt Cen­tre, the glis­ten­ing arena his suc­cess helped build, and one thing is clear: London will al­ways wel­come Hunter back.

go­ing to have to pitch in­nings

So that set­tles it. Stras­burg will get the ball April 5, when the Na­tion­als be­gin the sea­son against the Cubs in Chicago, and he’ll keep get­ting it un­til the club shuts him down for the year. In his start last week in Port St. Lu­cie, he seemed to be round­ing into form, throw­ing 85 pitches, hit­ting 96 on the radar gun and al­low­ing the Mets only one run in five in­nings.

Where is he, arm­wise, com­pared to two years ago, the last time he came to camp healthy? “It’s tough to say,” he said. “I pre­pared a lot dif­fer­ently that first year. It was prob­a­bly a lit­tle im­ma­ture of me. But I’m a col­lege guy, and I was used to be­ing ready to go in Fe­bru­ary. I’d be fac­ing a col­lege team, throw­ing three in­nings, and I’d be [air­ing it out]. I think I have a much bet­ter idea now of how to get ready. I re­al­ize I’ve got six weeks be­fore the sea­son starts.”

Nats fans might still be a year away from see­ing the Stras­burg of their dreams, the force of na­ture who struck out 14 in his ma­jor league de­but. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the tin­gle of pos­si­bil­ity when­ever he steps on the mound. With his stuff, there’s al­ways the chance he’ll do what he sets out to do ev­ery game: get ev­ery­body out.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The prospect of win­ning a Stan­ley Cup helped per­suade Dale Hunter to take over as coach of the Cap­i­tals af­ter he failed to win a ti­tle in 19 NHL sea­sons.

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Just 19 months re­moved from Tommy John surgery, Na­tion­als pitcher Stephen Stras­burg was named the team’s Open­ing Day starter.

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