Now you know what it’s like, Washington Capitals fans, to be on the receiving end of a Dale Hunter crosscheck — right in the snout. It hurts like, oh, a 2-1 Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers. Or maybe like a triple-overtime loss to the Rangers. Or maybe like a loss to the Rangers after they scored the tying goal with 7.6 seconds left in regulation. Or maybe like all three put together.
In the past couple of weeks, Caps Nation has had to absorb a succession of blows — and Monday brought another one. After 60 regular-season games and two stirring playoff series, Hunter called it quits as coach and went home to his junior hockey club and family farm in London, Ontario. If he wasn’t such a legend, you’d give him a double minor.
Not that this was any blindside hit. There was the sense, from the day Dale rode to the rescue in November, that it might be a short-term gig for him. He’s close to his kin — something we’ve known since he was a ribcage-rattling player — and heavily involved in their various enterprises. Unless a midlife crisis suddenly took hold of him, he wasn’t going to ditch it all to ride the NHL roller coaster. Hunts is way too grounded for that.
Even as the playoffs progressed, and the Capitals fought their way, Hunter style, past defending champion Boston, there was no indication Dale was getting “the bug.” His sessions with the media seemed about as enjoyable for him as waterboarding. The on-ice part — the coaching, the teaching — clearly appealed to him, but the other duties that came with the position didn’t.
Bruce Boudreau, his predecessor, was a veritable Amway salesman … at a time when the franchise, eager to increase its footprint in Washington, probably needed one. Hunter was all about hockey; heck, he didn’t even have the wardrobe for the job. He liked to joke that he owned only one suit.
The instinct is to say, “This could only happen to the Caps,” and it’s not necessarily the wrong instinct. I asked George McPhee how many people he could think of who could be successful NHL coaches but, like Hunter, simply chose not to be.
His answer: “One. He’s a unique guy. That’s why you love Dale.”
So it’s not like the Capitals can go down to Wal-Mart and find another just like him. That’s why his leaving is such a downer for the organization. In his six months as coach, he got the Caps to play in the selfless, disciplined way they had been resisting in recent years — and now he’s gone.
“He really taught this club the ‘how’ to win,’ ” McPhee said. “They wanted to win, but they didn’t know the ‘how.’ The ‘how’ is being a team and sacrificing. … He had this club playing the way he played: the same every day.”
Under Hunter, the Capitals became less star-driven and more effort-driven. As Jason Chimera put it, “He had guys playing a lot harder, that’s for sure. He coached the right way. Maybe some nights you didn’t deserve to play that much” — and so you sat. This was a new experience for Alex Ovechkin, among others, and Ovie wasn’t too thrilled about it. But GMGM feels it made him “a more well-rounded player.”
Hunter’s defense-first emphasis also raised the profile of unsung types such as Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle. Too many players, Dale said, had a tendency to get “too fancy. They were trying to outscore teams instead of outplaying teams.” His system was built more on “chip in and chase.”
“He gave guys like myself an opportunity to help the team more,” Hendricks said. “With that, I gained confidence in myself and my game. I became a shut-down guy who played against the other team’s top forwards, not a fourth-line guy who fights and scores a little bit.”
It’s only natural to wonder what would have happened this season if Hunter had been hired sooner — and had all of training camp and 82 games to re-educate the Capitals. Would they have gone deeper into the playoffs, or did they max out by pushing the Rangers to the limit in the second round?
It’s also only natural to wonder how lasting Hunter’s impact will be. Have the players truly learned their lesson, what it takes to succeed in the playoffs, or are some of them itching to get back to a more freewheeling style, one that looks great on the stat sheet but not as good in the won/lost column?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer to the first question, and we’ll have to wait for the answer to the second. So it always seems to be with the Caps — the waiting, I mean.
• Dan Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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