As Dale Hunter skated around the ice at Kettler Iceplex on Monday, shaking players' hands and engaging in small talk, you asked yourself: Do these Washington Capitals — the Europeans, especially — even know who their new coach is? I'm not talking about knowing him in a passing way, as some gray-haired guy who "played in the NHL for a long time." I'm talking about knowing what kind of player he was, the grit and determination he personified, how Dale Hunter, all 5 feet 10 of him, never met an opponent he couldn't facewash.
They'll know soon enough, of course, because Hunter will demand the same from them. It's the only way he knows how to play hockey. And if they get as much out of their abilities as he did out of his, then maybe the Capitals will become the team Ted Leonsis and George McPhee have always dreamed they'd be. A team that wins Stanley Cups. A team that serves as a model for the rest of the league.
The question is whether a coach, even a Capitals icon like Hunter, can have that kind of effect on this particular club. By "this particular club," I mean the collection of slackers — not all, by any means, but too many — who were swept in the second round last spring by Tampa Bay and have followed a 7-0 start this season with a hideous 5-9-1 stretch that cost Bruce Boudreau his job. That particular club.
Let's be honest. Nobody ever confused Boudreau with Scotty Bowman, and frankly, I thought the Caps should have made this move over the summer. Gabby is a good coach, and he'll coach again in the NHL, but it was increasingly clear he had taken the team as far as he was going to take it. And Leonsis, as we all know, isn't aiming for goodness, he's aiming for greatness.
So changing the Man Behind the Bench makes perfect sense. That's the easy part (as eminently likeable as Boudreau is). The not-so-easy part is taking a long, hard look at the rest of the organization and saying: What else do we need to change? Because if Leonsis and McPhee stop here, they're only kidding themselves.
After all, there are some quitters in the Capitals' locker room. We know this because they quit on Boudreau. We also know this because of what some of the players said Monday, after their first practice under Hunter.
Mike Knuble: "As a player, you just feel bad you let a ... your effort cost somebody his job."
Dennis Wideman: "We're cheating to the offensive side and really not committing five guys to defense."
Effort (or lack thereof). Cheating. Neither of those things has anything to do with happenstance, the officiating or whether Mike Green is in the lineup. They do have something to do, though, with the individual players and what's inside them. And some of the Capitals — there's no doubt about this — gave up on Boudreau.
That's kind of what McPhee was referring to, in his lawyerly way, when he said, "I didn't like some of the things that I saw in training camp and in some of the preseason games." And then in recent weeks, after lackadaisical losses to Winnipeg, Toronto, the New York Rangers and an undermanned Buffalo team, the Caps GM "started seeing the same thing again."
The party line is that Boudreau had stopped getting through to the players, that they had tuned him out — as often happens to a coach (an NHL coach especially) after several years of yammering. Alex Ovechkin, the face of the franchise/team captain, didn't deny this. "You can be tired with a coach telling you you made mistakes," he said.
Indeed, it's reasonable to wonder whether a rift between Ovechkin and Boudreau might have sabotaged the coach. Ovie certainly hasn't been Ovie this season, managing a mere eight goals (one less than Jason Chimera) in the first 22 games. And they did have that little difference of opinion in the Anaheim game Nov. 1, when Gabby didn't include his star in a power play in the closing minute and Washington down a goal. The next day, No. 8 sniffed that he hadn't been benched like that since he was a kid.
"I don't know if you can trace it back to a certain moment this fall that you feel was the beginning of the end," Knuble said. "Was it him and Ovie in the Anaheim game? Was that the beginning of something? I don't know.
"I like what [Boudreau] was trying to do. He was trying to make us all more accountable. Joel Ward missed a game the other day [as a healthy scratch after oversleeping and missing a team meeting]. I just felt we had the kind of group, too, where we could do it ourselves. He didn't have to push us much."
Knuble was wrong, though. The Capitals don't have the kind of group that can be self-policing. They have the kind of group that, at this point, still needs to be reminded that defense is as important as offense — and that effort is most important of all. The Caps, alas, lead the league in refresher courses and "going to back to basics."
Rest assured, Hunter won't put up with such lollygagging. As a player, he was all about two-way hockey, all about perspiration. McPhee's description of Hunter was dead-on: "He played 19 years in this league ... and whether the game was home or away, or he was injured or healthy, or whether [his club] was winning or losing, he played the same way every night, and it was very hard" — as his 3,565 penalty minutes, second all time, attest.
Harder than hard, sometimes — "downright mean," according to McPhee, whose rough-and-tumble career overlapped with Hunter's. Downright meanness doesn't play very well in the NHL these days. For one thing, Dale said, "There's too many referees out there now. There's an extra one." But toughness and tenacity are never out of fashion, and the new coach can teach the Capitals a few things about them.
It's a fairy tale if you want to write it that way. One of the most beloved players in franchise history leaves the Junior A hockey club he owns in London, Ontario — and has coached with record-breaking distinction for 11 seasons — and returns to the Caps, "my team," to try to bring them their first Stanley Cup.
But there'll only be a happy ending if Hunter can make the transition from juniors to the pros — and if his players pay closer attention to him than they did, at the end, his predecessor. Otherwise he might as well have stayed in Canada.
To borrow a line from Gordon Gekko, the Dale Hunter of "Wall Street": This is your wakeup call, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and the rest. Go to work.
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