Some coaches aspire to the top of the profession. Adam Oates has the “upside” to get there in the NHL, according to Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee and assistant Calle Johansson.
But to reach his potential, Oates could use some help. He hopes to get that in the form of seasoned assistant Tim Hunter, hired Monday as the final piece of the coaching staff.
“You need experience on a coaching staff. I talked to Adam early on, and he was looking for someone with experience, and I definitely have that,” Hunter said. “I’m a career assistant coach, and I’m looking forward to helping Adam and Calle become better coaches and the Caps to become a better team. No better thing to put my experience to use: 30 years in the NHL behind the bench or on the bench.”
Hunter — no relation to Dale, the man Oates replaced — has 1,041 games of experience as an assistant coach, spanning 13 seasons with the Caps, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs. It was 15 years ago Monday he was first named to Ron Wilson’s staff in Washington, and he was a part of the team that got to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
But that was a younger Hunter. Now 51, he clearly knows his role. He’s a teacher as much as anything.
“You have to make the players come to the rink and enjoy coming to the rink and enjoy working hard. It’s not fun at times, but they have to enjoy it, and they have to take pleasure in working hard and becoming good professionals every day,” Hunter said. “You’re not just teaching hockey players, you’re teaching people to become better people and better hockey players.”
Hunter knows about playing in the NHL, too. His resume includes 16 seasons with four teams, most notably the Calgary Flames. Unlike Oates, Johansson and associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig, he never played for the Caps and has won a Cup, with Calgary in 1989.
He has learned plenty during his tenure as an assistant, though so much of Hunter’s style stems from his playing days.
“I think that the biggest thing is being prepared, being able to adjust. You learn over the years how quickly you have to adjust in this game because there’s 29 other teams you’re playing against,” he said. “But the most important thing is how you treat the players. You always have to separate the player from the person. If he’s had a bad game, he’s not a bad guy.”
Hunter piled up 3,146 penalty minutes in 815 NHL games, so he brings an emphasis on toughness to a coaching staff that already features a Hall of Fame playmaker in Oates and a defenseman in Johansson who has played more games in a Capitals uniform than anyone in franchise history. On paper, it seems to be a good mix.
Still, this is Hunter’s first coaching job apart from Wilson, so that in itself is a challenge. But he sees similarities between his former boss and Oates.
“There’s a lot of intelligent people in the game. Ron Wilson in my mind is one of the most intelligent people, and definitely Adam is right there with the intelligent level of Ron Wilson,” Hunter said. “He was always studying the game when he played. He had great questions for the coaching staff as a player; he knew the game really well. And it’s not a surprise that he was a great assistant coach, and he’ll be a great head coach as well.”
With Hunter there to help him become that.