- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fourth (and final) in a series

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 gray-haired 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 Caps’ 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 Caps.

“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 Caps, 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 Caps 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 Caps, 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 Caps 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 Caps 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 Caps 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 Caps 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 Caps and back would likely hamper the chances of him 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 to juniors 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.