- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The fans who wildly cheer the team wanted Dale Hunter back. So did the players, firmly convinced that his way is the right way. Officials in the organization wanted Hunter back, too, enamored with his firm hand and no-nonsense approach.

And all of those folks were overjoyed Monday because Hunter decided to return … to London, Ontario.

More than the London Knights’ fans, players and employees, Hunter thrilled his closest loved ones as well. Ultimately, the Washington Capitals’ coaching gig was no match for Hunter’s connection to his family, farm and Ontario Hockey League franchise about 57 miles from the Hunters’ hometown.

“It was a tough decision to make but it’s still the right thing for me and my family,” Hunter said Monday. “It’s a family business, and I’ll do anything that’s best for the business.”

Coaches who walk away before they’re pushed out often cite “spending more time with the family” as a reason. Though seemingly half of them eventually return to coaching, it’s a noble impulse when a man decides that family is more important than another season.

With the Knights, Hunter has a rare opportunity to intertwine hockey with his relatives. His brother, Mark, is the Knights’ co-owner, general manager and vice president. Their father, Dick, still scouts for the team at 76 years old. Hunter’s son Dylan is an assistant coach. Hunter explained that “everybody’s part of the team there.

“The farm’s there. My dad and my other brothers all go to the games,” he said. “My sisters go to the games. My other sons live two or three doors down and go to the university there. My daughter’s there. Pretty much everybody is there.”

It’s hard to blame Hunter for his decision. As my colleague Stephen Whyno detailed in a fantastic, four-part series in March, Knights hockey is to London what Kentucky basketball is to Lexington. The Hunters’ family affair has grown into a community passion. Alumni with no prior connection to the town make London their home.

Sports figures don’t always resign or retire for family reasons, but they skip games far more frequently than in the past. Slowly, over the past couple of decades, they’ve refused to miss out on life events and relationships that normal folks take for granted.

When former Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner took off in 2001 to attend his daughter’s college graduation, he said it was the first time in his 30-year career that he missed a game for personal reasons. That same season, former Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams missed 10 games to be with his ailing 73-year-old father.

Nowadays, it’s normal for coaches and players to miss games for a child’s birth. But we’d look at those guys like they were crazy in an earlier era. Back then, “real men” didn’t miss action for anything other than injury or death (their own).

Your first child is due? Send your wife flowers. Your kids are graduating? Send them a card. Your father is gravely ill? Send him our best wishes. For the most part, players played and coaches coached, period, no matter what was happening in their family.

Some coaches might maim to land the Caps’ job, but Hunter acknowledges that there’s more to life than the NHL lifestyle. We tend to envy pro coaches and athletes for their fortune and fame. But anyone who works nights and weekends, or spends as much time on the road as they do at home, knows the great cost to personal life.

“Family is always in the first position,” captain Alex Ovechkin said about Hunter’s decision. We often hear such sentiments, that other things are more important than the games. Unfortunately, it’s usually after instances of tragedy, illness or misfortune.

As much as I wanted Hunter to return for a full season as the Caps’ coach, I’m happy for him and his family. It’s kind of refreshing to see him choose personal gain over the NHL game.

Losing the series against New York was painful. So was losing the coach to London, though much more understandable.