- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2011

The first fight Craig Laughlin ever got into in the NHL was against Dale Hunter. Not physically imposing with his size, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Hunter made up for it with his fists and the way he played hockey.

When Hunter and Laughlin were teammates with the Washington Capitals, Laughlin recalled playing on a line with the captain and leader and what he needed from his teammates on the ice.

“He said ‘You know, Locker, don’t worry. I’m just going to go out, run around a little bit and you’ll know when I need you in there,’ ” Laughlin recalled. “He said, ‘All I’m going to do is put my stick up in the air like a flag. That’s when you know to come. Because I’m going to stir the pot and make something happen. So you come in and help me out.”

That was Hunter the player — stirring the pot as the only player in NHL history with more than 1,000 career points and 3,000 career penalty minutes. Off the ice, teammates knew him as a prankster and a guy who brought levity to the locker room.

“He was a pretty quiet guy. He had the joke in him,” Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway said. “He had fun with the game. It wasn’t all hoopla and yelling and screaming. After a practice was over, after a game, he was having fun.”

Hunter on Monday began his new role as coach of the Capitals, 12 years after he retired and 10 years after he stepped behind the bench to lead the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. But Hunter the player and Hunter the coach can’t be the same person — thanks to maturity, a changing game and a much different role.

“Coach and player are going to be two different things,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “As a coach, you’re thinking first and then reacting. As a player you’re reacting with what your gut’s telling you. I’m sure you, on the bench, want to rip somebody’s head off, but you can’t because you’re the coach.”

And so Hunter embarks on adjusting to his first NHL coaching job and a way of doing things that will mix his playing career and aspects of the game he learned from his time at the junior hockey level.

“What I learned is playing’s a lot more fun than coaching. When you’re growing up, you don’t say, ‘I’m going to be a coach.’ You always want to be a player,” Hunter said. “Coaching’s a tough job. You’ve got 23 guys, different personalities, and you’ve got to figure out how to make them work.”

Hunter is known to Capitals fans as the quintessential captain who scored the Game 7 overtime goal to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals, knocked out the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon with a very late elbow in the 1993 playoffs and captained the Caps to their only Eastern Conference championship and Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998.

But the questions of “Why Hunter?” and “Why now?” are more about his readiness to be a coach in the NHL after seemingly perfecting how to win in the OHL with the London Knights, a team he owns. With brother Mark — already the Knights’ general manager — able to step in as coach and his children grown, Hunter finally was ready to make the leap.

“I was always hoping that one day Dale could coach this team,” said Capitals general manager George McPhee, who added he has stayed in touch with Hunter about coaching here for the past 12 years. “But timing’s everything, and the time is right now. … He’s available and ready to do this now. And the only way he wanted to do this is if he could go full-bore, in his words. I’ve got to be able to go full-bore, and he’s ready to go.”

Full-bore as a player meant Hunter playing hard. McPhee pointed out that no matter the team situation or individual health, Hunter’s performance level was the same — and he’d play hard each time on the ice.

“He’s going to lead that team to play the way he played,” former Capitals wing Peter Bondra said.

Hunter amassed 3,565 penalty minutes during his 19-season career. So while his Caps team will be branded in Hunter’s image, it may not be exactly like him.

“There’s too many referees out there now,” Hunter said with a laugh. “Hockey’s changed a lot. But play hard. Forecheck hard. Finish your checks. No one needs penalties anymore. If you play hard on the ice, you’ll be always playing for me.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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