- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2012

Brooks Laich tried to convince Dale Hunter to stay as Washington Capitals coach. He joked that Hunter could have his house and he’d move into an apartment if that was necessary.

But there’s no convincing the stubborn 51-year-old hockey man and farmer who’s “going home” to his London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League after less than a full season at the helm with the Caps. Hunter’s departure leaves general manager George McPhee needing to find a coach who also can continue the progress this team made.

“He had quite an impact on this club. He really taught this club the ‘how’ of how to win,” McPhee said. “They all wanted to win, they just didn’t know how. The ‘how’ is being a team and sacrificing, and he sure got that out of this club.”

It was a gradual process as the Caps learned how to play Hunter’s style of shot-blocking, tight-checking and low-scoring hockey. As veteran forward Mike Knuble said last month, it took every game and every minute for some players to buy in, but it translated into a trip to the second round of the playoffs as the Washington came one game of reaching the conference final.

Because of that, a vast majority of players were disappointed upon learning that Hunter wouldn’t be back.

“It kind of [stinks]. He brought a system that I think really worked. We played good hockey in the playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think he’s been doing so many good things for this team. I really wanted to see him back here next year, but unfortunately he’s not [going to be]. So it’s not good.”

Hunter’s Capitals were .500 counting the regular season and playoffs, though his impact on the locker room went well beyond wins and losses.

“There were some things culture-wise that had to be adjusted a little bit in order for our team to succeed, and I thought he did a great job doing that,” Laich said. “He put it in a step in the right direction. We still have areas that we have to improve on, but I just have a lot of respect for what he did.”

Hunter treated everyone equally, no matter the salary or reputation. When captian Alex Ovechkin’s ice time was cut down and Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks earned more opportunities, players respected those decisions. Ovechkin wasn’t happy about it, and said it didn’t matter if he was happy with this style, but he accepted it enough to be a key role player in the playoff run.

“I thought Dale got a lot of really good messages across with this team. Did a lot of things that this team needed as far as a commitment in certain areas of the game,” Halpern said. “The word ‘accountable’ was kind of beaten to death in the beginning of this year, but I think he got it to the point where everyone expected a certain style of play from each other.”

That didn’t quite show through until the playoffs, which was again the scene of the Caps falling short of preseason expectations. But players and McPhee talked about progress Hunter made, and there’s certainly reason to be skeptical that a new coach can command the same thing.

Laich said he wasn’t worried about that because of the veteran leadership group the Capitals already have established.

“I know it’s a long summer here, but hopefully guys remember that to win in the playoffs you have to sacrifice, block shots, do the right things,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “That’s just what he tried to instill in us the entire time he was here and the entire stretch down the playoffs.”

This roster might undergo plenty of changes, too, along with a new man behind the bench. But the players expect a continuation of what Hunter brought.

“He taught us as much about leadership and team aspects and respect amongst players and trusting your teammates as he did about hockey,” Laich said. “He was like having another veteran in the locker room. He changed the culture around here a little bit, which the rest of us really enjoyed. He’s leaving the team in a better state than he found it.”

How that happens was the subject of one of Hunter’s final messages to the Caps. As Laich recalled, Hunter told them: “It’s in your hands now.”

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