- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A team so often draws its mood from its coach, so it wasn’t surprising in previous years to see the Washington Capitals tighten up when Bruce Boudreau was under pressure. The highs were high when Boudreau got fired up, and the lows were low when the results didn’t match lofty expectations.

But when asked about how this team seemed more “mentally tough” than in years past, forward Brooks Laich, unprompted, mentioned coach Dale Hunter.

“A lot of that comes from our head coach. He’s calm behind the bench and he always instills positive thoughts and positive things into his players,” Laich said. “He doesn’t lose his composure behind the bench, and that really has a calming effect on the players, especially through the course of a game and the course of a series where there’s ups and downs, it can really help to keep your team pretty level.”

Read between the lines, and it’s a huge difference that the Caps notice and attribute to this playoff run. As intense as he was as a player, Hunter has seemed almost stunningly calm as a coach.

That’s not by accident, and it dates back to Hunter’s time as coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

“I remember once him saying that every coach that he had during his NHL career, he took the things that he didn’t like about them, whatever little thing they might be, and he said, ‘I’ll never do that,’ ” Knights color analyst Jim Van Horne said.

It was a learning process, though, for Hunter.

“I could see years ago when I started coaching that if I got riled up, the team does,” he said. “I try to, most of the time, make sure that I’m not yelling at a ref or something or taking away from myself and the team.”

Hunter still yells at referees every once in a while, including the notable curse here and there. But he’s not standing on top of the boards and losing his mind like some coaches.

Defenseman Roman Hamrlik has played for 16 different coaches in his 19-year career, starting with Terry Crisp for five-plus seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and including the likes of Kevin Lowe, Peter Laviolette and Guy Carbonneau.

“Some coaches are more intense, some coaches are more calm and more relaxed. Every coach is different,” Hamrlik said. “I had a really good coach in Calgary, Darryl Sutter, and he was really intense. He doesn’t want you to give 100 percent, he wants you to give 150. if you work your [rear] off, he’s going to give you that ice time, and you’re going to play for him. Some coaches, they are less intense.”

Hunter manages to be intense while also not losing his cool. And he maintains accountability with ice time, even if he’s not ranting and raving about what he wants.

“He wants to have that calming presence because we’re in these one-goal games, and you can’t get too excited whether it’s a call by the refs or something that we feel shouldn’t have gone the way it does, guys get worked up but him being calm back there really helps us settle down,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “But he also makes guys aware of when they’re making mistakes and if they’re consistently making mistakes so that you can make adjustments.”

It might’ve been hard for fans to imagine Hunter the coach after seeing years of Hunter the player, including his notorious late hit on the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs that landed him a 21-game suspension.

But this is what the Caps get from Hunter, whose brain is a bigger part of his approach than his body now.

“As a player, you want to be keyed up and when you go on the ice, you’re really going,” he said. “As a coach, I’ve got line matchups to worry about and what they’re doing on the ice, the system changes that they’re doing. As a coach, you’ve got to think more. You think with your head; as a player, you’re using your legs a lot.”

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