Capital hill: Hunter wades into Washington

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

WASHINGTON – Now if this story doesn't symbolize Dale Hunter's situation, I don't know what does.

When Hunter played for the Washington Capitals, he was as infamous for pulling pranks as he was for taking penalties. The guy must have bought Vaseline by the case. One night, the Caps came home from a road trip, and in retaliation for a prank we can't share publicly, his teammates had arranged for his pickup truck to be put on blocks – "just enough that the wheels would spin," former goaltender Olaf Kolzig(notes) said.

The truck looked fine, but it wasn't going anywhere.

"I think he was stuck there till about 3:30 [in the morning], so it was good," said a smiling Kolzig, one of Hunter's close friends and now the Capitals' associate goaltending coach. "But he's used to going to bed late and getting up early, so it wasn't anything new for him."

Now Hunter has come back to coach the Capitals, and their wheels are spinning. They look like a Stanley Cup contender at first glance, but they aren't going anywhere. They seem close to getting back on track, but it's going to take a lot of tinkering before the rubber meets the road – a lot of late nights, a lot of early mornings.

The Capitals lost Hunter's NHL coaching debut Tuesday night, 2-1, to the St. Louis Blues. The last team to lose in the league this season, the team that started 7-0-0 under former coach Bruce Boudreau, fell to 5-10-1 in its past 16.

There were some encouraging signs. The Capitals played hard. They didn't give up odd-man rushes. Captain Alex Ovechkin(notes) was spotted below the hash marks in the Washington zone multiple times, and he threaded a sweet pass between two Blues to Nicklas Backstrom(notes) to set up the Caps' goal. The enigmatic Alex Semin was spotted battling along the wall and credited with three takeaways. The Caps blocked 20 shots, the Blues only six.

Still, the Caps were outshot, 30-19. They were pinned in their end much of the night, got into some penalty trouble and didn't generate much pressure until late in the game. Ovechkin played only 16:46, his second-lowest total of the season. Semin played only 14:37, his fourth-lowest. At times, the whole team seemed tentative.

"I think maybe everyone doesn't want to make a mistake here or there," said defenseman John Carlson(notes).

Asked if the Capitals weren't that far away from playing the way they can, center Brooks Laich(notes) paused for a moment before answering.

"Yes and no," Laich said. "We're scratching the surface, but there's a lot more to go. I think our potential's great, but it takes a lot, a lot of work to get there. It doesn't come overnight, especially with a change. You've got to get used to a little bit of a new system, a new style. It's going to take months to perfect."


Why months when it took the Blues no time at all? Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach on Nov. 7, and the Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks the next night, 3-0. They have gone 8-1-2 under Hitchcock – allowing only 15 goals in those 11 games. They looked like a cohesive, disciplined unit Tuesday night.

Well, the Capitals have more talent than the Blues, but they have more troubles, too. Hitchcock is an NHL coaching veteran; Hunter has never coached higher than junior before. And when you're trying to give a team a new identity, that takes more than one hurried practice and one morning skate.

"It's been a long couple days for everybody here," said winger Mike Knuble(notes).

* * * * *

To understand the emotion of the last couple of days, meet Krissie DePollo, a 28-year-old schoolteacher from Manassas, Va. She came to the Capitals' morning skate Tuesday wearing an old-school Hunter sweater and holding a huge Hunter banner. It was the actual banner the Caps used to retire Hunter's No. 32. She remembered the exact date: March 11, 2000.

The Capitals later replaced their banners and sold them in a silent auction. She bid $1,000. There was somebody competing with her, but he was also bidding on Mike Gartner's No. 11 banner. She asked which one he wanted more. He said it didn't matter to him.

"I told him that Dale Hunter was my favorite player of all-time …"

DePollo choked up.

"So he let me have it," she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Boudreau was the most successful coach in Capitals history by many measures. He won a Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year in 2008. He became the fastest coach to reach 200 NHL wins last week.

But he never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, and after playing run-and-gun hockey and giving his star players a long leash, he tried to tighten up defensively and enforce accountability. It backfired, and he was fired. General manager George McPhee said the players stopped responding to him.

Hunter was one of the most successful players in Capitals history by many measures. He was their captain when they made their only appearance in the Stanley Cup final, in 1998. In a 19-year NHL career, he racked up 1,020 points and 3,563 penalty minutes.

DePollo was nine years old when she attended her first Capitals game. Hunter was being honored for, of all things, his 2,000th penalty minute, but all she knew was that he was being showcased in the middle of the ice. She thought he was the greatest player ever.

"I don't know that it was Bruce's fault," DePollo said, still red-eyed. "I don't know that he should have had to leave. But the fact that they hired Hunter makes it better, I guess."

From a PR standpoint, Hunter's hiring soothes the pain of Boudreau's departure. From a hockey standpoint, the hope is that his personality – or at least some of it – will rub off on the players.

Hunter is a simple man. As a player, he was known for his determined grit. As a captain, he was known for leading by example, not for giving captivating speeches. Though he never won the Stanley Cup, he said it was "not because of lack of effort."

"He lived for the playoffs," Kolzig said. "He was a guy that couldn't wait for the playoffs to come around and … would just seem to bring everybody along for the ride in the playoffs by the way he elevated his game and his tenacity and his play right through the whistle – even though he maybe didn't hear the whistle."

As a coach and co-owner of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, Hunter was known as a huge success. The Knights won games and made money, winning the Memorial Cup and filling the stands. He had 451 victories and the No. 1 team in junior hockey when he flew to Washington – packing not much more than his blue suit, the only one he owns, the same one he wears every game.

Outside of hockey, he is known as a farmer. Instead of investing his earnings in stocks, he bought farmland near his native Petrolia, Ont. He still grows soybeans, wheat and corn. He still drives a tractor.

"He hasn't changed at all," said Kolzig, who had dinner with Hunter on Monday night. "He's just the same guy."

Before Tuesday night's game, the Capitals showed Hunter's "History will be made" commercial, the one that features his greatest highlight – his series-clinching overtime goal against Ron Hextall and the Philadelphia Flyers in 1988. "History welcomes you back … Coach," the scoreboard said. There were cheers.

During the first TV timeout, the Capitals showed another highlight montage. This one was set to music – Diddy's "I'm coming home." There was a loud standing ovation.

But the truth is, the fans were cheering for Hunter the player. It remains to be seen whether they'll cheer Hunter the coach.

* * * * *

It's hard enough to take over a team during the season when you've already coached three other NHL teams and won 533 NHL games. Ask Hitchcock. He'll tell you it was a lot harder than he thought it was.

It's even harder to take over a team during the season when you have never coached in the pros at any level. No matter how long Hunter played in the NHL, that was long ago enough that the league has changed. No matter how well Hunter coached in junior, that was junior.

Hunter got a satellite dish for the Knights' team bus so he could watch Capitals games – partly as a fan, partly to pick up pointers for his kids. He knows the Caps' personnel well. "But it's a lot different when you're standing on the bench," Hitchcock said. "It's making the right decisions under fire."

Hitchcock, who has coached at several different levels, said the pace is much quicker in the NHL than in junior. He also pointed out that the intensity level is much higher throughout the lineups.

Others will tell you that Hunter had the hammer in London. He was a co-owner who could pick his players, and he was a coach dealing with teenagers who could be molded. Hunter, 51, is dealing with men in the NHL, and some of them have big contracts and bigger egos.

Kolzig said Hunter can "establish some sort of identity and accountability, work ethic, all the things that Dale stood for." He said he doesn't think the junior-to-the-NHL adjustment will be too much. But he also said: "It will probably be a little different for some of the younger generation players to deal with his old-school type of personality."

It all starts with Ovechkin. He has slipped far from the form that twice won him the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, and he is signed through 2021 at an annual salary-cap hit of more than $9.5 million.

Ovechkin is never going to become Hunter, and the Capitals don't want him to. As Hunter pointed out, he never scored like Ovechkin once did, and there are many ways to be an effective captain. But the Caps certainly want their franchise player and his teammates to adopt some of Hunter's tenacity and desire.

"He's got to be a big part of the game every night if we intend to win – plus other guys, too," Hunter said.

Ovechkin knows it. At least he said he knows it. He listened intently as Hunter refined the power play Tuesday morning. He even went to the whiteboard and went over things with Laich at one point.

"Right now it's new challenge for us," Ovechkin said. "You can see when we didn't play well, what's going to happen. So it's kind of wake-up call for us. It's a huge wake-up call for us."

Does Ovechkin take some responsibility for Boudreau's firing?

"Again, it's not about one player," Ovechkin said. "Of course, I'm the leader of the team, and I have to play better. I have to make some points. I have to score goals. But I try do that."

He laughed.

"Sometimes it works," he said. "Sometimes it's not."

We'll know if this works in a few months. The playoffs start in April.

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