As Dale Hunter left Kettler Capitals Iceplex today, wearing his London Knights coaching jacket, it’s easy to realize that he never really was that far away from home during his short tenure as head coach of the Washington Capitals, the organization where he spent the bulk of his playing career and is immortalized as one of its “Rushmores”.
But Hunter’s announcement Monday morning — that he would not return next season as coach of the team — took some by surprise regardless. Citing his desire to “go home,” back to his family, his farm, and his highly successful and highly profitable major juniors team, Hunter was as resolved as the day he took the job, presumably out of respect and as a favor to Caps GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis.
In a sense, he never really left home to begin with.
Hunter was able to guide the Caps to within one game of the Eastern Conference finals, though they won back-to-back games in the playoffs just once. His regular season record of 30-23-7 was a reflection of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this team this past season. On some nights they looked like they were embracing their new coach’s defensive philosophy, some nights they looked disinterested.
But the Caps did squeak into the playoffs, qualifying on the next-to-last day of the season. Once in the playoffs, they all seemed to buy into the ultra-conservative mantra of blocking shots and chipping out to neutral in hopes of springing an odd-man rush.
Hunter was heralded in the national (read: Canadian) media for getting the Caps to play “The Right Way,” sacrificing self — while eschewing skill — and concentrating on stifling creative hockey rather than creating themselves. Riding a hot rookie goalie due to injury, the Caps knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games and took the No. 1 seeded New York Rangers to Game 7 before ultimately running out of gas.
To almost a man in Monday’s exit interviews, the Caps players professed their loyalty and gratitude to Hunter, even though some were surprised to be informed by the gathered media instead of by team officials. Role players such as Matt Hendricks, Keith Aucoin and Jay Beagle (who revealed a broken foot suffered in Game 5) benefitted from the change in priorities especially in the playoffs, while veterans such as Matthieu Perreault, Jeff Halpern and John Erskine waited for a chance to contribute that may or may not have come.
But even more glaring that those that sat in the press box were those that saw their ice time reduced in favor of defensively oriented players. Alex Ovechkin’s much publicized disappearance at times was quite noticeable. And Monday we found out just how disappointed Alexander Semin was down the stretch, as his agent said in no uncertain terms the vastly skilled Russian winger would test the free agent market and not return to a team that the player felt didn’t have much use for him anymore.
Still, Ovechkin and Semin bought in as much as the rest, back-checking and blocking shots along with everyone else. They might have been the league’s most expensive shot-blockers, but blocked shots they did.
We can — and probably will — squabble about whether it was sound coaching for Hunter to reduce his most skilled players to little more than decoys as times. But his philosophy never wavered.
Hunter should be commended for getting his players to play more like a team. He should be commended for injecting a sense of responsibility in his players to play both ways. But he had the luxury of coaching like he wasn’t concerned for his job. The sometimes strange roster decisions, the playing time adjustments, the awkwardness in his press conferences; none of that mattered to Hunter.
McPhee described Hunter as “black and white,” that Hunter knows — exactly and unflinchingly — what his priority is at all times. Family, farm, the London Knights. Though he took this job at a critical juncture in this team’s history, he didn’t need to. And he coached like it.
The next man won’t have that luxury.
Whether you agreed with Hunter’s philosophy or not (and for the record, I did not), you have to hand it to the man. He came back to the organization he clearly still loves when it was in need and tried to right a sinking ship — we can debate about just how successful he was all we want. But what’s not debatable was his dedication and unfailing conviction to his decsion-making. He is a man who has his concept of right or wrong, and he had the conviction to live and coach by it.
Toward the end of his last press conference in front of the Capitals logo, when asked if he thought he’d ever pursue another NHL head coaching job, Hunter replied calmly, “I’m going home.”
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.