Hunter informed McPhee of his decision just hours before the team met for the final time this season. The Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Rangers.
Hunter cited family reasons for his deciding to return to London, Ont., where he and his family own and operate the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
"This was a tough decision," Hunter said. "I enjoyed coaching these guys here and being back with the team that I always figured … is my team. So it was a tough decision to make, but it was the right thing to do for me and my family."
Dale and his brother Mark purchased the Knights in 2000 and have built the once dormant franchise into a junior hockey power. Hunter's son Dylan is an assistant coach with the team while his 76-year-old father Dick continues to scout.
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"I guess we're all fathers and sons and husbands first, before anything else," McPhee said, "and if we have our priorities right in this life, family comes first. Dale needs to go home."
McPhee said that Hunter's decision "wasn't unexpected," given that the former Caps captain agreed to a one-year deal when he was hired Nov. 28.
"I've always talked to Dale over the years about coaching this club and talked to him about the head-coaching job on occasions, and he wasn't able to leave [London] before," McPhee said. "When I talked to him this time around, we knew that he may not be able to go beyond this year. He did a great job of coming in and helping us out. … To have Dale be available to come in, even if on a temporary basis, was something we liked a lot. That's why we did a one-year deal, because we didn't know if he could do it beyond this season."
Hunter led the Caps to a 30-23-7 regular-season record and within one win of their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.
But Hunter's impact on this Capitals team went beyond wins and losses. When he was hired to replace Bruce Boudreau, Hunter preached a brand of hockey he wanted the Caps to play.
"We're going to be a hard team to play against," Hunter said in November. "We're going to be on the puck hard. Forecheck hard. Really responsible defensively so teams can't run-and-gun on you. I don't believe in run-and-gun hockey. I believe in playing hard, grinding, [cycling] the puck and getting your scoring chances."
As Hunter's brief coaching tenure comes to an end in Washington, the consensus is that the Capitals bought in and played a more responsible game. The proof lies in their 14 playoff games -- 13 of which were decided by one goal.
"We loved everything about Dale," McPhee said. "We were delighted that he could come in and spend six months with us, or whatever it was, because it was great. I'd rather have him for six months than not at all, because he had quite an impact on this club. He really taught this club the 'how' of how to win. 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."
Added Caps forward Brooks Laich: "That's the identity of winning hockey teams. Teams that succeed, you have to play that way to win the Stanley Cup. We learned a lot about what it takes to win, and I believe we took a step in the right direction. It's a different feeling going home this year. Last year was a little bit different, but this year I think we did a lot of positives over the past six weeks."
"This was a tough decision. I enjoyed coaching these guys here and being back with the team that I always figured … is my team. So it was a tough decision to make, but it was the right thing to do for me and my family." -- Dale Hunter
Even offensively gifted players like Nicklas Backstrom saw the benefits of playing as a more defensively responsible team.
"He brought in so many good things," Backstrom said. "The whole team was closer this year and everybody was pushing each other, I think. That's something we haven't been doing the last couple years. I really like the way we played. … I really wanted to see him back here next year, but unfortunately he's not."
Hunter will return to Canada later this week, where the Knights will compete in the Memorial Cup beginning Saturday. He will also continue to advise the Capitals through the draft in June, but said he does not anticipate returning behind an NHL bench.
When asked if he knows of any NHL-caliber coaches who would walk away from such a gig, McPhee smiled back.
"Only one, and a unique guy," McPhee said. "That's why you love Dale. He's always been really decisive. No gray in his life. When he came into this club and we talked about the job, he said there's one way to play and that's the right way to play and I'll get them playing the right way. He thought he could and he accomplished what he thought he could do with them, and now they're on the right path."