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Hunter finds new challenge in returning to coach Caps

by Corey Masisak
ARLINGTON, Va. --  It was about an hour drive for Dale Hunter, maybe a little less some days, but it was one he would make quite often.

Hunter lived in London, Ontario, where he and his brother Mark had built an empire in Canadian junior hockey. But the Hunter brothers have two distinct passions, and the other waited for him at the end of that drive west to the family farm outside Oil Springs.

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said it best: "[Hunter] knows two things: farming and hockey." Finding time to help out on his family's 2,000-acre farm, which has fields of mostly soybean and wheat but also a little bit of corn, has always been a part of Hunter's life, even during the more than three decades when hockey became his first priority.

"After the hockey season, if we're not playing we plant the crops and we take the wheat off in the summer," Hunter said. "In the fall we're usually back at it. I could help out a little bit when I was at home there with the junior team. We take the soybeans off in the fall. After practice, I would slip home and help out with the crops."

The Capitals are now 16-12-4 while Dale Hunter has been coach. (Photo: Getty Images)
Hunter isn't able to make that short drive home anymore. He has returned to Washington, where his number hangs at Verizon Center as a reminder of his playing days with the Capitals.

Bruce Boudreau found incredible success with the Caps during the regular season, but was unable to translate it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When that regular-season success started to dissipate, McPhee decided to make a change and called upon one of the most popular players in his franchise's history to step in behind the bench.

For Hunter, it was a chance to ply his trade at the sport's highest level and in a city he was quite familiar with. That doesn't mean it was an easy decision -- Hunter and his brother, Mark, have built something special (not to mention quite lucrative) with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and the safe choice probably would have been to keep the status quo.

"It was hard to leave," Hunter said. "I was dealing with hockey and teaching kids to play and was close to home, but coming here it is a team that I played for and the National Hockey League. I want to coach here and see if we can win."

The transition hasn't been without a bit of tumult. Hunter had never coached at this level in any capacity, so there was inevitably going to be an adjustment period. His style of hockey, whether it is the system or just general philosophy, was going to be an adjustment for the players.

Washington was 12-9-1 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference when Boudreau was fired four years and one game after he replaced Glen Hanlon. After a surprising come-from-ahead loss to Winnipeg on Thursday night, the Capitals are now 16-12-4 for Hunter. They remain in ninth place, but have also traded places with Florida atop the Southeast Division and in the third spot in the conference standings on a few occasions.

It is work a progress, for Hunter and for the Washington players. Spurts of success have been followed by defeats, and injuries to key players have muddled the big picture.

"I don't think our record has been crazy since he's been here, but it has been better," said defenseman John Carlson, one of two Capitals to have played for Hunter in London. "The way we feel about how we're playing sometimes is way better. We've had some major lapses, and some lulls, but I think everyone believes more in this system and day-by-day is getting more used to it."


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'Old-school' player turns coach

The type of player Hunter was does not exist in the League today. Sure, there are some guys who might offer some of the same qualities, but not nearly to the extremes.

Hunter was mean. He was mean and competitive and skilled, and there wasn't much he wouldn't do to win a hockey game. Some nights that meant scoring an important goal. Other nights that meant putting his stick into the ankle or the chin of the opposing team's best player.

His reputation as an "old-school" guy was well-earned.

"He was a difficult guy to play against. He competed in every aspect of the game," Washington assistant coach Dean Evason, who once fought Hunter three times in the same game, said. "You knew every night going against him that you had to bring your competitive level close to his to even have any shot of having success.

"Obviously him and I had a few battles over the years, but I think he's the same guy to play for -- if you compete and you battle, then you have a chance to compete and play and you have a chance to be successful. If you don't, then you're probably not going to play for him."
Hunter cut his coaching teeth with the Knights in the OHL. Elite youth players have flocked to London to play for Hunter, and his franchise has consistently been among the elite at a level where teams typically yo-yo from contending to rebuilding like a high-priced fantasy keeper league.

He won the Memorial Cup in 2005 with one of the greatest Canadian junior teams ever assembled. Later he had a contending team with Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner and Steve Mason, and another that featured John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Michael Del Zotto and Carlson.

"Going there, everybody would tell you some things about him, about his time as a player and his success as a coach," said Carlson, who originally committed to the University of Massachusetts but ended up in London after being a first-round pick by the Capitals. "It wasn't a sure shot that I was going to go there. He was probably one of the main reasons that I actually wound up going there. I actually wanted to go to Kitchener and they drafted me, but the way it worked out, I couldn't have asked for a better place or a better coach. He's really taught me a lot and took good care of me when I was there."

Part of what made Hunter so successful with London is also what left doubt about his ability to succeed at the NHL level. London has become a well-oiled machine, and like the brand-name NCAA institutions in this country, the Hunters often had the best players. The team Hunter left behind is atop the OHL standings and a top contender for the Memorial Cup.

The question became how would Hunter's coaching ability translate to the NHL, where the talent is clearly more evenly distributed?

"The good players go there and they learn. They learn how to be tough and how to deal with certain situations," Carlson said. "They grow as a player, and not just stickhandle faster or shoot the puck harder, and that really helps you.

"I was only there one year, but these kids who have been with him for a little bit and are just graduating -- I played with one of them, [Boston Bruins prospect] Jared Knight. This kid had so much skill coming in. He could skate fast and shoot it and he was lost on the ice. You look at him now, and I've watched him play a couple times just because I know him pretty well now, and he knows where to be out there. He knows situations of when to go and when to play defense. He's changed completely as a player and I think that says a lot about [the Hunters]."

For his part, Hunter said his coaching style, whether it is tactical ideas on the ice or developing relationships with players off of it, hasn't changed much since making the move. There is less practice time in the NHL (teams in the OHL mostly play on weekends), but a lot of what worked with the Knights was because it had been proven successful by the big boys.

"We play basically the same style. It is forecheck hard and be responsible in your own end," Hunter said. "It is basically the same style. Junior teams copy NHL teams because that is the elite and where the best are, so when we watched video we cut what the Washington Capitals were doing, what the Boston Bruins were doing, the Detroit Red Wings -- we always tried to copy and basically steal their ideas."

Winds of change in Washington

That style is a change for the players in the Washington dressing room. Boudreau's Capitals rose to prominence as a run-and-gun outfit. When the team wasn't scoring at its typical rate, Boudreau tried to install a more defensive identity with mixed results.

Hunter has gone even further. When he arrived there were clear problems with goal prevention that needed to be addressed. It might be a shock to see the Capitals skating backwards in the neutral zone and collapsing toward their own net when the puck enters their zone, but the players have been trying to adapt.

"I think they understand that he is fair," Evason said. "He is a guy who obviously gets the game. If you put the effort in, he really appreciates what each guy brings. You think that he's just a defensive coach and you've just got to grind it out, but he wants you to make plays. That's the type of player he was. He played hard, but he had skill. He could play, make passes and score goals."

The more defensive posture is not the only change for the Capitals. Every coach has his own personality, his own quirks. Boudreau had a gregarious personality, while Hunter is more reserved.

That shows up in how they deal with the media, but the players also confirmed it as well. Boudreau's heart-on-the-sleeve passion could be infectious, but there may have been times -- especially during a long playoff series -- where some of the Capitals might have responded better to a more even-keeled approach.

"Bruce would come into the dressing room and talk for 5-to-10 minutes to tell us what he is thinking and show us graphs and break down the stats," Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Dale's not really that type of guy. It is pretty cut and dry. It is a simple game. He shows you what you did wrong on video and he quickly explains it. It is, 'You should have stayed with the guy here,' and, 'You should have chipped the puck out,' and, 'There is no play here, so dump it.' That's all he says, and you've got to figure it out. He knows we should all be smart enough to figure it out and that's what we've done wrong and fix it. He just says it like it is and you've got to figure it out, change it and (if) you don't ... he changes it for you."

When Hunter arrived for a second time in Washington, his reputation from the first time around preceded him. While Carlson and Dennis Wideman both played for him in London, the rest of the players knew more about him from the almost mythical nature tales of his playing days have evolved into.

Some went so far as to admit -- when Hunter showed up, they were a little, well, afraid.

"Yeah, oh my -- first meeting scared all of the D," Alzner said. "We were pretty freaked out."


"He brings that toughness wherever he goes because of his whole overall aura as a player. He is tough as coach, but he kind of does it the right way."  -- Capitals' John Carlson

: "He brings that toughness wherever he goes because of his whole overall aura as a player. He is tough as coach, but he kind of does it the right way."

Many of the changes Hunter has made are focused at the individual level as a way to fix the issue of team defense. The Capitals now try to defend man-on-man much more in their own zone then they previously did.

There have been growing pains, but the Capitals have learned a great deal about how Hunter will react when the club reaches adverse times.

"I think he's very fair. The nice thing is he knows you're going to make mistakes," Alzner said. "He sees that sometimes it is just a bad play, a puck is bouncing and he doesn't come down and ream you out for a puck bouncing over your stick. There's nothing you can do. He's pretty forgiving in that sense, but we've seen him get angry a couple of times.

"If we're down 3-0 and we're playing horrible and making dumb mistakes, then yeah, [he gets angry], but if we're down 3-0 and working hard, then he is pretty normal. He is surprisingly even-keeled. He just stays level and I think that's good, because I think if the coach panics, then the players panic. You need someone to just be there and be an anchor and that's what he is."

Added Wideman: "He is a player's coach. He is intense and he's hard on his players and he demands that you play the right way, but he also is a teacher. He likes to teach you the little things, the little intricacies of the game. I think that is the part that he really enjoys, working with guys. ... Even when he yells, it is not like he's yelling and throwing [stuff]. He's pretty even-keel."

Hunter has also delegated more authority to the rest of his coaching staff. Part of that may be because he needs time to adjust to the new level and is leaning on guys who have been here, but Evason said each of the assistant coaches have input in all aspects of the club, whether that is the penalty kill, who is in the lineup or the structure of practices.

It is a less "compartmentalized" approach, where one coach might be in charge of the PK and one the power play or just the defensemen in certain situations.

"I think it is just like a hockey team," Hunter said. "You have your Ovechkins and Backstroms and Greens, but it is also a team game and you've got to work together. It is just like that in coaching. We're in that room and we've got to try to get the best out of this team and try to win. You do that as a group instead of individually."

Room for improvement

The biggest issue for the Capitals with Hunter has been a lack of offense, and part of that is he doesn't have Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green because of injuries. Yes, the offense has been stunted, but quantifying how much of that is because two world-class offensive players are missing and how much of it is a new coaching philosophy is a bit unclear at this point.

What is clear is Washington is not creating enough shots and scoring chances. The Capitals have been better defensively, and Tomas Vokoun's numbers in net have improved dramatically with the change.

The Capitals have been outshot in 18 of the past 22 games, and one of the times they weren't -- a 4-1 loss to Boston -- was a result of falling behind quickly and spending most of the contest in desperation mode. Japers' Rink, a blog dedicated to covering the Capitals, published a detailed post last week outlining the issues Hunter's Capitals have had, particularly when the game is tied and at even strength.

When the Capitals grab an early lead, as they did Tuesday night against Florida, they play like a different team than when the game is tied.

"It is harder," veteran forward Mike Knuble said of producing shots playing Hunter's style. "I'm not sure on the system. I don't know. I'd like to say you can still maintain pretty high shot totals, but I don't know. What percentage of your team's shots at the end of the night are generated by a more aggressive forecheck? When we're down, we'll switch to that a little bit and a few more shots will come. When we're playing our normal style, it seems like they are a little harder to come by."

So the Capitals remain an unfinished product. They also remain a club where success or failure is only ultimately determined once the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive.

For now, Hunter and the Capitals need Backstrom and Green. If they can return to full health, and the Capitals can qualify for the postseason, then the real dissection of Dale Hunter as an NHL coach can begin.

"I think he has adapted," Carlson said. "I think the first few weeks were tough for him to not throw us off too much with new stuff, and just as far as everything day things like meeting times and stuff like that. Once he got used to that stuff, it has been great ever since. I think he really does bring a teaching aspect that we could all use here."

When Hunter isn't trying to teach the Capitals had to build a winner from the back end out, he's still keeping tabs on the Knights, who are now coached by his brother, Mark.

"Yeah, [Mark] is doing good and we've got a good team. We're making a run at it this year, trying to win it all," Hunter said. "I talk every day with him, well, almost every day. I've got the business up there with the farm and the team. We talk hockey, too. He watches our games and we talk about it. ... We go both ways. He watches a game and then asks me questions about, 'Hey, what are you guys doing here?' and I tell him what we're doing. We're all trying to learn."

Hunter could have stayed in London and focused on trying to claim the Memorial Cup for a second time. This challenge in Washington is no small matter, but it is something he accepted after McPhee called and asked if he'd consider a second act in D.C.

Trying to win championships on two fronts doesn't consume all of his time. He is driven and competitive about hockey, but he also still tries to find time for his other lifelong pursuit.

That includes some interesting reading material on the team's charter plane.

"It is the Ontario Farmer. I read it a lot," Hunter said almost sheepishly when asked about an anonymous source reporting that he reads "farming magazines" on the road. "Have to keep on the news."

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