It was no surprise, really, when Dale Hunter decided to go back home 169 days after he rode into Washington and saved the job of his pal George McPhee.
“It wasn’t unexpected,” McPhee, the Capitals general manager, said when he made the announcement Monday that Hunter stepped down as head coach to go back to running the junior team he owns with his family in London, Ont.
Hunter noted it wasn’t as easy as the decision to end his playing career, but ultimately it did not appear to be that difficult. In the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, he has a team that is successful on the ice, makes lots of money and is a family project. He and brother, Mark, are the owners, with Mark as the general manager and Dale as head coach, although Mark will continue to fill in as coach for Dale through the Memorial Cup. The brothers’ father does some scouting, one of Dale’s sons is an assistant coach and another goes to school and attends games. Also making to most games are his daughter and sister.
“When I retired as a hockey player, I had to retire because I wasn’t that good any more, you might say,” Dale Hunter said. “It was a tough decision to make but it was the right thing for me and my family. Sometimes you’ve just got to go home. I’ve got a good thing going at home with the family so I’ll stay at home.”
The last two sentences were also his answer to the question of ever coming back to the NHL as a head coach. Hunter could also have added, “Who needs the aggravation?”
Coaching in the NHL may come with big money and fame but aside from the brief moments when the team is winning, few coaches give the impression it is a job that provides much joy. Think of the television shots of Ken Hitchcock’s florid expression as his St. Louis Blues fizzled in the playoffs after a marvellous regular season when he was hired to turn them around. Or Joel Quenneville’s clenched visage behind the Chicago Blackhawks bench.
Hunter was brought to Washington to change the culture of the Capitals, a team that stagnated in the past two seasons because it revolved around the moods of diva Alex Ovechkin. As the losses mounted, McPhee knew he had to do something in the playoffs or owner Ted Leonsis would clean house this summer. So he fired Bruce Boudreau and turned to Hunter, who agreed to try it for the rest of the season and then decide if he wanted to stay.
It worked out in the end, as Hunter sat Ovechkin on the bench when he had to, until the message sunk in that defensive hockey was the way to salvation. The Caps made it to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semi-final, much farther than most thought they would. Hunter had kind words for Ovechkin at the end and even remarked on Alexander Semin blocking shots in the playoffs.
But it was not fun to drag a group of professionals with long, rich contracts to enlightenment. Not when you know the shelf life of NHL coaches is the equivalent of a Kardashian marriage. Life is better when you are the owner and the coach in a town with a full arena and in a league where the players are teenagers who make about a hundred bucks a week.
As Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said when asked the difference between coaching in the NHL and in junior: “In coaching junior, I can walk into the room and still scare the [crap]out of you.”
The question now is what lies ahead for McPhee. Does he hire a defensive, demanding coach such as Hunter, go back to Boudreau’s go-go style or try for a little of both? McPhee said he is in no hurry but his words about Hunter gave a hint about his thinking.
“I’d rather have him for six months than not at all,” McPhee said. “He taught this club how to win.”