Dale Hunter is a tough guy with a twinkle in his eye. Hunter could be vicious enough to be suspended 21 games for a cheap shot during the 1993 playoffs but funny enough to strut bare-chested around the Capitals’ practice facility with his stomach taut, exclaiming, “Washboard, washboard. Got any laundry to do?”
Speaking of stomach, George McPhee must not stomach turkey very well. Four years after firing coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving and replacing him with minor league boss Bruce Boudreau, Washington’s general manager decided this Turkey Day weekend that he had seen enough of his highly-touted Caps playing like turkeys.
So Boudreau, who needed fewer games to reach 200 victories than any coach in NHL history and who led Washington to the past four Southeast Division titles but couldn’t get it done in postseason, is out and Hunter is in.
While tomorrow night’s game with St. Louis will be the 51-year-old son of an Ontario farmer’s first game behind an NHL bench, he was highly successful in juniors, reaching 300 and 400 victories faster than any coach in Ontario Hockey League history.
If the Caps had tuned out the gabby, upbeat Boudreau, they’re going to want to respond to Hunter. Or else.
Washington had won just two of seven playoff series in its history including the infamous blown 3-1 lead against the New York Islanders in 1987 when Hunter arrived two months later in a trade with the Quebec Nordiques.
The following spring, the Caps trailed Philadelphia 3-1 in the first round but stormed back to win the series on a Game 7 overtime rush down the ice and goal by Hunter.
Washington reached its first conference finals two years later and its only Stanley Cup finals in 1998 with Hunter as the captain.
Hunter is still second all-time in penalty minutes, but unlike so many of the other tough guys on that list, Hunter could also play, ranking 46th on the career scoring chart when he retired in 1999 after 19 seasons. He remains the only player with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes.
Hunter was such a competitor that when the upstart Caps were losing Game 3 of the 1990 conference finals to Boston, he took out his frustrations on Glen Wesley, giving the Bruins defenseman a face wash. That’s not administered with a soft washcloth, mind you, but involves pushing your opponent face first into the ice.
Boston coach Mike Milbury was livid, proclaiming that he wouldn’t have Hunter on his team if the latter was the last player on earth. That was an especially ridiculous comment coming from Milbury, such an unsportsmanlike sort when he played that he once climbed into the stands to go after an unruly New York Rangers fan.
Of course, Hunter wasn’t at all fazed. That’s the kind of get under your skin reaction that he lived to generate. And that’s the kind of reaction the Caps, who are 3-7-1 since a franchise-record 7-0 start and who were embarrassed under Boudreau in four straight springs, can expect if they don’t play and produce for their new coach.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March