The Washington Capitals had just blown a 3-1 series lead and lost a four-overtime Game 7 heartbreaker at home to the New York Islanders.
Caps general manager David Poile, whose team had yet to win a best-of-seven competition, knew he had to do something big in response. That something was a draft day deal with Quebec of which the centerpiece was the Nordiques’ gritty 27-year-old center Dale Hunter.
“Dale and (Caps forward) Bobby Gould (who lived in the same Ontario town) came down to Detroit for the draft that year,” Poile recalled recently.
“They were in the stands when we made the trade. How often do you make a trade and the guy comes down to your table? In hindsight that was a huge insight into how much Dale was passionate about hockey.”
More than 23 years later, Hunter’s still-fervent passion for hockey will be on display for the first time against his old boss when he coaches the Caps tonight against the visiting Nashville Predators, for whom Poile is the GM.
“Dale was the heart and soul of the Nordiques,” Poile said. “He was always a top-two line player who made his linemates better. He was a team player first. He had character. He had grit. He’d do anything to win. He would cross the line to win. I felt he would be a huge addition to our team. We were looking for that type of leader and playoff-type player to get us over the hump.”
Ten months after the trade, Hunter did just that, taking a pass from defenseman Larry Murphy and putting the puck past Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall on a breakaway to complete a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Flyers as the sellout crowd at the Capital Centre erupted in joy.
“That epitomizes what you hope for when you make a deal,” Poile said. “To say that goal was a franchise-changer was an understatement as far as I’m concerned. It probably saved a lot of people’s jobs.”
Three weeks ago yesterday, the 51-year-old Hunter got a new job, the one behind the Caps’ bench. Poile believes that George McPhee, who succeeded him as Washington’s GM in 1997, couldn’t have made a better choice to replace coach Bruce Boudreau.
“If passion and commitment are key ingredients to success, Dale’s gonna be an A+,” Poile said. “His family lives and dies hockey 24 x 7 (older brother Dave played in the NHL while younger brother Mark, another former Cap, joined forces with him in 2000 to buy the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League for whom son Dylan remains an assistant coach). It wasn’t like he was just following his team and his league when he was in London. He was following the NHL. When I would see him, he always knew what was going on with our team.”
The Caps are just 4-5 under Hunter, but Poile expects that record to markedly improve soon although hopefully not tonight against his Predators.
“Dale has all sorts of ideas about hockey,” Poile said. “He did a fabulous job as the manager and coach in London from both a business and the hockey sides. He wouldn’t have taken the job in Washington if he didn’t think he could do it.”
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.