“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously. This wasn’t a slump, you can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as much as you don’t want to, you have to make a change. Bruce did a terrific job here, we’re proud of him, proud of the work he did for us, but when the players weren’t responding you have to make a change.” – George McPhee
George McPhee’s statement on the rationale for firing Bruce Boudreau needs no deciphering. It was pretty clear that after four years, it was time to move on. Boudreau did a lot for the Washington Capitals, he was a huge factor in taking this franchise to unprecedented levels, and I know, I’ve been watching this team since its’ inception in 1974-75. Unfortunately, in the hockey business the shelf life of a coach is often short. I’ve seen some great coaches fired from Bryan Murray to Terry Murray to Jim Schoenfeld and Ron Wilson. It is the nature of the business. Bruce did great things for the Caps, but he couldn’t get them over the hump to win a Stanley Cup. He is a class guy and never dodged a question as head coach. He is a super nice person and Capitals fans should be thankful for his time here. He’ll do well wherever he goes next, whether it is another coaching job or television.
On the flip side, if there is one guy that is the correct fit to coach the Washington Capitals right now, it is Dale Hunter. The 19 year NHL veteran and former team captain was the heart and soul of this franchise from 1987 to 1999. As a player he was a tireless worker and you never questioned his work ethic. He had skill, he had grit and as McPhee said today, “He could be downright mean.”
It’s no secret that the pre-Hunter Capital teams of the 1980′s were talented but soft. Washington would reel off five or six wins in a row but then they’d have to go to Philadelphia to play the tough Flyers and the result would often be the Broad Street Bullies running the Caps out of the Spectrum via a 6-1 or 6-2 score. Simply put, the Caps were intimidated by Philly back then, but that all changed when #32 was traded to Washington in 1987. In April of 1988, in Hunter’s first season with the Caps, he would score what I still say was the most important goal in franchise history, his 1988 game seven playoff OT breakaway tally on Ron Hextall.
Another reason he is the best guy for the job is because he is a Cap, and always will be. #32 said today that he’s been rooting for the Caps ever since he left and that he’s taped every game so he can watch them on his bus rides in the Ontario Hockey League. McPhee said Hunter has had offers to coach other teams but has turned them down and Dale confirmed that in his post practice press conference.
“I really enjoyed the junior league and coaching 17 and 18 year olds…but it would take the Washington Capitals to stop me from doing that,” stated Hunter on why he took this position, basically his dream coaching job.
The Capitals right now have all kinds of skill and talent but they have clear holes in their game. To fix them they will need to get back to basics, which means working hard. Hunter did that night in and night out as a player and he will demand that from this hockey club. He can be called a players coach but he also lays the law down.
“I’m a players coach but the players will know when I’m mad at them,” added Hunter.
I’ve known Dale since he came to the Caps. 1987 was my first full year doing statistics for the team and right off the bat, after every home game, he started asking me how he did on face-offs. That tradition would continue through 1997 when my position transitioned to the NHL when the season ended. Back then, the ice time, face-offs, hits, giveaways, etc. weren’t published like they are now on the internet. In fact, GM’s and coaches did not want any of those figures given to the players for fear of their agents using the data in contract negotiations. However, because of the type of player Hunter was, GM David Poile and the various coaching staffs had no issue with me providing #32 his face-off stats each game. They realized he only wanted to know because he cared so much about winning and would use the information to help do whatever it took to get better. The interesting thing about those post game exchanges I had with him was that he always pretty much knew how he did before I even gave him the numbers. When he was good, it was “I got them tonight, didn’t I chum?!” and when he had a rough night, it was “I was horsebleep tonight, eh chum?!”
During the games, I frequently had the task of delivering the statistics to the coaches between periods. Several times when I’d come out of the coaches office there would be ole number 32 by the stick rack in the hallway at the old Capital Centre fidgeting with his lumber for the upcoming period. Occasionally Dale would ask for outside input on the game and a few times I’d mention the lack of hits, knowing full well that he knew that meant the team needed to play harder. His frequent response was ”no hits, eh chum?!” More often than not the team would come out with more energy the following period. Clearly he is a leader.
On another night between periods in an early season game, Dale was having a tough time from the dot and I caught him, once again, by the stick rack searching for answers. I mentioned the rough stats he’d had in the previous 20 minutes and he grimaced, then slipped off his glove and showed me what was a fractured thumb. #32 would go on to play with that ailment for pretty much the rest of the season but noone outside the team ever knew. Dale didn’t want to give the other team an advantage and he certainly did not want to make any excuses for his performance. He is a results oriented person.
Why am I telling you these stories? Because it sums up Dale Hunter and what he is about. He is a straightforward, simple man of very few, but powerful words. He knows his business and he pays attention to detail. As McPhee said today, “He knows two things, farming and hockey, and he’s good at both.”
Yup, there is no doubt about that, in my mind.