May 14, 2012

Dale Hunter: Respecting The Villain

Some people called Dale Hunter the NHL's ultimate warrior. Others considered the loathsome character to be hockey's most hated villain since Bobby Clarke. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he was a vitally integral player. Now we can add one heck of a coach to his resume, too.

Hunter retired as the first and only man in NHL history to collect 300 goals, 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes. But while he was a superior defensive player, face-off specialist and offensive sparkplug, it was Hunter's mean-spirited, sometimes dirty play that summed up Hunter best. He was the ultimate team player and leader; a player who played with every last ounce of heart and soul he had; a player who would and did just about anything to win.

The NHL's Lord of Darkness wreaked havoc at any given opportunity.

"I assumed he picked his spots to play the way he does because nobody can play that way all the time," goalie Bill Ranford, both an opponent and teammate, said. "Then I found out he plays that way every game, every rink, against everybody."

In a career of wrong-doings, one incident sticks out more than any other. A frustrated Hunter blindsided NY Islanders captain Pierre Turgeon several moments after Turgeon scored a decisive goal that all but eliminated Hunter's Capitals from the playoffs. The attack came a good 5-7 seconds after the goal as Turgeon was celebrating the goal. Hunter was suspended for the first 21 games, exactly 1/4 of the schedule, in the following season. With fines and lost salary, Hunter lost $150,000.

"Some wondered whether the new NHL commissioner Gary Bettman singled me out to send everyone a message, but to me, that's just part of hockey," said Hunter almost unapologetically.

With that deplorable incident I lost most of my respect of Dale Hunter. So when he was announced as the mid-season replacement as Washington's coach I wanted him to fail. I wanted the whole organization to fail.

But a funny thing has happened - I have gained much of my respect back for Dale Hunter.

In his short tenure as a NHL coach he gave an entire franchise a new identity. He changed the culture of a team that had gone stagnate and old. The Washington Pretty Boys were replaced by hard working warriors who just about any hockey fan could admire. He asked his players to play hard and with heart, leaving every last drop of sweat on the ice each game. He asked them to play like he once did - most of the time anyway.

Just as much of the hockey world was starting to applaud Hunter's transformation of the Capitals, Hunter decided to step down as coach and go home. He wanted to be with his family. Fame and fortune were not as important to Hunter as to return to London where he co-owns the London Knights junior team and to be with his family.

“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.”

Dale Hunter will always be a loathsome villain in hockey history. But everyone can respect his decision to go home and be with his family. I know I have a new respect for Dale Hunter the coach, and more importantly Dale Hunter the man.

No comments: