Like many in the hockey world, when former Capitals coach and general manager Bryan Murray first heard the news that Dale Hunter accepted George McPhees offer to replace Bruce Boudreau behind the Capitals bench, he wondered why he would leave the empire his family had built in London, Ontario.
He had such a great gig going in London a good operation and a team set up very well financially, Murray told CSNwashignton.com. Based on that only, I was a little surprised. But I knew if it would be any place it would be Washington.
Dale and his brother, Mark, purchased the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 1999 for an estimated 3.5 million. At the time, the Knights were playing in a 36-year-old arena and had a season ticket base of just over 1,200 fans.
Today, the Knights regularly sell out the 9,100-seat John Labatt Centre, which opened in
2002, and has a franchise value estimated between 8 million and 12 million.
During his 11 years coaching the Knights Hunter, 51, became the fastest coach in OHL history to reach 300 wins and 400 wins. His Memorial Cup team in 2004-05, led by future Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, went 59-7-2-0 and an astounding 20-2 in the playoffs.
So why, after several inquiries from several NHL teams, including the Capitals, did Hunter accept McPhees offer to coach the Capitals, a team that has won four straight Southeast Division titles but has underachieved in the post-season?
My kids grew up, Hunter told CSNwashington.com. Theyre gone and doing their own thing. It had to be the right situation. When the job came up, it was the Caps and theyre my team.
I played for them so long. That was the reason, because it was the Capitals. This is the team I wanted to coach. To leave the good situation I had there it took a lot. When the chance came I couldnt resist coming back here.
Hunters three children are now out on their own. Dylan, 26, is the assistant coach of the Knights, working alongside his uncle, Mark, who took over for Dale following his Nov. 28 hiring by the Caps.
Shalen, Hunters 23-year-old daughter, is an elementary school teacher in Ontario. And Tucker, 21, is a student at the University of Western Ontario.
But that does not mean Hunter left an empty house.
Last year, he and his girlfriend, Cindy, agreed to bring two of Hunters players 17-year-old twin brothers Matt and Ryan Rupert into their Ontario home.
It wasnt working out where they were, Hunter said. We thought wed take them in for a couple days and it ended up longer. Its kind of a shock, though, having teenagers all over again.
By all accounts, the Rupert brothers play Dale Hunter hockey, bending the rules as far as humanly possible on the ice. In the home, they are cared for by Hunters girlfriend, who agreed to remain in Ontario when Hunter took the job in Washington.
Cindy, she takes care of them, Hunter said. She never had any kids and shes like a mom to them. I talk to them pretty much every night. Theyre good kids and theyre trying to make it and get drafted, so were doing everything we can. Theyve been watching our games every night.
Lately, that has been relatively painful. The Capitals are 1-3-0 in Hunters first four games behind the Capitals bench and are coming off Monday nights 5-4 loss in Florida.
But those who know Hunter say its only a matter of time before he gets Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals playing his brand of relentless hockey.
Theyll have to adjust to him, said Murray, who coached Hunter as a player. Thats one thing about Dale. Theyll have to play well to get ice time. Hell get Ovechkin playing.
If you look at his background in junior, the good players got a lot of minutes. We drafted Corey Perry when he was in London and he was on the ice all the time. Dale knows how to get the best players to play the best.
In his career in London, Hunter produced dozens of NHL players, including Rick Nash, Patrick Kane, Sam Gagne, Brandon Prust, David Bolland, Sam Gagne, Dan Girardi and Steve Mason.
In a 2009 story published by cbc.ca, Nash said the Knights have become a factory for NHL players because of the way players are treated under Mark and Dale Hunter.
I dont know what it is they Hunters do, but the only thing that comes to mind is they treat you like a pro and they practice like NHL teams, Nash said.
Hunter said the biggest difference between coaching 17-year-olds and NHL veterans is the learning curve.
Everybody makes mistakes on the ice, but with the younger guys its a lot more, he said. These guys can understand what we do a lot more.
As for Ovechkin, who is still looking for his first goal under Hunter, Murray said hes certain Hunter will bring out the best in the 26-year-old captain, who played a season-high 22:05 in Monday nights loss.
The players today havent changed, Murray said. They respond if you still respect them and include them in discussions. Empower the guy. I think Dale will do that, plus he gets instant respect because of the way he played.