Less than a year after leading the Washington Capitals to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, head coach Dale Hunter is again guiding a group of young men through the rigors of playoff hockey.
Hunter returned to his family-owned London Knights this season and led the Knights to the best record in the Ontario Hockey League at 50-13-2-3. The Knights have since taken a 2-0 series lead over the Saginaw Spirit in their best-of-seven first-round matchup.
During the final week of the OHL season and with the No.1 seed in the Western Conference already locked up, Hunter took some time to reflect on his 74-game (regular-season and playoffs combined) tenure as an NHL coach last season.
“The biggest thing was that you bring in your system and it takes time to teach it,” Hunter told CSNWashington.com in a phone interview.
“But definitely the character always comes through. And I think to win a championship at any level it always comes back to character and that’s how we put out Boston [in Round 1] and took the Rangers to seven games [in Round 2]- because we had character. When you’re coaching and you have great character on your team, it’s a blessing for the coaches.”
Hunter recently became the fastest coach in OHL history (and the eighth all-time) to reach 500 career wins and the former Capitals captain acknowledges that he returned to London this year a better head coach than before his NHL experience.
“I played a long time but by going back to coach [in the NHL] you remember what it takes to play [at that level]. You kind of forget sometimes just how hard it is to play in the National Hockey League and what you have to correct to play in the top league and definitely I’ve brought that experience back here to help these kids get to that next level.”
STILL FOLLOWING THE CAPITALS:
Prior to Hunter’s joining the Capitals last season, it had been well documented that the former team captain had closely followed Washington’s play for years and served as a sounding board for general manager George McPhee. Hunter had made a habit of taping Capitals games on TV and watching them on his team’s long bus rides across southern Ontario.
“That hasn’t changed- definitely I still tape and watch all of the games,” he said this month, acknowledging the difference now is that he knows most of the Washington players personally.
“It’s enjoyable and now when I watch the Caps games I know these kids- I shouldn’t call them kids, they’re men- but I watch them play and I’ve enjoyed watching the Caps this year. I know them all personally now and I know how much they care about winning and losing.
“I’ve been rooting for them for years. They’re my team and to see them get off to a slow start this year was [hard to watch], but there’s so much character in the room, and so many good players and with Holtby playing well, it won’t be long before they’re back on the rise. The standings are so close that if you get three wins in a row, you can get back into the playoffs. So right now, I’m enjoying watching them, I know the guys and I’m rooting for them big time.”
Hunter also said that he and McPhee still speak on a regular-basis because “we’re both hockey guys. We just talk hockey.” Hunter admits that his conversations with McPhee tend to be more about the game in general and less about the Capitals specifically.
RELATIONSHIP WITH ALEX OVECHKIN:
Since Hunter left Washington last spring, Alex Ovechkin has said multiple times that communication between the head coach and captain was practically non-existent last year.
Hunter does not deny that there was limited dialogue between himself and Ovechkin, but adds that “when I played and was captain, we had superstars too… They’re sometimes different.”
As far as Ovechkin though, “he’s the type of guy that he did buy in. You saw him during the playoffs, he was sliding and blocking shots and doing the little things and trying to play the best defensive game he can play but still getting the offense.”
Capitals forward Troy Brouwer suggested last month that perhaps under Hunter, players like Ovechkin weren’t getting the same offensive changes that they could have been getting under a system better suited to their skillset. A system like the one Adam Oates has brought with him from New Jersey.
“With Hunts everything was very strict,” Brouwer said, “making sure guys were blocking shots, maybe getting them out of their styles of play as far as particular players go. And then with Adam, I mean everyone’s still accountable, everyone has to do their job, but he’s letting guys play the way that makes them successful – goal scorers need to score, checkers need to check. Everyone’s got a defined role on the team now… Nobody’s trying to do too much or too little from what their expected.”
One of Oates’ early decisions this year was to switch Ovechkin to the right wing to help open up his game and present new looks for the Capitals leading scorer in each of the last seven years.
“That’s a big part of playing a long time in the league,” Hunter said, “defenses will figure out a way to cover you. So if you can play right wing, center or left wing up front, it’s a blessing. Even here in junior, all of my forwards play different positions up front because it only makes you a better player for the next level.”
Hunter admits that watching the Capitals this year is much different from reviewing any of the game tape he would have studied last season, but that he trusts the system and coaching philosophy that Oates has put in place.
“You know, everybody has different systems. But the key thing is that no matter what system, the whole team has to be on the same page. They have to buy into what Adam is trying to do. I know Adam, and I know he’s going to work his tail off and I know he did to get to get back in the race. The power play is good, the penalty killing is coming along and the guys are playing hard. They’ve got a lot of character in that room and whatever system you play, it always comes down to character and that’s what we have with the Washington Capitals.”