Early Monday afternoon out at Kettler I approached a Capitals official while awaiting Dale Hunter’s first press conference as Capitals head coach, and thanked him for “the early Christmas present.” The team rep, smiling, replied, “We couldn’t stop [the gift giving] with just [John] Walton for you!” It was for me a special moment of amusement during a day of extraordinary emotion and intrigue and wonderment.
For nearly two years now I’ve had a recurring wonder related to righting the frustrating and infuriating underachievement by the Washington Capitals of this era: What would happen if this band of multi-millionaires suddenly had to share a room with a legend, an authentic legend, who wore the team crest; a true warrior whose number resides in the rafters of Verizon Center, whose honor mural conspicuously adorns one end of the team’s training facility; the scorer of what most Caps’ fans regard as the biggest goal in team history, a luminary who once lifted the Prince of Wales trophy high over his head? That for me was what was biggest about Monday’s stop-the-presses news — we’re about to watch my dream scenario play out.
It’s a dream scenario that hardly belongs to me alone. By noon Monday I’d received a text from a chum in Ashburn, Va., who reported seeing not one but two Dale Hunter Capitals sweaters adorning shoppers in his neighborhood grocery store. We had unseasonably excellent weather Monday for sweater exhibition, but still I found this anecdote, taking place in a single enclave of our region, remarkable. We awoke Monday with the post-holiday dread of return to our life of labor, only to spit out our first sip of coffee as the wire (The wire? I meant to type Twitter) broke word of the Legend’s return.
Bondra is a legend, Kolzig is a legend, but this is the Legend of Washington hockey. Captain Legend. Coming home. To help. When we need it most.
Millionaires, all too accustomed to having their hockey hearts questioned, on Monday morning met the biggest hockey heart HockeyWashington has ever known. Christmas, indeed.
The Dale Hunter Era begins in Washington this week as an experiment, and I say that not with any overriding sense of doubt attached to the announcement but rather out of acknowledgment that nothing remotely like this has ever been tried here before. We’ve never had one of our own, an oh so distinguished alum, return home to help out in a leadership crisis. The Caps are Cup-less perhaps partially because theirs has been a bench populated, for nearly 40 years, by merely good and decent bench bosses, mostly very mediocre ones, and one or two less than mediocre men. Washington has not been a cradle of great hockey coaching. Far from it. Pittsburgh has enjoyed Badger Bob Johnson, Scotty Bowman, and now Dan Bylsma. We’ve had the Murray brothers, Shoeney and Wils and Gabby and Glen. . . and Butch Cassidy.
We won’t know for years where Dale Hunter falls in the litany, but at this moment this hire seems quite more than special, quite more than novel. To no small extent it seems to represent a vindication of Washington’s hockey legacy, modest though that be. It also seems like a terrific tonic for these troubled times; these Washington Capitals seriously need boots meeting their behinds, and the Dale Hunter kick ought to occasion some giddyup alright.
Monday at Kettler seemed especially about the Legend offering testimonials to his love affair for his Caps. “This has been my team — I shouldn’t say my team, it’s Ted’s team — but it feels like my team because I played here so long and had good memories here,” the Legend said.
‘Have you been able to follow much the team since you’ve been gone,’ a reporter asked the Legend. Only in the sense of taping and watching every Capitals game played since he left. Long bus rides in major juniors, you know; good way to kill all those hours, watching every game for the team you captained and left . . . the decade before last. “I’ve been cheering for the Caps since I left here,” Captain Legend admitted.
‘Were you a tough sell?’ another scribe wondered. Well before this moment word was in wide circulation among the Kettler hockey press that Huntsy had turned down overtures from other NHL organizations, out of fidelity to ours.
“It would take the Washington Capitals to get me to stop doing what I was doing [in London],” the Legend said.
“This is the only [NHL] team he’s ever wanted to coach,” George McPhee told the mass of media enveloping him.
It didn’t come up during any of the press conferences Monday, but it’s part of the Hunter lore, and I remember it as much as any play in his remarkable career: Dale Hunter never hired an agent during his 19-year career, or at least certainly not while in Washington. Instead, once a year, at the end of each hockey season, he sat down with Mr. Pollin, briefly discussed his value to the club, quickly reached an accord, and made a new pact . . . on a handshake.
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The St. Louis Blues are in the midst of their own honeymoon with new leadership. They’re hot under Hitch: 7-1-2 since he took over three weeks ago. I thought it remarkable that the Blues took to Kettler ice opposite the Capitals right as Dale Hunter was taking his first paces in his coaches warmup. Talk about a team seemingly walking into a Chinatown buzzsaw this week. A couple of Blues players even poked their heads in the other side of the rink to behold the spectacle of the Legend’s return.
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Monday also delivered a brutal bittersweetness the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever encounter again. Bruce Boudreau’s dismissal necessarily delivered a deep bruise to that great hockey community just to our north. NHL rookie John Walton believes he’s in the big leagues today because of Bruce Boudreau. So you imagine his emotions on Monday. JW got to share about 10 weeks of the Dream with his advocate-friend, before having to say goodbye. On Monday he brought important perspective to the Boudreau legacy in D.C.:
“I learned of Bruce’s dismissal this morning around 8:00 a.m. As I drove into Arlington, I listened to the coverage of the coaching change on WTOP when a sad irony hit me. On Washington’s most listened to radio station this morning, the coverage of the coaching change was wall-to-wall. News at the top of the hour. Fan reaction on the talk back line. Sports at :15 and :45 was almost all Capitals. Joe Beninati on in the 9:00 a.m. hour . . . This happened on a Monday during football season. The Redskins won a football game yesterday, and there was almost no mention of it today. Has that ever happened around here?”
No, it hasn’t. Bruce Boudreau helped build this hockey town. Dale Hunter is elated to be here because he remembers well Washington’s ordinary status in this league of 15 years ago, and how extraordinary our standing is today. He’d be the first to acknowledge Gabby’s role in getting us there.