All the speculation was spot on – Dale Hunter is headed back to London, Ontario. Hunter announced early Monday morning that he will be stepping down as the head coach of the Washington Capitals two days after being eliminated by the New York Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hunter cites family reasons for his departure where back in London, hockey is a family business.
It was widely speculated that Hunter`s time in Washington was limited as more of a mid-season patchwork than a long-term fixture. Hunter left his post as the coach of the OHL’s London Knights for the big leagues in November after the Capitals gave Bruce Boudreau a pink slip, leaving Hunter`s brother Mark as London`s head coach.
The Knights are a family affair for the Hunters, Dale’s son Dylan is also part of the organization as both a former captain and current assistant coach for the club. Hunter`s career moves this year have always been made by following his heart. Hunter always had a soft spot for Washington where he spent 12 seasons as a player and now will return to the Knights where he has spent 11 seasons with the organization. Hunter will be cheering on his team and family at the Memorial Cup, but says he won’t be behind the bench. “I’m a fan,” Hunter said. “No, no, no, I won’t be behind the bench. Mark has done a great job and they don’t need anything to change.”
The Hunters eldest sibling Dave Hunter who is a former NHLer and three-time Stanley Cup winner was shocked by his brother’s decision. “I actually thought Dale liked coaching in the NHL. This was a challenge for Dale. I thought he’d stay on. He had a good run there, a helluva run, actually,” said Dave Hunter. “I mean everybody wants to win, but it was a close final game with the Rangers. He got the max out of that Washington team. It’s not like they didn’t make the playoffs or lost four straight in the second round. If so, then they wouldn’t want him, would they?”
Hunter’s methods during the Caps playoff run were received with much speculation about his long-term goals with the franchise. Hunter’s benching of Ovechkin during important moments in their series with the Boston Bruins brought a media storm over the Caps coach, but Hunter proved that they were capable of winning without their top gun logging big minutes. Hunter in essence began to make the same moves that lead to the firing of Boudreau who also toyed with lines and benched Ovechkin periodically. But, Hunter`s legacy with the Caps will be in the transformation from a team that has largely been known as one with a lot of flare and offensively-minded individuals to a team of role players who work together as a team.
Now the Capitals are once again at the same crossroads they were at in November when they fired Boudreau. The hiring of a new coach will expose the direction GM George McPhee hopes to take the franchise. Whether the Caps organization will seek out a new coach with the same sensibilities as Hunter with a defense-first, four-line, team approach or whether they will take a new attack plan into the 2012-2013 season will be one of many questions answered in the off-season.
Matt Stephen is a writer, not a fighter. He is both a beer and fantasy league veteran and has written about hockey online and in print for The Hockey News. He now covers the spectrum from the White House to Mike Green. He carries a picture of Ovechkin in his wallet.