ARLINGTON, Va. – Dale Hunter is not Gabby.
That goes without saying. Literally. After four playoff runs with a coach who would talk your ear off, the Washington Capitals enter this post-season with a leader who keeps his answers short, gives his assistants more authority and saves his speeches for when he really needs them.
“You definitely don’t get sick of hearing him talk—because he doesn’t talk a whole lot,” defenceman Karl Alzner said. “So when he does talk it’s pretty important to make sure you listen to it.”
It’s the norm for a team to look for something new in a coaching change. The old way wasn’t working, so the new guy has to at least have the appearance of being fresh and completely different.
Washington took that concept a full 180 degrees. Offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau lived up to his “Gabby” nickname by telling stories and hanging out in the locker room making chit-chat with the players. He was fired in November to make way for Hunter, who preaches defence and conducts himself more like a no-nonsense CEO, a byproduct his upbringing on a farm in Ontario and his 19 NHL seasons as a player so rugged that the Capitals gave him a penalty box at the ceremony when they retired his number.
“Everyone has a different style, and you can’t be somebody you’re not,” Hunter told The Associated Press. “It’s personalities. If I’m not calling you in, talking to you, you’re usually in pretty good shape. It’s the ones that are not playing well that I have to talk to and tell them why we’re not.”
It’s safe to say, therefore, that no one is expecting any great locker room oratory from the coach ahead of Thursday’s Game 1 against the Boston Bruins.
“In the dressing room, you can go on and on and on,” Hunter said Tuesday, “but these guys are professionals here. They’ve been in the playoffs; they know what it’s about.”
Under Hunter, assistants Dean Evason and Jim Johnson have a more prominent role during practice. Hunter said he does it that way because, when he was a player, he got tired of hearing “the same voice every day.”
“Not taking anything away from what Bruce did, but he was always in the dressing room talking to guys: ‘How was your day?’ Stuff like that,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “How Hunts handles himself around the team is just what I view as more of a head coach.”
When general manager George McPhee made the coaching change, he said of Hunter: “He knows two things, farming and hockey.” Fortunately, in Canada, those two are compatible.
Growing up, Hunter would wake in wee hours to bale hay for the cattle in the summer and play hockey in the winter. His father made sure he worked hard at both.
“The work ethic was huge in farming, and then we went to the rink,” Hunter said. “If you didn’t see us working hard, we weren’t allowed to go anymore. It was our choice—if you’re not doing something at your hardest, then you don’t deserve to do it.”
During his playing career, Hunter and brother Mark were buying farms. They now own some 2,000 acres near his hometown of Petrolia, producing mainly wheat along with corn and soybeans. After retiring from the NHL, Hunter also became a successful hockey businessman as owner and coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
It wasn’t easy to leave his roots again and return to Washington.
“I miss my family. I miss my dad. Everybody’s there, and coaching the young kids is great and everything,” Hunter said. “But, you know, I never won a Stanley Cup, so this is where you have a chance to win, so I decided to come back.”
Hunter came back to find a different Capitals atmosphere—with sellout crowds and a stronger media glare than in the 1990s—but he’s the same old Hunter. He jokes that his sessions with reporters are full of non-answers, such “game-day decision” and “it’s a hockey play.”
Naturally, his talks with his players are a bit more substantive.
“Maybe it’s not addressing the whole team and everybody, but he’ll call you aside and talk to you,” forward Brooks Laich said. “Since yesterday, I’ve probably had three or four conversations with him myself about what he expects on the power play or certain lines, stuff like that. I think he’s a very good communicator.”
And, yes, occasionally Hunter does stand in front of the team and lay down the law. Such a moment happened against Tampa Bay last month, when the Capitals trailed 2-1 after a lacklustre two periods.
The players were taken aback, then rallied for a 3-2 overtime win.
“He came in and said a couple of things to the guys and it was kind of like, ‘We didn’t know this was going to happen—he hadn’t done this before,'” Alzner said. “So it was kind of one of those things where you snapped out of it—everybody on the team.”
Hunter’s record so far is a very average 30-23-7—a .500 winning percentage—but the Capitals won four of their last five to earn a post-season spot.
Now it’s time to see if his approach can work in the playoffs.
“Right now it doesn’t matter if he’s talking or he’s not,” two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin said. “The most important thing is if you understand him or not.”
Note: The Capitals recalled C Mattias Sjogren, who spent most of the season on loan to a club in Sweden. With the Swedish season over, he will provide depth at practice but isn’t expected to play in the playoffs.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP