Elfin's Endzone: Hunter Is Right Choice To Right Capitals

4:31 PM, Nov 28, 2011   |    comments
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Dale Hunter (Getty Images)

No professional sports franchise has been more of a regular season success and a postseason failure the past four years than the Washington Capitals.

So coach Bruce Boudreau was going to be on thin ice (pun intended) come April no matter how things went for the Caps from October-March. And when Washington nose-dived from a franchise-record 7-0 start to its current 3-7-1 tailspin that included a bunch of listless efforts, it became obvious that the players were no longer responding to their nice guy fourth-year coach despite his recent attempts at being a taskmaster.

There won't be any issues about whether Boudreau's replacement is a tough guy. Former Caps captain Dale Hunter is second in NHL history in penalty minutes. His 21-game suspension for a late hit on Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoffs remains one of the longest ever.

But Hunts, as he was known when I covered the Caps for three seasons during his playing days, was also beloved by his teammates and not just because he had their backs if trouble ensued on the ice.

Hunter had an impish sense of humor. He loved to stride down the hallway at the Caps' old Piney Orchard practice facility with his stomach taut, asking, "Washboard, washboard. Got any laundry to do?"

It's no accident that Hunter captained the Caps to their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals back in 1998 when he was 37 and no longer as skillful as the player who ranked 46th on the career scoring list when he retired after 19 seasons the following spring.

It was also no accident that the Caps, who had notoriously folded in the 1987 playoffs against the New York Islanders, rallied from a 3-1 deficit to stun Philadelphia the next spring on an overtime goal by Washington newcomer Hunter that was the signature moment of the franchise's first 16 seasons.

And it was no accident that Hunter, the only player in NHL history with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes, was a leader in 1990 as the Caps reached their first Conference finals.

That was the series during which Hunter, frustrated that the Caps were about to go down three games to none, gave Boston defenseman Glen Wesley a face wash. In other words, Hunter slammed Wesley down and pushed his face into the Capital Centre ice.

Boston coach Mike Milbury, a noted instigator in his own right during his playing days, was furious, proclaiming that he wouldn't have Hunter on his team if the latter was the last player on Earth. But Hunts just smiled, having accomplished his mission of getting under the skin of the Bruins.

The Caps lost that series, but Hunts is a winner. The 51-year-old son of an Ontario wheat farmer has never coached an NHL game, but he was highly successful behind the bench in juniors, reaching 300 and 400 victories faster than any coach in Ontario Hockey League history.

Combine Hunter's history as one of just three Caps to have his number (32) retired, his toughness, skill and leadership and general manager George McPhee has made a gutsy but smart choice to try to right Washington's ship and take this talented but under-performing team to the Stanley Cup it should win.

If anyone can get the most out of Alex Ovechkin and Co., it's Hunts.

WUSA 9's Redskins Insider, David Elfin, has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of five books on the Redskins including the new "Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.

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