For those who have followed the Caps since before the lockout, there are probably a handful of names that are synonymous with the Capitals organization, beyond the Alex Ovechkins and Mike Greens of today’s team. There’s Olie Kolzig, the backbone of the Caps. There’s Peter Bondra, the superstar sniper. And of course there’s Rod Langway, the Secretary of Defense.
But there’s one player whose name, identity and demeanor represents over a decade of Caps hockey, whose gritty style defined a team and an era in Capitals’ history – and that’s Dale Hunter.
When Hunter arrived in Washington via a trade with the Quebec Nordiques, he didn't take all that long to make his mark on the team that would someday become his, putting up 59 points in his first 79 games and adding 240 PIMs – the most penalty minutes of any of his years in Washington. That spring he would score what is easily one of the most famous goals in franchise history, a breakaway overtime goal against Ron Hextall to clinch the game – and the series – against the hated Philadelphia Flyers and cement his place in Capitals’ lore.
Over twelve seasons with the Caps he would continue to rack up the points and the penalty minutes while endearing himself to Caps fans (and becoming loathed by fans of every other team). And by the time he called it a career, he had become the only player in NHL history to accumulate 1000 points and 3000 penalty minutes... and still is.
He is forever part of some of the greatest moments this organization has ever seen. It was his beaming face popping up behind the Prince of Wales trophy when the Caps finally made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time; his presence is woven into the fabric, the history, the personality of this team. And when he departed DC for Colorado on an ultimately fruitless Ray Bourque-like quest for Lord Stanley during the 1998-99 season, it seemed as though some of the heart and soul of the organization went with him.
Twelve years later, he’s back home.
Hunter brings a new voice to a Caps team in dire need of one, and does so after over a decade spent developing young careers (including those of Washington’s own John Carlson and Dennis Wideman) with the OHL’s London Knights. He inherits a team with a ton of talent and all the potential in the world, but also a team with its share of problems and its need for some guidance. So his return to the Caps isn’t without questions – questions about whether he is, in fact, ready to jump right to the NHL, questions about how he will deal with the egos and talent that come with a team like the Caps, questions about the pressure he’ll face coaching a team that’s expected to contend for the Cup. And none are questions that will have a quick – or easy – answer.
There are questions for fans, as well, particularly those who remember his time as a Cap. We wonder whether it’s okay to embrace him right away out of sheer nostalgia and sentiment, or whether we should keep our wary distance in case the great expectations fall flat; the heart battling with the mind, the sugar-coated memories battling with the reality. And make no mistake, it’s a bold move by the organization. After all, if he succeeds the word 'legend' will take on new meaning. Should he fail, however, the good memories could give way to bad ones, and a once vital part of this team's history could be tarnished. It's a harsh reality but reality nonetheless, and it's just that much more pressure on what is already a pretty pressure-filled position.
Of course if that wasn't enough, Hunter also has some pretty big shoes to fill, as his arrival marks the departure of Bruce Boudreau... and his 200 NHL wins, his F-bombs, his division titles, his Jack Adams award and his Presidents’ Trophy. Because at the end of the day, for all his quirks and questionable decisions Boudreau was and is a darn good coach; he was also precisely what this team needed when he took over for Glen Hanlon almost exactly four years ago. His tenure was filled with ups and downs, incredible highs and heart-wrenching lows (as is so often the case here in Washington) but there's no denying the impact he had on the team, the organization and the city.
And Boudreau’s mark on the team won’t be erased overnight, something that will be important to keep in mind as we eagerly await the start of the Hunter era against the Blues tonight. The impact of a new coach may be felt in the adrenaline level in the building, in the energy level of the team; but the systems, the discipline, the style of hockey that Hunter hopes to implement… well, that’ll take some time. Before the honeymoon period can begin we must wait for the transition to end, for this to become Hunter’s team once more. Only then can we begin to answer some of the questions surrounding him, and start to see what he can bring to this team.
What that will look like is hard to predict – but it could be great. And that’s certainly worth waiting a bit longer for.