In the wake of Dale Hunter's arrival and the scene running up to BB's departure, the haters and the naysayers are crawling out from under their rocks -- fans of other teams, media pundits, you name it. Pick your devil -- will it be Dale, Ovi, or let's go for both? Too much heat, and too many pundits claiming the high ground or else a pipeline to the truth.
Dale Hunter, of course, was a player that other teams and their fans loved to hate. That's partly why we delighted in loving him. That's why I chose a #32 jersey in 1993, long before there was a "C" on it -- and proudly wear it today. Some small, mean minds out there refuse to believe that a pesky agitator with 3,000 penalty minutes who cheated on the occasional face-off t can be taken seriously as an NHL coach. Especially as he's making the jump from an OHL team that he also owns. If it's a "character thing," the critics conveniently forget about the guy who played above and beyond his skills, who never stopped wanting to win, whose grit and heart (and the 1,000 points) got his number raised to the rafters. Retired pests and pugilists are embraced off the rink if they're not former Caps. If the media gods can put that the retired Matthew Barnaby -- that malevolent pest of a player -- in a suit and tie and empower him to weigh in on all things hockey -- enuf said.
Beyond peskiness, of course, Hunter's name will always be twinned with Pierre Turgeons and the bad hit/cheap shot that sidelined Turgeon for several playoff games in '93. No doubt Hunter hasn't stopped wishing he could take back that moment born of anger, frustration, and a lapse in judgment. But why does that lapse have an 18-years-and-counting shelf life? Do the moralists out there think that a 51-year old man, almost two decades after the fact, will try to teach his charges to emulate that episode of bad behavior? These days, if your negligence kills a teammate (Heatley) or your aggressiveness destroys an opponent's career (Bertuzzi), the pundits are more generous-spirited. And let's not get into other sports -- Michael Vick, anybody? In other words, give it a rest. Real challenges face our new coach, but his own character is one of them.
On to the next bad egg. ..The venom and heat spewed at Ovi by his critics is astounding -- Ovi as the second coming of Jagr? I am just as baffled as anyone by the dip in his numbers, and I fret over the theories of cause and effect. I don't claim to have inside information about how diligently he trains, how many nights he's clubbing in Georgetown, or the level of esteem he held for BB in his heart of hearts. But it's tough to believe he "doesn't care about winning" (a charge that also has been leveled at BB -- insane to anyone who's read his memoir) or has stopped trying. For all we know, Sidney Crosby was sitting at home during his rehab time sticking pins in an Ovi doll.
Ovi is the face of the franchise -- for better or worse, it seems -- and he's being paid a fortune for effort and results. We're free to criticize, wonder, and worry about him. Sometimes I wish his mom would hit him with her purse. But comparing this situation to Jagr's disappointing stint with the Caps -- attitude problems, tax problems, girlfriend problems, a less talented squad around him and a disaster of a coach in Butch Cassidy -- is ridiculous. I had enormous expectations for Jagr when he was signed. I was thrilled. Now I wear his t-shirt to clean the fish pond. I can't imagine Ovi turning into -- letting himself turn into -- this kind of albatross. If he swore at BB for all to see in the "Bench-gate" game -- uncool, but angry moments can pass. And if Ovi "doesn't care," why bother getting mad? More important, are we now supposed to paint horns on Ovi and hold our collective breath until 2021?
BB's new gig in Anaheim -- congratulations and bouquets to him! -- shows that maybe it's "not personal." BB is replacing one of the only three longer-tenured coaches than he was with the Caps. Yet another coach (with a tie to the Caps) whose players apparently had tuned out. (Why these highly-paid professionals stop listening is a separate question). I hope BB succeeds magnificently -- and I'm relieved he's in the West. At the same time, I have high hopes for the Hunter era (the Jagr experience hasn't soured me on hope) while trying to exercise some short-term patience. And I'm not ready to throw Ovi out onto the scrap-heap of discarded dreams either.