Big Game Hunter
by Mike Vogel
Occasionally in the world of team sports, there are players who come to represent a team so much that the two cannot easily be separated. The player’s attributes become the team’s attributes, so intertwined are the two.
Although he is now a member of the Colorado Avalanche, Ray Bourque is such a player. Think of the Bruins, you think of Ray Bourque. Think of Ray Bourque, you think of the Bruins. Think of Dick Butkus and you think of the Chicago Bears. And you can’t think very long about the Chicago Bears without thinking of Dick Butkus. Cal Ripken and the Baltimore Orioles are similarly intertwined.
And so it is with Dale Hunter. He began his career with the Quebec Nordiques and finished it with the Avalanche. But when you think of Dale Hunter, you think of the Washington Capitals. And when you think of the Capitals, you think of Dale Hunter.
Throughout the years, win or lose, regardless of personnel, one thing has remained fairly constant about the Capitals. If you’re the opposing team and you’re going up against the Caps, you know you’re in for a struggle from the opening faceoff to the final horn. That’s how Dale Hunter played it every night—1,407 times over 19 seasons.
Few figures in Washington sports have been as beloved by fans over the last few decades. He brought a quiet, workmanlike efficiency to the ice. He wasn’t looking for approval, or glamour or accolades. He didn’t care about scoring goals or padding his stat totals. He cared about one thing—winning.
“He taught me a lot of things,” says Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt. “He taught me how to play hard and to pick your spots [to make a hit]. And every night he came to play. I really admire that. As a kid I grew up watching him with the Nordiques and the Capitals. I remember the first time I met him, he was on the Stairmaster. He looked like a normal little guy. I thought, ‘He doesn’t look much like a killer, but he’s got the reputation.’ But just to be in his presence; he is a great hockey player with a lot of hockey smarts. He is great for the game. I admire him a lot, he came to play every night and I think he did a lot for this organization.”
“It was awesome playing with Dale Hunter,” says Steve Konowalchuk, who cut his NHL teeth playing on a line with Hunter and Kelly Miller. “He was such a smart player and he came to play every night. I played seven, eight years with him and I don’t know if I can remember a bad game he had. That’s pretty amazing. Every night he came and played good. That’s what I really learned. Yeah, he had skill and they had talent. But he was mentally ready every game. And that is what I strived to learn from him.”
It wasn’t like Hunter became that player upon arriving in Washington, either. He broke into the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques on October 9, 1980 and made his mark right away. Hunter registered 19 goals and 63 points as a rookie; he also racked up 226 penalty minutes. It would be the first of 10 seasons in which he would spend more than 200 minutes in the penalty box.
With the high-flying Nordiques, Hunter served two purposes and served them both well. His gritty nature often overshadowed his other hockey skills, but he was a tremendous playmaker with excellent vision. With the Nords, Hunter skated with Michel Goulet, who was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998. With Hunter as his regular center, Goulet averaged 50 goals a year over a seven-season span. For four straight seasons over that stretch, Goulet eclipsed the 50-goal plateau. Hunter enjoyed three 50-assist seasons with the Nords.
Hunter also provided an element of protection to the largely finesse-oriented Nordiques in those days. Opponents who chose to take liberties with the likes of Goulet, Real Cloutier or the Stastny brothers ran the risk of inciting Hunter. From the day he first stepped onto an NHL ice surface, Hunter was fiercely protective of his teammates.
“When I think of him,” says Konowalchuk, “I think of him always being involved in the game, being tough and being there and sticking up for you all the time. You always felt safe and ready to go to battle playing together.”
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