Big Game Hunter (p. 3)
by Mike Vogel
Later in his career, Hunter’s playoff exploits were more defensive in nature. He’d shut down the opposing team’s scoring line, kill penalties, goad opponents into taking bad penalties and supply his younger teammates with the wisdom that years of experience had given him.
The 1998 playoffs were special, as Hunter finally made it to the Cup Finals. Caps coach Ron Wilson’s most enduring memory of Hunter came during that playoff run.
“[I remember] him holding up the Prince of Wales Trophy and seeing how emotional he was with that,” says Wilson. “You didn’t see him express his emotions very much, but to see him have tears in his eyes when they presented him the Trophy and he held it up, that’s what I remember the most. You know, I watched him in the twilight of his career and he played hard but he was limited in what we could ask of him and what he could give. But in hearing all the stories about him, he would do whatever it took to win.”
There were some big moments late in his career. He scored his 300th career goal on October 12, 1996 against the Los Angeles Kings. But he saved the best for a January 9, 1998 game against his old nemesis, the Flyers. A 37-year-old Hunter bagged his 1,000th NHL point, thereby becoming the only man in NHL history to record 300 goals, 3,000 PIM and 1,000 points. And he did it in style, picking up three assists. It would be the last three-point game of his NHL career.
“That stands out because it’s a hell of an accomplishment for a guy like that who really works hard,” says Calle Johansson, one of Hunter’s oldest and closest friends. “He’s not a goal scorer. For him to have done all that over a long period of time and then score a thousand points, that was really, really nice I think.”
What wasn’t so nice was Hunter’s road habits. Johansson was his roommate on the road, and he’s still missing some essentials
“He never brought any clothes on the road,” shrugs a miffed Johansson. “So every time he needed something, he went in my bag and I was the one left without it, you know? If you ask him when he comes back, I’ll bet he still has five pairs of jeans that are mine back home. And ties and shirts and stuff.”
The 1998 Cup Finals was a bittersweet time for the Caps. Hunter was obviously fading, and the team wanted to win the Cup for its captain.
“His brothers (Mark Hunter and Dave Hunter) had won it with Calgary and Edmonton and he hadn’t been there,” says Witt. “The year we went to the finals, it was like a ‘we did this for him’ type of thing. We thought that year was going to be his last year and we really wanted to win it for him. It’s too bad that we didn’t. But I think for him and his career, he was really happy to finally get to the finals.”
“He left everything on the ice,” says goaltender Olaf Kolzig. “He never took a night off, whether it was exhibition, regular season or the playoffs. He was 38, 39 years old and he might not have had the speed that he used to, but he still gave it his all and I think it was a good thing for young kids to see that maybe come into the league now and take things for granted a little bit. To see a guy like him, the way he worked and the way he got involved and the way he cared about the game.
“Away from the rink, he loved the game. I carpooled with him for a year and a half and every time we drove together all we talked about was hockey. Other teams, other players, the past. Hockey was his life. He really cares about the game and he is probably one of the most inspirational guys for me. There’s Wayne Gretzky and what he has done for the game and then there’s Dale Hunter. His love for the game has rubbed off on me.”
As the Capitals Player Development Instructor, Hunter continues to rub off on young Capital hopefuls. He travels the continent, watching and counseling Washington’s junior-level and minor league players, many of whom weren’t even born when Hunter first laced them up for the wars of the NHL in 1980. And he continues to have an impact on those kids.
Caps rookie Jeff Halpern grew up in nearby Potomac, watching Hunter skate at USAir Arena. This past fall, Halpern made the Caps out of training camp. On many of those fall afternoons, Halpern and Hunter could be seen on the ice, practicing faceoffs while other players showered or headed for the golf course. Halpern is grateful for the tutorial.
“I think that anyone that was around playing in the NHL as long as he was, anything he says I pretty much take as being how you should do it,” Halpern relates. “For a guy that had a career as good as his, that makes it even that much more special. It’s great for me to have someone like him around. I wish he could be around a little bit more just because when he is around he is great as far as doing little things like that. As much information as you can get from a guy like that is nice.”
That is part of Hunter’s legacy to the team and the organization. A few years ago, Dale was asked how he’d want to be remembered by fans. “The way I was brought up, like being on the farm working everyday. I came to work every night and worked hard on the ice. Of course, I’d like to be remembered as having won seven Stanley Cups in a row, but that didn’t happen.”
Sure, the Cups would have been nice. But the fans know the lack of Cups wasn’t for lack of effort on Hunter’s part. Just as the organization is better for Hunter’s presence over his 12 years in DC, so are the fans. He played the game the way it was supposed to be played—the Capital Way.
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