By HOWARD FENDRICH, Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For quite some time, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee tried to persuade former player Dale Hunter to return to the team as its coach. This season, McPhee finally got his man — just not for very long.
Hunter quit as Washington's coach on Monday after less than six months on the job, saying he wants to return to his family, his farm and the junior club he owns in Canada.
"It was the right thing to do," Hunter said.
He is the owner of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and he was the coach until McPhee beckoned in late November after firing Bruce Boudreau. Hunter's brother Mark took over as head coach of the Knights then, and one of Hunter's three children is an assistant. Hunter's 76-year-old father scouts for London; his sisters go to the games; another son lives nearby while attending college; his daughter is in the area, too.
Plus, Hunter and his brother own about 2,000 acres of farmland near his hometown of Petrolia, producing mainly wheat along with corn and soybeans.
"I'm going home," Hunter said at the Capitals' practice facility, a couple of hours after delivering the news to McPhee. "I've got a good thing going there with the family, so I'll stay home."
Hunter said he doesn't plan on returning to the NHL.
He was a successful forward in the league for 19 seasons — one of only four men whose jersey numbers were retired by the Capitals; the only player with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes in the NHL — but never won a Stanley Cup. Never before an assistant or head coach in the NHL, or even the AHL, Hunter was sought by McPhee in hopes he could bring his on-ice "tough guy" persona to a roster filled with stars more likely to make a pretty pass than drop to the ice to stop a puck.
"He said, 'There's one way to play, and that's the right way to play, and I'll get them playing the right way.' He thought he could, and he accomplished what he thought he could do with them," McPhee said, "and now they're on the right path."
Hunter met with McPhee on Monday morning, two days after the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7.
"We could have very easily won that series," McPhee said.
The GM said he didn't even attempt to change Hunter's mind, because "there's no gray in Dale's life."
"I'd rather have him for six months than not at all, because he had quite an impact on this club," McPhee said. "He really taught this club the 'how' of how to win. They all wanted to win. They just didn't know how. The 'how' is being a team and sacrificing, and he sure got that out of this club."
Hunter went 30-23-7 — a .500 record — in the regular season after agreeing to a one-year deal to take over for Boudreau, helping the Capitals squeeze into the playoffs. Playing a defense-first, possession-oriented system with an emphasis on blocking shots, Washington eliminated reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston in seven games in the first round.
"He got everything out of this team that he could," McPhee said.
Another key move by Hunter was limiting captain Alex Ovechkin's minutes, saying it was dictated by game situations and the opponent's line changes. But it was clear that Hunter wanted players to focus on preventing goals more than scoring them.
Used to playing more than 20 minutes a night, every night, Ovechkin wound up with a career-playoff-low 13½ minutes in one game, and also had only his second zero-shot postseason performance.
"For me, personally, it was pretty hard, to be honest with you," Ovechkin acknowledged Monday.
The two-time NHL MVP and team captain called it a "hard year, mentally."
Other players generally said they understood Hunter's motives for moving on — and generally expressed that they would have liked if he'd stuck around.
"I just had a little short chat with him and shook his hand and said thank you. I asked him if there's anything I can do to convince him to stay," forward Brooks Laich said. "He taught us as much about leadership and team aspects and respect amongst players and trusting your teammates as he did about hockey. He was like having another veteran in the locker room. He changed the culture around here a little bit, which the rest of us really enjoyed. He's leaving the team in a better state than he found it."