Day One in the Dale Hunter Era was not a happy one. Not when a predecessor gets word at 6:30 in the morning that he is being relieved, not when the team who is changing coaches is in the midst of a 5-9-1 slump, not when questions swirl about this player or that and whether they tuned out the departed coach.
Hunter did have a big grin on his face as he took the ice, though, and for a coach who is getting his first opportunity behind an NHL bench it was altogether understandable. It was a strange practice in a way, attended as it was by more than the usual contingent of fans (we didn’t anticipate going, but we are on a break, and hey, what the heck?), populated by the whole gamut of Washington hockey media (and those from other outlets), and the brain trust of the Caps – Ted Leonsis, Dick Patrick, and George McPhee – looking on from above.
The focus of the exercise was, of course, Hunter. It was not a typical practice in that Hunter spent the first 45 minutes of the noon session looking on as Dean Evason and Bob Woods ran the drills. Hunter was working the wall, stopping by players and sharing a few words (or in the case of Tomas Vokoun, a lot of whacks of Vokoun’s pads with his stick). Watching him linger a few minutes with Alexander Semin at the bench made one wonder, “will he be the one to pick the lock of Semin’s talent?” And one might have been wondering what Hunter said to Alex Ovechkin as they stood together at center ice – what they said, one captain to another.
In the last 20 minutes of the session, Hunter took more of a command role, drawing up plays on the white board at the Caps bench, probably an effort to feed them a little bit at a time after he looked on for 45 minutes wondering what he was that he inherited.
If anything, the players seemed energized, but given the state of the club the last few weeks it might have been a “first day of school” kind of energy when kids are trying to impress the new teacher. If the Dale Hunter that Caps fans knew for 12 seasons is the one taking over as coach, “new teacher” is going to give way to “stern taskmaster.” And for this team it will be quite a culture change. Change for the better? We have 60 games – and hopefully a lot more – to find out.
Here are some pics of this morning (which made us regret being downstairs trying to find a clear spot in the glass)…