“Breakdown Day” was as much “Breakup Day.” On a day when the players take their exit interviews and meet the media one last time before going their separate ways for the summer, the news was unusual out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
The top story, if not entirely unexpected (except perhaps for the timing), was the announcement by Head Coach Dale Hunter that he would be relinquishing his position with the Capitals and returning to “the family business,” the London Knights hockey team in the Ontario Hockey League.
In the days to come there will be a lot of commentary about the decision, and folks being what they are, will try to find some subtext or hidden meaning in Hunter’s leaving…
- Was this a product of conflict with Alex Ovechkin over the Captain’s diminished ice time?
- Was it recognition that despite the team buying into “Hunter Hockey” for the late season push and the playoffs, that this style of hockey is incompatible over an 82-game regular season given the Capitals’ skill set?
- Was it a product of his not being really wanted back by the team (itself the product of Hunter’s record being only 30-23-7 in the regular season and 7-7 in the playoffs, to which might be added General Manager George McPhee’s not asking Hunter to stay on)?
- Was this always the plan, that Hunter was only an “interim” coach?
And there was the first wave of commentary, non-plussed or complimentary…
“[His leaving} seems out of character…That’s not what Dale Hunter does. Is it?”
“He convinced this team to play with a level of selfless sacrifice and defensive commitment it hadn't exhibited before under Bruce Boudreau. This coaching staff offered a psychological blueprint for a team that has lost its wits during postseason adversity in the past.”
But while Hunter, in his exit press conference, sounded proud of the Alexes for trying to do the right thing (he lit up when talking about Alexander Semin sliding to block shots with “the right timing”), he sounded like a man liberated from something he liked to pursue something he loved. Just look at that picture at the top. That does not look like a man with an ulterior motive for leaving the club.
Perhaps the most telling comment today comes from a Hunter – brother Dave – who said, ““He really likes coaching kids.” Dave also remarked that ““Dale always said he’d do it until the rest of the year and then he’d see. [He and George McPhee are] buddies. He said ‘if they don’t like me, they can get rid of me, too.”’ That impresses us as the mind of a man who might like his job – even if it is coaching in the NHL -- but does not derive his identity from it.
And maybe that’s what it comes down to. He met the challenge of coaching in the NHL and took a team deeper into the playoffs than almost anyone thought possible when the playoffs began. He taught the players a hard lesson in the importance of will as much as skill as an ingredient to success. But Hunter also has his farm, his family (“My dad’s still 76 and he still scouts for us”), the “family business,” and he gets to coach kids on their way up. That is who he is.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of the discipline of psychoanalysis, is said to have uttered, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” an admonition that sometimes there just isn’t any deeper meaning than what you see. We take Dale Hunter at his word. Sometimes a resignation is just a resignation.
Good luck, Dale.