Capitals Alumni Profile – Dale Hunter

HunterPhotos: Getty Images

With the Capitals recently going to Brooklyn to play the New York Islanders, their fans had one more opportunity to become riled up at Tom Wilson.  It was back in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Caps and the Islanders when Wilson laid a hit on Lubomir Visnovsky which resulted in a concussion, knocked him out of the game, the remainder of the playoffs, and ultimately ended his NHL career. There is another Capitals alumni who is even more reviled by the New York Islanders and their fans: Dale Hunter.

Early Life
Dale Hunter was born on July 31, 1960, in Petrolia, Ontario, but grew up in Oil Springs, Ontario. He was the third son in a family of four boys, of which three eventually made the NHL (Dale, his older brother Dave, and his younger brother Mark).  The eldest of the Hunter boys, Ron, never made it to the NHL.  There also were two daughters in the family, Carol and Karen.  His father, Dick, was a farmer.  Dick and his wife, Bernice, raised their six children on a farm of 250 acres.

Hunter began his Junior hockey career with the Kitchener Rangers during the 1977-78 season, but played the following season with the Sudbury Wolves.  He scored 22 goals and had 42 assists with Kitchener, and 42 goals and 68 assists with Sudbury.  As a prelude to his future NHL career, he also increased his penalty minutes from 115 with Kitchener, to 188 with Sudbury.

Before Dale turned pro, his older brother gave him the following advice. “Be noticed.  To make a team, you have to do something to draw attention to yourself.”  Dale took that advice to heart, realizing that as a smaller player such as himself (he is only 5’11”), it was hard to make it to the NHL without being supremely talented. Hence, he played energetically and aggressively and consequently, racked up numerous penalty minutes as a result.

Quebec Nordiques
The Quebec Nordiques drafted him in the second round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, with the 41st overall pick.  After being drafted, he returned to Sudbury for one additional year before joining the Nordiques. He joined the Nordiques for the 1980-81 season and played with them for seven full seasons. During that time, he had 20 or more goals in four seasons and more than 50 assists in three seasons.  His highest goal total with the Nordiques was 28 goals (1985-86), while his highest assist total was 55 (1983-84).  He also exceeded 200 penalty minutes in six out of those seven seasons, with the exception being his last year, when he only played in 46 games. During his rookie year, he had 19 goals and 44 assists for 63 points in 80 games played.  He also had 226 penalty minutes.  Overall, he gained much respect for his all-around play that year.

Hunter’s teammates on the Nordiques included Michel Goulet and the Stastny brothers, Peter, Marian, and Anton.  While Hunter’s gritty nature overshadowed many of his other characteristics, he was also a great playmaking center.  He centered a line that included Goulet and Peter Stastny. Goulet, who was indicted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, scored over 50 goals a year during a seven-year time frame. While Stastny and Goulet got most of the credit for their goal-scoring exploits, Hunter was considered the team’s “heart and soul.”

During the time frame that Hunter played for the Nordiques, they were an exciting, high-scoring team who did not fare well in the playoffs.  They made the playoffs during all seven seasons that Hunter played with them; however, they advanced past the second round just twice, only to lose each time.  Part of the reason the Nordiques could not advance far in the playoffs during that time frame was because they did not have dominant defensemen or an elite goalie.  Hunter himself scored the game-winning goal in overtime in three playoff games.

For most of his tenure with the Nordiques, he rarely missed games due to injury.  However, in his last year with the Nordiques, he played only 46 games due to a shoulder injury.  In seven years with the Nordiques, he played 523 games, scored 140 goals, and had 318 assists for a total of 458 total points, along with 1,545 penalty minutes.

Trade to Washington Capitals

On June 13, 1987, the day of the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, the Nordiques traded Hunter, along with goalie Clint Malarchuk, to the Washington Capitals.  In return, the Capitals gave up center Alan Haworth, left wing Gaetan Duchesne, and their first-round pick of that year. David Poile, the Capitals’ General Manager, was prompted to make that trade since goalie Bob Mason was leaving the team in free agency and thus needed a goalie.

Poile and Quebec’s General Manager, Maurice Filion, had talked about the possibility but when it was clear that Mason planned to leave the Caps, Poile asked Filion about whether he was receptive to trading Malarchuk and answered in the affirmative.  The trade culminated five minutes before the Caps were to make their first-round pick.

The Nordiques used that pick to choose future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic.  Despite drafting Sakic, the Nordiques struggled after trading Hunter.  They missed the playoffs for the next five years and the team eventually ended up moving to Colorado.

Haworth, who had started his career with the Buffalo Sabres, had played for the Caps for five years prior to the trade.  He generally scored just over 20 goals per year with the Caps, having his best season, by far, in 1985-86 when he scored 34 goals.   Duchesne generally scored between 15-20 goals for the Caps during his tenure with them.   At the time, the trade amounted to the Caps giving up a scorer (Haworth) and a checker (Duchesne) in return for a checker (Hunter) and a goalie (Malarchuk).  But Poile felt the team would be better off, despite the fact that the team was losing a scorer who had been the third best on the team the previous season.

“I didn’t want to trade either player,” Poile said. “Alan and Gaetan have played well for us for five years. But we’re giving up something to get something. The club is set up better with the trade than before.

“We have improved at center with {Bengt} Gustafsson and Hunter. Alan had become expendable. Alan had improved the last couple years and he wanted to get more ice time. With Bob Gould, Mike Ridley, Gus and Hunter as centers, that would be tough. Gaetan was as honest as the day is long as far as his work ethic, and I was reluctant to give that up.”

Washington Capitals Career
During his first season with the Capitals, (1987-88), Hunter scored 22 goals and had 37 assists for 59 points, as well as 240 penalty minutes.  He ranked fourth on the team in goals scored, after Mike Gartner (48), Dave Christian (37), and Mike Ridley (28).  He was tied for fourth on the team in overall points, following Gartner (81), Scott Stevens (72), Larry Murphy (61), and tied with Ridley with 59. The Capitals tied for second place in the Patrick Division with the Philadelphia Flyers with 38 wins, 33 losses, and 9 ties but earned home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs (Patrick Division Semifinals). The Caps won that series in seven games with Hunter scoring the game-winning goal in overtime on April 18, 1988, as the Caps won 5-4.  This was the fourth time in Hunter’s career that he had scored the game-winner in overtime. The Capitals advanced to the second round of the playoffs (Patrick Division Finals) against the New Jersey Devils, who beat them in seven games.  For those playoffs, Hunter scored seven goals and had five assists in 14 games.

His second season with the Caps, 1988-89, was similar to his first.  Hunter scored 20 goals and had 37 assists for 57 points overall, with 219 penalty minutes.  The Capitals finished in first place in the Patrick Division and, once again, met the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.  Except this time, the Flyers won the series to advance in the playoffs.

For the first six years of his career with the Capitals, from 1987-88 to 1992-93, Hunter was a model of consistency in terms of production.  With the exception of the 1990-91 season, when he scored 16 goals, he scored 20 or more goals in each season, along with 35-60 assists, and generally would finish with between 57-79 points, except for 1990-91, when he had just 46.  He continued his feistiness from his Nordique days, recording with over 200 penalty minutes. In all six of those seasons, the Caps made the playoffs. During the 1990 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals advanced past the second round (Patrick Division Finals) for the first time in their history, getting by the New Jersey Devils in the first round, then getting past the New York Rangers in the second round, but fell to the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals. While the Caps’ playoff run was best known for John Druce’s scoring exploits, Hunter scored four goals and had eight assists and was third on the team in points for those playoff series.

His best season during that time frame was the 1991-92 season, during which he scored 28 goals and had 50 assists for a total of 78 points. This was very close to the career-high in points he had reached with the Nordiques in 1983-84.  It was also the second-best overall points total for the team.  The following year, 1992-93, he matched his career-high in points of 79 points, as he scored 20 goals and had 59 assists.  But then came the turning point of his career.

1993 Playoffs
By finishing second in the Patrick Division, the Caps would have the home ice advantage against the New York Islanders, who finished in third place. The Caps won the first game of that series, but then lost three consecutive games in overtime, losing both Games 2 and 4 in double overtime and losing Game 3 in single overtime. They came back to win Game 5, but then came Game 6, which took place on April 28, 1993. Hunter opened the scoring about halfway through the first period, with assists from Pat Elynuik and Dmitri Khristich, which put the Caps up 1-0.  However, the Islanders scored five unanswered goals after that.  This included the game tying goal during first period, a shorthanded goal early during the second period, and a last-minute goal at the end of the second period. Pierre Turgeon scored the Islanders’ fifth unanswered goal with 8:31 left in the third period, after stealing an errant pass from Hunter.  In reaction to the goal, Hunter threw a blind side left hook to Turgeon’s face, while Turgeon lifted his arms to celebrate.  Turgeon then fell to the boards, separated his shoulder and a concussion. The Islanders said he would miss Game 1 of their next playoff series against the New Jersey Devils but later the team’s head trainer reported he would miss more time.  In any case, he missed six games in the series where the Islanders played against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He returned for Game 7 of that series but ended up missing most of their next series, which was the Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Islanders Coach, Al Arbour, said afterwards, “The disgraceful and distasteful thing that happened at the end certainly takes the luster out of our big win.”  NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, who had only been on the job since February 1993, had attended the game and spoke with Capitals Team President, Dick Patrick.  Hunter appeared at an in-person hearing with Bettman and Jim Gregory, the NHL Vice President for Operations at the league offices in Manhattan.  The decision was to suspend Hunter as he was found guilty of “unwarranted, unsportsmanlike, and excessive conduct”.   The length of the suspension was not determined immediately, as Bettman and his committee wished to review Turgeon’s medical records. In the end, Hunter was suspended for the first 21 games of the 1993-94 season which, at the time, was the longest suspension given to an NHL player for an on-ice incident.  He did not play again until November 26, 1993. While Hunter’s career statistics seem Hall of Fame worthy, it may be fair to wonder if his hit on Turgeon cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame’s hallowed halls.

Remainder of Career
Hunter injured his knee in his second game back when Alexei Kovalev of the Rangers kicked his skates from behind and missed 13 games as a result.  Kovalev was suspended for five games for the incident.

That season (1993-94), Hunter scored nine goals and added 29 assists in just 52 games.  Since the suspension, he was not as porductive offensively. His best season in both goals and assists, post-suspension, was the 1996-97 season, during which he scored 14 goals and had 46 assists. The Caps made the playoffs in each of his remaining full seasons with the team, except for the 1996-97 season. The Caps would generally be “one round and done” in the playoffs those seasons, except for the 1997-98 season, when the Caps made it to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

With the Caps out of playoff contention during the 1998-99 season, the Caps traded Hunter on March 23, 1999, back to his old team (who by that time had moved to Colorado and were known as the Avalanche). The Caps traded him there so that he could have one last chance at winning the Stanley Cup before he retired.  The Avalanche made it to the Western Conference Finals but lost to the Dallas Stars in seven games. Hunter played in 12 regular season games for the Avalanche, scoring two goals and recording four assists.  He played in 19 playoff games for the Avalanche, scoring one goal and adding three assists. Hunter retired after that season at the age of 39.

In 12 seasons with the Caps, Hunter played in 872 games, scoring 181 goals, adding 375 assists, and recording 556 points overall, and amassed 2,003 penalty minutes. He also had 72 power play goals and 29 game-winning goals.  His 872 games played with the Caps was second for the team all-time at the time of his departure, although he was eventually passed by Peter Bondra, Alex Ovechkin, and Kelly Miller. His 181 goals were tied for eighth on the team’s all-time list although Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin have since pushed him down to eleventh.  His 375 assists were third on the team’s all-time list, but Ovechkin and Backstrom have pushed him down to fifth. His 556 points were third on the team, but is now ranked sixth, as Bondra, Ovechkin, and Backstrom have passed him. His 72 power play goals were tied for second for the team all-time, but now currently ranks fourth, as Ovechkin and Bondra passed him. His 29 game-winning goals was tied for fifth on the team but now is tied for sixth, along with Backstrom and Miller.

For the playoffs, Hunter held the career records in many categories when he retired.  He is now currently tied for first place in Games Played with Kelly Miller, with 100.  He is now currently ranked fourth for playoff goals with 25 goals, behind Ovechkin, Bondra, and Backstrom.  He is ranked second in playoff assists, with 47 assists, only behind Backstrom. His 72 playoff points ranks only behind Ovechkin and Backstrom.  His 11 power play goals now rank third, after Ovechkin and Bondra.  He had 372 penalty minutes in the playoffs, which is still the team record.

For his NHL career, he played in 1,407 games, scoring 323 goals, added 697 assists, 1,020 points overall, and amassed 3,563 penalty minutes.  He currently ranks 37th in Games Played. At the time of his retirement, only seven players had appeared in more NHL games than he had.

On March 11, 2000, the Washington Capitals retired his familiar No. 32 before a game against the New Jersey Devils. He had been referred to by many as the “heart and soul” of the Capitals and respected for his dedication to the game.  One of the gifts he received at his retirement ceremony was a penalty box from the old Capital Centre, which was entirely appropriate, given the amount of time he spent there.

Hunter summed up his contributions to the team by saying, “I’m not a Wayne Gretzky. I just tried to give my all every night. That work ethic is what the Caps have always been about.”

Post-Hockey Career
Immediately after retirement, he served the Capitals as their player development instructor. Later in 2000, Hunter, his brother Mark, and his former teammate from the Nordiques, Basil McRae, teamed up to buy the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.  Dale became team president and head coach.  He led the Knights to Memorial Cup victories in both 2005 and 2016. On January 1, 2006, the City of London, Ontario named the Hunter brothers onto the 2006 Mayor’s New Year’s Honors List for Sports.

Hunter left the Knights briefly to take over as Interim Head Coach of the Washington Capitals in November 2011, after the Caps fired Bruce Boudreau as Head Coach.  However, once the 2011-12 season was over, he returned to the Knights. Many London Knights players that Hunter has coached have gone on to play in the NHL, including current Capital John Carlson, vformer Capital Dennis Wideman, Corey Perry, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrick Kane, Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, Mitch Marner, and Nazem Kadri.

Hunter’s son, Dylan, is an assistant coach with the Knights.  His other son, Tucker, played with the Knights before pursuing his education at University of Western Ontario.

By Diane Doyle

Other Caps alumni profiles can be found in our “Caps 101” section.

Related Articles 
Why Isn’t Capitals Great Dale Hunter in the Hall of Fame? One Theory
Washington Post on Hunter Trade
Washington Post Story — Hunter Quits as Capitals Head Coach

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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5 Responses to Capitals Alumni Profile – Dale Hunter

  1. I was around two when he was traded and I never got to see him play in person, but I’m sure he was one heck of a player to watch. Deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame

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