A rough and tumble forward beloved by his teammates and fans alike? Check. A player who knows all too well the fine line between playing hard and playing dirty? Affirmative. A Canadian-born tough guy familiar with the inside of a penalty box? Sure. A player opposing fans revile, but would love to have on their team? Believe it. A man who knows what it feels like to start a season watching from the press box while serving a lengthy league-imposed suspension? Yep. Tom Wilson, you say? Nope. Try Caps legend Dale Hunter.
While Tom Wilson and Dale Hunter share a few similarities, obviously Wilson, in his short career, has not yet matched the greatness of Dale Hunter. Hunter was an accomplished offensive threat AND fighter. During his 12 years in Washington, he served as a clutch goal scorer, dedicated leader, and irritating “sandpaper” player. He is the only player in National Hockey League history to surpass 1000 points and 3000 penalty minutes.
Hunter visited the penalty box with such regularity Dale was presented with the actual old penalty box from the Capital Centre on the night the team retired his number 32. In an era before simple stick checks are whistled for slashing, Hunter was a defensive force, often garnering votes for the Selke Trophy awarded for the league’s top defensive forward. Deploying an arsenal of hooks, holds, and the occasional sweater tug, Hunter stuck to opposing players closer than their own underwear. He was, like Tom Wilson is now, a guy players love to play with, but hate to play against.
Of course, Hunter and Wilson are now linked for each having the dubious distinction of having NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman drop the hammer on him. It can be argued Tom Wilson was unfairly shelved for 20 games. His hit on St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist occurred during gameplay with Sundqvist skating with his head down. Dale Hunter could make no such argument; his dirty play was a black eye on the league.
Twenty-five seasons prior to raising the Cup, Washington was in the midst of yet another playoff failure. On April 28, 1993, the Caps faced elimination on the road in Game 6 of a first round matchup with the New York Islanders. With the Caps already down 4-1 midway through the third period, Dale Hunter made an ill-advised pass through the middle of the defensive zone. The next few moments are forever seared into the memories of longtime Capitals fans.
Pierre Turgeon picked off Hunter’s pass, and beat goalie Don Beaupre for the Islanders’ fifth, and series-sealing, goal. As an unsuspecting Turgeon pivoted towards the boards to celebrate with teammates, Hunter leveled him, checking him hard into the glass. A fight ensued, the arena exploded, Hunter was ejected, and later, the Caps’ team bus was pelted with rocks as it pulled away from Nassau Coliseum. It was an ugly ending to an ugly series, and Hunter’s frustrated action was one of the poorest displays of sportsmanship in hockey history.
Justice was delivered swiftly by new commissioner Gary Bettman, who had only been on the job since February. Bettman suspended Hunter for the first 21 games of the next regular season. At the time, it was the longest player suspension levied for an on-ice incident in NHL history. It was a harsh blow to the Capitals, and the beginning of Gary Bettman’s quest to clean up the league.
Twenty-five years hence, as Capitals fans can attest, Bettman is still trying. Today’s harsher penalties from the NHL Office of Player Safety, including Tom Wilson’s, have roots in the Dale Hunter suspension. For Hunter, the Turgeon incident and resulting suspension forever changed his reputation inside and outside of the game. For many, Dale Hunter went from a clutch player known to skate the edge of foul play to gain any advantage to win, to a dirty player who crossed the line in a big way. To Caps fans, he will always be a legend (excluding his time behind the bench, perhaps), but to others he always be the goon who landed a cheap shot on Pierre Turgeon. Tom Wilson would be wise to heed the lesson of Dale Hunter.
By Bryan Hailey