For Hunter, Love and Loathing Nobody is Neutral on Capitals Center

By Dave Sell

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, March 2, 1991 ; Page G01

Bill Brooks has been a Maryland state trooper for 35 years, so he has seen some tough characters on both sides of the law. But he's also seen a few in the 17 seasons he's been the official in the home penalty box at Capital Centre.

Dale Hunter is among those characters. But Brooks knew him before, when Hunter was with the Quebec Nordiques, serving time in the opponents' penalty box.

"I didn't like him and I thought he was a troublemaker, but then I'm not supposed to have an opinion," Brooks said. "The fans hated him and booed him."

Then, in the fall of 1987, after seven seasons with the Nordiques, Hunter began his career as a Washington Capital. Hunter was going to be in Brooks's box.

"When he was traded here, a couple guys said: 'Brookie, he's a good guy. Try to get his confidence,' " Brooks said. "I figured the best way was to get tough with him. I said: 'Look, I didn't like you. But that's not my job. My job is to get you in and out and I'll get you out on time.' He told one of the guys on the bench that I was crazy. I figured if I act just as crazy as he acts, we'll be okay."

One night, Hunter was in the penalty box and asked for some of the diet soft drink Brooks was sipping. By that time, Brooks's opinion of Hunter had changed from dislike to respect. So Brooks started taking cans of the soft drink with him to the penalty box because he knew Hunter probably would visit.

"Some nights," Brooks said, "I need a whole six pack."

Brooks's experience represents both sides of the Dale Hunter Debate. His teammates and others with the Capitals love him for a hundred reasons -- his consistency, leadership and practical jokes among them. Many of those he plays against and their fans hate him with a passion. They think he's a dirty player and enjoy seeing him knocked down because they believe he more than deserves it.

Is Dale Hunter misunderstood? No. He is a tremendously tenacious and competitive hockey player who will push himself as far as possible -- and sometimes, too far -- to win games. He is the fourth most-penalized player in NHL history. Whatever purists might like hockey to be, the powers in the NHL want it to be physical. And Hunter makes no apologies.

Streak Ends Tonight

Dale Hunter, 31 in July, is one of those players booed with more than the usual fervor in 19 other buildings. His name still brings resigned cheers at Le Colisee in Quebec City. But there have been several games in recent years that have drawn particular attention.

Hunter's streak of 276 consecutive games will end tonight against the New York Islanders. The NHL suspended him for four games as the result of an elbow that connected with the face of Philadelphia's Gord Murphy.

Last spring, in Game 3 of the Wales Conference finals, there was more heated discussion because of checks on the Bruins' Glen Wesley, whose face met the ice, and Craig Janney, who was knocked silly after scoring a goal.

"Dale Hunter has been a nonfactor in the series besides cheap shots," said Boston Coach Mike Milbury, who added the next morning: "I wouldn't have him on my team if he was the last guy available, if he was the only guy available."

What's interesting about the protests of Milbury and Philadelphia Coach Paul Holmgren is that both were tough guys in their playing days.

"Hey, Milbury was the dirtiest hockey player that ever played," said Hartford defenseman Kevin Dineen. "Milbury's the biggest back stabber to call somebody that. Dale Hunter plays the game and comes ready to play every night. If Milbury didn't like it, that means it was working, that he was being effective. I'm sure Dale doesn't miss any winks at night because of it." Holmgren and Milbury were critical after tensions and tempers rose.

Others,in calmer times, have had different opinions.

"Every team needs at least one or two of those guys," Rangers Coach Roger Neilson said. "Sometimes you'll see a real good team that doesn't have one and it's a reason why, in the playoffs, they don't quite do it."

Hunter is so well known for his aggressiveness that his playmaking and offensive skills often get lost in the shuffle.

"He is so tough on draws," Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said. "We have to make sure we're strong on his wingers because he'll really deliver the puck. He's probably one of the most underrated players in the league."

Hunter takes a lot of pride in having his 5-foot-10, 198-pound body dressed and ready for all 80 games, which he's done seven of 10 prior seasons. When he's played a full season, he never has scored fewer than 17 goals nor more than 28, but he's always had more assists.

John Druce's playoff star was launched from Hunter's line. Geoff Courtnall had his only 40-goal season playing on Hunter's left wing. In Hunter's last six seasons in Quebec, Michel Goulet, his left wing for much of that time, averaged 52 goals a season and the Nordiques went to the Stanley Cup semifinals twice.

Goulet scored 48 and 26 goals in the two subsequent seasons and the Nordiques haven't made the playoffs since trading Hunter.

"He had the biggest heart on the team," said Normand Rochefort, a onetime Nordique who now is with the Rangers. A Farmer at Heart Hunter's passion for hockey might be exceeded only by his love of his family and farm.

"I met him in the library -- hard to believe, I know," his wife, Karynka, said of their days at Sudbury (Ont.) Secondary School. "The first thing I noticed were the blue eyes. The first impression was that he was shy and quiet. I didn't know he was a hockey player. He had no ego and seemed very much the down-home guy. He's still very much the same person."

Some people drive pickups because they're in vogue. Hunter drives a heavy-duty, big-cab Ford because he needs it when he goes home to his 300 acres of soybeans and wheat near Petrolia, Ont. He reads Ontario Farm News and, on offseason trips, will tell people he's a farmer -- not mentioning his winter activity.

"If the kids want to go to Disney World or something, we'll do it," Hunter said. "But as far as relaxing myself, I like to do it sitting on a tractor, where you can think about anything or everything."

Hunter is a third-generation farmer. Dick and Bernice Hunter raised their six children on 250 acres, but their plot now is bounded by similar-size plots belonging their sons.

Ron, the oldest and biggest, works in a nearby factory, but helps on the land year-round. Mark, now with the Calgary Flames, and Dale come home to help in the summer. Carol and Karen also live in the area. Dave stayed in Edmonton to sell insurance after retiring from the Oilers and is the only nonfarmer.

"He never liked getting his hands dirty, literally, and you can't farm if you don't like it," Dale said. "I always had the gutters and cleaning up the {manure} all the time."

There are no crops to tend or tractors to fix at Hunter's home in suburban Maryland. But if he has an afternoon off, he might spend it at Rosecroft Raceway, where he has a 2-year-old standardbred in training.

"I like hanging around the barn. It brings you down to earth," said Hunter, for whom that would not seem to be a problem. "No, I guess farming all summer, you appreciate what the guys do. Coming to training camp seems easier. You see other people working twice as hard. It's easy to get away from that. If you play golf every day all summer, it's a nice life."

'I'm Not a Rah-Rah Guy'

Kelly Miller has worn one alternate captain's "A" on his sweater for several seasons. Coach Terry Murray gave the other to Hunter this season.

Leadership comes in different forms and Hunter's takes the shape of consistently hard play and quiet discussion. He is "decent" at faceoffs, he said, because he has watched others and was given tidbits of information by older players along the way. So he does the same thing now.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy," Hunter said. "You do need that in the dressing room, but we have guys to keep the spirits up. It takes all types."

If Hunter is the type of player opponents and their fans think is evil, so be it. It's part of the price, just like the hundreds of stitches that have sewn up his face.

"They see what happens on the ice, but they don't know me," Hunter said. "I don't know if people think that's how he is off his ice, but it could not be further from the truth," Karynka said. "He wakes up in a good mood, whereas I need my coffee. I guess he takes out all his frustrations on the ice. He never brings it home. Once the game is over and the two points are won or lost, that's it."

Bernice Hunter cringed when asked about the things said about her son. Karynka said it's taken years to get used to watching him play and defending him to people.

"Even people traded from other teams have said: 'I can't believe I'm playing on the same team as Dale Hunter -- I always despised him,' " she said. "He doesn't care what people think, but it bothered me. I was always explaining that he really was a nice guy. But the bottom line is that he really likes to win."