Foes can breathe a bit easier as Dale Hunter hangs up skates

Friday, July 30, 1999

Jim Kernaghan
LONDON FREE PRESS

As the warrior was being carried out on his Colorado Avalanche shield last spring, Scotty Bowman's salute seemed out of character. This was, after all, Dale Hunter, who'd inflicted misery in various forms on the Detroit Red Wings coach and his players with the Wings and other teams for 19 seasons. The same Hunter whose relentless aggression always figured ominously in any opposition strategy session.

There might have been an element of relief when Bowman said he was sorry Hunter would probably retire without winning a Stanley Cup. More likely it was respect.

Turns out it was Hunter's last shot at one, confirmed yesterday in Washington when the feisty forward announced he would join the front office of the Capitals, who had traded him to Colorado late in the season to give him his Cup chance.

You could almost hear sighs of relief around the league.

Hunter made quite an impression over his eventful career. Besides the NHL record book, which now lists him three games behind Norm Ullman for 11th place in games played (1,407), he also left an impression on facial features and other parts of opposition hides with the sort of style that left teammates cheering and opponents raging.

If you were the recipient of a leather face-wash or hickory shampoo, your rage was amplified by the expression on Hunter's face. His look of puckish innocence brought to mind Robin Williams after a sneaky one-liner.

"He was hard-nosed, all right," said former NHL defenceman and London resident Doug Crossman. "I think he eased up on me a little, probably because we came up together, but nobody else I know of."

Hunter's retirement marks the end of the Hunter era, a 21-year span that included brothers Dave and Mark.

The family agreement was that whoever got knocked out of the playoffs first had to help father Dick with spring chores on the Petrolia-area farm.

Dave won a Cup ring with Edmonton, Mark with Montreal, but although he went far enough into the playoffs to avoid planting most seasons, Dale never got to play into late May.

He got to play into the record books, though. He leaves a few days short of his 39th birthday as the only player to exceed both 300 goals (323) and 3,000 penalty minutes (3,565). And also as the player who got the longest suspension in league history.

That was after he blind-sided New York Islanders' Pierre Turgeon after the whistle on a Turgeon playoff goal. Hunter was banned for 21 games, which cost him about $150,000 and the Capitals likewise in fines. Typically, he apologized to Turgeon and has never peeped about his sentence.

A guy remembers speaking with Quebec Nordiques coach Michel Bergeron when Hunter was a rookie and coming away with the impression Bergeron would adopt him if he could.

"What heart! What desire!" Bergeron enthused.

What remorselessness, his foes might have added.

That is part of what defined Hunter as a player, a reason why coaching dean Bowman would single him out. Hunter was pretty well the definitive Canadian hockey player that coaches, fans and teammates revere -- smart, with a good level of skill and boundless tenacity.

Bill Ranford, accustomed to Hunter's guided missile act through his crease over the years, made an astonishing discovery when they became teammates in Washington.

"I assumed he picked his spots to play the way he does because nobody can play that way all the time," Ranford said. "Then I found out he plays that way every game, every rink, against everybody."

In the end it was the legs that failed him, not the head or the heart. He's a Hunter, after all, not the hunted