Dale Hunter said Monday he will not be back as the coach of the Capitals next season, choosing instead to return to the junior hockey club he co-owns with his brother in London, Ontario.
The news came less than 48 hours after Washington's season ended in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers. Hunter, a Petrolia, Ontario, native, took over as coach Nov. 28 for Bruce Boudreau. After several months spent struggling to right themselves in a tight playoff race, the Caps finished strong, qualified for the postseason and upset No. 2 Boston in seven games in the first round.
But Hunter co-owns the London Knights, one of Canadian junior hockey's most prestigious franchises. It is a lucrative venture for Hunter, 51, and his brother Mark, London's general manager who took over as coach when his brother left for Washington. The Knights begin play later this week in the Memorial Cup -- a popular event that is Canada's rough equivalent to the NCAA Final Four in the United States.
"I'm going home," Hunter said simply.
Hunter helps run the family farm in Petrolia -- about a 75-minute drive from London. That's where his father, Dick, still lives. Dick Hunter and several of his sons and daughters still frequent Knights games. Hunter's son Dylan is an assistant coach with London. Another son goes to college there, and another daughter calls the town home. The family connection overcame his loyalty to Washington, where he spent parts of 12 seasons and helped the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
"[Hunter] had quite an impact on this club. He really taught this club the 'how' of how to win," general manager George McPhee said. "They all wanted to win; they just didn't know how. The 'how' is being a team and sacrificing, and he sure got that out of this club."
Several players said last week that they wanted Hunter to return. Brooks Laich jokingly offered to let him stay in his house. But Hunter informed McPhee of his final decision Monday morning and met with the players later that afternoon to tell them in person. McPhee put no timetable on finding a replacement, saying a new coach might not be in place until the NHL draft late next month.
"[Hunter] taught us as much about leadership and team aspects and respect amongst players and trusting your teammates as he did about hockey," Laich said. "He was like having another veteran in the locker room. He changed the culture around here a little bit, which the rest of us really enjoyed. He's leaving the team in a better state than he found it."