Around Caps' Hunter, it's a no-yield zone Tenacity, savvy compensate for size

April 08, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

In a recent game, Teemu Selanne, an All-Star right wing with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, was trying to get position near the Washington net, but in his way was Capitals captain Dale Hunter.

Selanne, 6 feet, 200 pounds and age 25, tried everything he knew in an effort to shake Hunter.

Hunter is 35. He's in his 16th NHL season and he may be only 5-10 and a shade over 190 pounds, but, as Boston Bruins center Adam Oates says, "He hasn't survived this long without being smart."

Selanne never did get position. In fact, he got only one shot all night. And that's the way it has been much of this season for opposing teams' big scorers since Hunter has been put in the center of the checking line.

"The first thing is that Hunter is really cocky," Selanne says. "He really wants to take you out of your place. He wants to be in your place. I've never played against a guy who wants to get that close to you.

"And with Mike Eagles and Kelly Miller, they are unbelievable. They are only interested in making you miserable. They are the best at checking in the NHL."

Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld says Hunter's continuing ability to shut down the opposing team's top gun is critical to a team that finds scoring hard any day -- and thus crucial to Washington's run for a spot in the playoffs. The Caps have three games left and are three points in front of the New Jersey Devils, who hold the last berth in the Eastern Conference.

With a growing list of players, including the No. 2 and No. 3 goal scorers (Steve Konowalchuk and Keith Jones), two key defensemen (Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt) and productive role players (Craig Berube, Pat Peake and Ken Klee), out with injuries, Hunter's line takes on more significance. Hunter is one of three Capitals to play every game this season.

Schoenfeld ticks off Hunter's attributes -- courage, tenacity and "defensively as tough as there is in the league." But what Schoenfeld likes best is that when Hunter goes after something, "he'll get there no matter what is in the way."

Rookie Stefan Ustorf says Hunter is the kind of guy "you learn from, watching him give everything every night -- at his age -- he's a great leader."

New York Rangers captain Mark Messier says: "Once he laces it up, if you're not on his team, you're the enemy. That's the way it should be."

When Hunter was with the Quebec Nordiques, he was their heart and soul, just as he is with the Capitals. In Quebec, he teamed up with Michel Goulet on hundreds of goal-producing expeditions, with Hunter, more often than not, providing the assist.

"He was Quebec's spark," says Capitals center Joe Juneau, who grew up watching Hunter play. "Dale was a very good passer and got along with Goulet very good. But he did other things, too. He was the guy the coach would send in to get everyone going, to make somebody mad. And he wasn't afraid of anyone."

Hunter still can be found in the middle of most scrums, but, during the past several years, he has learned to control his temper better, learned to pick his spots and learned to compensate for age.

"I was more offensive before," he says, smoothing back his graying hair, recalling nine 60-plus-point seasons. "Now, Jones and Pivo [Michal Pivonka] are the centers. You can lose a step as you get older." So he has worked on conditioning and never misses a chance to get in an opposing forward's face.

"Hunter doesn't talk much during the game," Selanne says. "It's purely physical. There is a lot of hooking and grabbing."

Hunter says every night is a different challenge. "One night they're bigger, the next they're faster," he says.

Never mind that they're all younger. Positioning is everything.

"If they get a step on me, they'll beat me every time," he says. "And when you have a job to do, it's a big letdown if you don't do it."

Selanne says Hunter also put his glove in his face every chance he got.

"A lot of trying to wash your face with his glove," Selanne says, wrinkling his nose. "He rubs it around. He wants you to get angry and take a stupid penalty."

Given the way Hunter plays, one would expect to hear a lot more complaints. But among NHL players, Hunter doesn't have the reputation of an abuser.

It's quite a different view of the player who has had his reputation skewed by the 1992-93 playoffs, when he delivered a late hit on then-New York Islander Pierre Turgeon on national television.

Hunter delivered the cheap shot after Turgeon had scored a goal and had his arms raised.

Turgeon suffered a separated shoulder, and Hunter received a 21-game suspension, the NHL's longest for an on-ice infraction.

"I've seen the films of that incident, and I have to tell you, I've seen much, much worse in the NHL," says Hartford Whalers left wing Brendan Shanahan. "If Turgeon doesn't get hurt, it's nothing."

Even Turgeon, now the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, has nothing bad to say.

"That playoff incident is in the past, and I don't dwell on it," Turgeon says. "As far as how Hunter plays, he plays hard. He wants to win, and there's nothing wrong with that."

But surely there is something, something bad about Hunter.

"The only thing I can think of," Shanahan says, "is that he doesn't play for my team."

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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