Dale Hunter, 37 and the Washington Capitals' captain, looks around his living room, takes in his Christmas tree, wife Karynka, children Dylan, 12, Shalen, 10, and Tucker, 7, and grins.
It was Christmas 1980 when he proposed to Karynka beside a much smaller Christmas tree in Quebec during his rookie year in the NHL. And now, 17 years later, he is rich in family and dreams come true -- and still playing the kids' game he has always loved.
"How lucky can you be?" he wonders. "Hockey has gotten me everything I ever wanted."
And, if his luck holds, he might get something he never even thought about -- admittance to the NHL's elite 1,000-point club.
Going into tomorrow's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the MCI Center in Washington, he is six points shy.
Thinking back about how he, the second-most-penalized player in NHL history, got here, Hunter says he still can hear his father's voice in his ears.
"If you boys aren't going to work hard, I'm not bringing you to the rink to play," said Richard Hunter, who would send three of his four sons to the NHL. "If you're not going to play hard, there is plenty of work back on the farm that you can do."
Hunter is playing in his 18th NHL season and points to that moment as the one in which his career is anchored.
"It was work hard and play hockey or be a farmer," he says, and then laughs because he returns to Petrolia, Ontario, each summer to his farm, which is just down the road from his father's.
It is Hunter's work ethic combined with his durability (only once in his career has he missed any games because of injury, and that was a broken leg in 1986-87) that has enabled him to overcome 3,385 penalty minutes and stay on the ice long enough to be this close to 1,000 points.
Only 48 NHL players have reached that mark, including Capitals Phil Housley and Adam Oates, who did it earlier this season. If Hunter joins them this season, it would be the first time that one team has had three players reach 1,000 in the same season.
Hunter is 16th among active points scorers and 49th all-time.
"One thousand points," he says. "It's something to look at, but I'm not measured by that. If I went down with an injury [and he balls up his fist and knocks on wood], I wouldn't be thinking I missed out. Yes, it's something to achieve, but it's not all that matters."
In Petrolia, Richard Hunter says Dale has always known what matters.
"I'm coming to visit him in January, and I hope I get to see him score his 1,000th point," says Richard Hunter. "But getting it doesn't matter to him. When Dave and Mark won Stanley Cups [four between them], they let their brother have it pretty good, but it doesn't matter to Dale at all. He loves the game of hockey, eh. They've got a Cup, but so what? He's the one still playing."
He has always played when others might not. Once when he was a kid, he took an awful hit and kept playing. "A fellow watching said, 'God, boy, when you get hit like that, doesn't that hurt?' " says his dad. "He said, 'Yeah, but you can't give in.' He can play with pain."
His wife recalls a night before a road trip in Quebec when she woke up at 3 a.m. and heard him singing in the next room.
"He had had his hand stitched, and it had become infected," she says. "I found him pacing with his hand over his head singing little tunes. He said it felt better when he held it up there. When the team was going through the airport that day, a lot of fans were there to see them off. Dale was still walking with his hand in the air and fans thought he was high-fiving and they all slapped his hand as he walked. He did admit later that that had hurt."
Hunter says he knew from the beginning that he wasn't going to be Wayne Gretzky. "I just tried to be an all-around player to be noticed out there." That meant playing it tough, both ways. "The 3,000 penalty minutes? The refs were picking on me," he says.
It's a line that makes Caps goalie Bill Ranford laugh.
"He's the classic antagonist," Ranford says. "When I played in Edmonton and Boston, he was in my face all the time. And it's the same here in practice. It's the way he plays every time he steps on the ice, and it definitely gets under a lot of guys' skins."
Hunter has played 76 games or more in 14 seasons. In that number are five 50-plus assist seasons and six seasons in which he produced more than 70 points.
But many remember him primarily for the late hit he put on then-New York Islander Pierre Turgeon in the 1992-93 playoffs. Turgeon broke his collarbone, and Hunter served a 21-game suspension, the longest suspension for an on-ice act in NHL history.
"It's old-time hockey that Dale plays," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "He's a mean, hard player, and there is no compromise in him."
Karynka says her husband's gruff exterior is an act.
"He likes to put on that kind of tough-guy face," she says. "If people really knew what he was like -- but he doesn't want them to know. And if I only knew him from watching how he plays on TV, I wouldn't like him either."
The player whom opposing forwards hate to play against leaves his wife love notes and Hershey's kisses under her pillow, even after 17 years of marriage.
Hunter once joked to his wife that his troubles on the ice went back "to when he was a little boy and wanted the popular toy of the time, Marvel the Mustang. It was a little horse you could ride on or jump up and down on," she says. "He'd wanted it for Christmas one year and hadn't gotten it and he said it haunted him."
So Karynka got an antique toy catalog and found Marvel.
"It came in its original box," she says. "We wrapped it up and put it under the tree. When he opened it, he couldn't believe it and I said, 'There, your childhood is complete.' And he's been very good ever since."
Pub Date: 12/25/97