By Bill Hoppe
This isn’t the only NHL locale that detests Dale Hunter. No way. The new Washington Capitals coach, a supreme pest in the 1980s and 90s, made enemies all over throughout a 19-year career in which he compiled 3,563 penalty minutes, No. 2 all-time.
But Buffalo, which faced Hunter’s Quebec Nordiques eight times each season and two straight Adams Division playoff series in the 1980s, has a special appreciation for his antics.
“It was the fans. It was always great battles, playoffs and stuff,” Hunter said Monday inside the First Niagara Center prior to Sabres’ 4-2 win over the Caps. “It’s a hockey town, and what’s better than being here tonight again?”
Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, downplayed his agitator past, saying, “That’s a long time ago.”
“When you come here, you know you play hard,” Hunter said. “Sometimes stuff happens out there.”
Hunter and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff fought once, Dec. 23, 1983 at Memorial Auditorium, according tohockeyfights.com. When the Caps hired Hunter, Ruff recalled the time he “woke up snoring” after the center leveled him.
“There’s a lot of history there, yeah. Some of it good, some of it bad – but that’s the type of player he was,” Ruff said. “He wasn’t an easy guy to play against.”
Hunter called Ruff a “competitor.”
“You know you’re in a game when Lindy’s around,” said Hunter, who left his job coaching the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights for his first NHL gig. “He’s going to finish his check hard and play hard out there. You expect it. That’s why you expect good battles.”
Hunter hasn’t had much of an impact on the underachieving Caps, for whom he played from 1987-99. They’re just 5-6-1 under him, scoring just one goal five times.
Winger Mike Knuble, the only Cap who played against Hunter, joked, “He can’t coach the way he played.”
“Bruce was an offensive guy and wanted to outscore teams, really cared about goals,” Knuble said. “I really feel like Dale can care less. We play a very stingy defensive game. He’s very happy with 1-0, 2-1. He’s comfortable playing in those games.
“At times, maybe we get a little bit antsy if the game’s close. He’s kind of conditioned us to play calm in those situations – don’t get antsy, don’t get worried about it.”
The Caps have three one-goal wins and five losses by a single score under Hunter.
The injury list is down to six names.
With Brad Boyes and Jochen Hecht back Monday, the Sabres moved two steps closer to fielding their regular team, something they haven’t done since early November.
Boyes, shelved 13 games after spraining his ankle Nov. 23, skated 15:51, mostly on the right wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.
Hecht, out six contests after bruising his foot blocking a shot Dec. 9, played 12:30 centering Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
While the Sabres got some nice contributions from the replacements, they needed their veterans back.
“It is no criticism. Those guys did a good job filling in,” Ruff said. “Jochen’s played down low against the top lines. It makes it tough when we’re sometimes playing Paul (Szczechura) against the top line. It’s not an easy task for him. I thought Brad made a heck of a play on the (Brayden McNabb) power-play goal. You look at the way Jochen played in his own end it gave us exactly what we needed.”
Monday was only Hecht’s ninth game this season. He returned from a concussion Nov. 23.
“It’s just a tough break,” Hecht said about his second injury. “It’s frustrating getting injured again. I guess I’m out there, do my job. If I block a shot, I block a shot. That happens.”
With the two back, the Sabres scratched Szczechura and sent winger Derek Whitmore back to Rochester. Szczechura was seen leaving the FNC with his equipment, meaning he’s probably been reassigned, too.
Ruff said defenseman Tyler Myers (broken wrist) was still “ways away.” Myers, who’s been practicing, was to see a doctor Monday.
Vanek recently helped donate $13,000 worth of equipment to Ice Sledge Hockey of Austria through the NHLPA Goals and Dreams foundation.
Boyes was involved in giving 50 sets of hockey equipment to Skate for Kids in nearby Welland, Ont.