Dale Hunter holds his cards close to the vest whenever he’s forced into the spotlight.
A veteran of nearly 1,600 games in the NHL as a player, the 59-year-old has dominated the Ontario Hockey League as head coach and part-owner of the London Knights for the better part of the last two decades.
Hunter is often brief with his answers to the media and rarely shows emotion behind the bench.
Also a legendary prankster — he once put a teammate’s truck on blocks at practice — there’s a burning fire inside the two-time Memorial Cup winner as Hunter prepares to lead Canada into the world junior hockey championship for the first time.
“He wants it bad,” said forward Connor McMichael, who plays for Hunter in London and also made the national team for the upcoming under-20 tournament. “There’s nothing he loves more than winning hockey games.”
Canada is hoping that desire translates into an 18th podium-topping performance at this year’s world juniors in the Czech Republic.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Hunter, whose only other international experience came at an under-18 tournament in 2013. ”It’s something I always wanted to do. It worked out into a good situation right now to go ahead and do it.”
Canada has won gold 17 times since 1977, with the last victory coming at the 2018 event in Buffalo, N.Y., but finished a stunning sixth in Vancouver and Victoria last year.
Hunter’s younger brother, Mark, is general manager/co-owner of the four-time OHL champion Knights with Dale, and the de facto GM of this year’s world junior team.
“He’s not an in-your-face kind of coach,” Mark Hunter said of Dale. ”He’s very calm, but he’s a coach that gets his message through (with) ice time and his presence on the bench and the dressing room.”
So a question that’s been asked ever since the brothers were announced as additions to the brain trust of this year’s world junior team was recently posed again: Why did it take so long to bring the Hunters into the Hockey Canada fold at this level?
“It’s here now, and that’s the most important thing,” Mark Hunter said. ”We’re happy to be here. Dale’s very excited and looking forward to the challenge.”
The Hunters will be looking to bring their professional approach from the OHL to Ostrava and Trinec with Canada set to open the tournament with a tough test against the United States on Thursday.
“Just fast and hard, and focus on managing the puck,” Canadian forward Dylan Cozens, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, said of what Dale Hunter demands. “He’s smart, intelligent. He knows what to say at the right time.”
Hunter, who coached part of one season in the NHL with the Washington Capitals in 2011-12, insists on his forwards playing a 200-foot game, with offensive ability up and down the lineup.
“We’re a skilled team, but we’re going to be a hard-working team,” he said. ”We’re going to have to play on top of the puck all the time.”
Dale Hunter has also shown some of his lighter side to the team of Canadian teenagers, instructing Quinton Byfield to take a peak at the rafters the next time he’s at his home rink with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.
“He told me to look up (to find Hunter’s retired number),” the 17-year-old forward said with a grin. ”I’ll have to check.”
Chicago Blackhawks sniper Patrick Kane, who played for the Hunters in London, was surprised to learn this would be their first time at the world juniors.
“They’ve been so involved (in) producing so many great players,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll do a great job.”
Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett was Dale Hunter’s linemate in the NHL, and said his eye for systems and structure was apparent even back then.
“He’d take everything in,” Tippett said. ”We would sit at the back of the bus or the back of a plane and talk about the game — not just who won or lost, but how they won or lost.”
Canadian centre Ty Dellandrea said Hunter’s command of the bench is impressive.
“He gets his players to play the way he wants to play,” said the first-round pick of the Dallas Stars. ”The players are willing to listen to and do what he says no matter what. He’s got a great grasp of his players. He’s firm.
“He likes the hard, heavy two-way game. He takes a lot of pride in his team’s own end. That comes first. Then the offence comes next.”
This year’s tournament actually has some symmetry for the Hunter family.
The oldest of the three brothers, Dave, played at the first official world junior tournament in Czechoslovakia back in 1977.
“I remember mom and dad went over and left us (in Canada) for Christmas alone,” Dale Hunter, a native of Petrolia, Ont., recalled with a grin. “It was pretty special. It was quite an honour to go over there, and for mom and dad to leave the farm.”
Fast-forward 43 years later and Dale Hunter is set to leave his own comfort zone.
And Canada couldn’t be happier.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press