Some people called Dale Hunter the NHL's ultimate warrior. Others considered the loathsome character to be hockey's most hated villain since Bobby Clarke. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he was a vitally integral player.
Hunter retired as the first and only man in NHL history to collect 300 goals, 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes. But while he was a superior defensive player, face-off specialist and offensive sparkplug, it was Hunter's mean-spirited, sometimes dirty play that summed up Hunter best. He was the ultimate team player and leader; a player who played with every last ounce of heart and soul he had; a player who would and did just about anything to win.
The NHL's Lord of Darkness wreaked havoc at any given opportunity.
"I assumed he picked his spots to play the way he does because nobody can play that way all the time," goalie Bill Ranford, both an opponent and teammate, said. "Then I found out he plays that way every game, every rink, against everybody."
In a career of wrong-doings, one incident sticks out more than any other. A frustrated Hunter blindsided NY Islanders captain Pierre Turgeon several moments after Turgeon scored a decisive goal that all but eliminated Hunter's Capitals from the playoffs. The attack came a good 5-7 seconds after the goal as Turgeon was celebrating the goal. Hunter was suspended for the first 21 games, exactly 1/4 of the schedule, in the following season. With fines and lost salary, Hunter lost $150,000.
"Some wondered whether the new NHL commissioner Gary Bettman singled me out to send everyone a message, but to me, that's just part of hockey," said Hunter almost unapologetically.
Dale was the middle brother of 3 brothers who all played in the NHL. Older brother Dave was a third line grinder with the great Edmonton Oilers teams, while younger brother Mark was a solid player for a long time span as well.
"Having older brothers who play Junior A (oldest brother Ron played Jr A but not pro) and professional hockey before I did made my progression easier. Dave let Mark and me know what to expect. His most helpful advice was 'Be noticed.' To make a team, you have to do something to draw attention to yourself," remembers Dale.
Dale took that advice to heart, and it helped to mold his career.
"I'm a smaller guy, so I've always needed to play the same energetic and aggressive style to show that I can compete against the bigger players. Unless he's super talented, a small man doesn't play in the NHL. I remembered Dave's advice and I guess I racked up a few penalty minutes as a result. I almost went out of my way to knock heads with the toughest guys on the other teams just to prove that I wasn't afraid to play in the league. I got beat up quite a few times, too many to count!"
Dale was selected 41st overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1979. A year later he was knocking heads in the NHL. In his rookie season he gained instant respect for his all out play that earned him 226 PIM. But he also added 19 goals and 44 assists for 63 very respectable points.
That first year Dale met another NHL classic villain in Moose Dupont, who was finishing his NHL career with the Nords. Moose left a lasting impression on Hunter.
"Moose Dupont was captain of the Nordiques when I first broke in. He helped me a lot. He had been one of the main guys from the Cup winning Philadelphia Flyers and brought his love of the game to the rink every day. He laughed, had fun, and played hard. He didn't let it get to him if things didn't go the way he wanted. I loved his attitude."
With the emergence of Hunter, high scoring Frenchmen Michel Goulet and the three Stastny brother, the Nordiques became one of the league's more exciting teams. Goulet was a terrific goal scorer, scoring 50 goals several times. Many think that Goulet was Stastny's left winger, but more often than not it was Hunter to who centered the Hall of Fame left winger. (Stastny and Goulet were a dynamic power play combination however). That in itself speaks volumes of Hunter's finesse game. A fine passer with superior vision of the ice and a great understanding of the game, Hunter's only finesse-game weakness was his skating. A choppy stride gave him only acceptable speed in his prime and hindered somewhat in his latter years, but he always found a way of getting the job done.
The Nords were unfortunate not to have better playoff luck. For much of the early 1980s they were a high scoring team that seemed to lack an elite goalie and dominant defenseman to get them over the hump. While Stastny and Goulet got much of the credit due to their incredible scoring exploits, it was Hunter who was considered to be the team's heart and soul. When the retooling Nords traded Hunter in 1987, it was said that the franchise was never the same. They missed the playoffs for the next 5 years and eventually Quebec City even lost the team to Denver, Colorado.
Hunter was traded to the Washington Capitals on June 13, 1987. With Clint Malarchuk also going to the US capital, the Nords got Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth in return. The traded wasn't all bad from a Nords standpoint though as they also got Washington's first round pick which was used to select Joe Sakic.
Hunter quickly became the heart and soul of the Capitals, and later was officially named as the team's captain. He helped the team to become a strong team during his tenure. However playoff success, much like in Quebec, was hard to come by as the Caps ran into the might Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s. Late in the decade, 1998 to be exact, the Caps made a surprise Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals. It marked the first time in 18 years that Hunter had made it to the finals, but the clock struck 12 on the Caps as the Detroit Red Wings won their 2nd straight Cup.
Much speculation in the media suggested Hunter would retire that summer, but he came back for one more chance at the Cup. However the Caps had a injury plagued season and were destined to miss the playoffs by the time of the trading deadline. It was at that point that the classy Caps organization traded Hunter to the Colorado Avalanche in an attempt to give him one last shot at the Cup.
It was ironic that Hunter was traded to Avs of all teams. For so many years he poured so much sweat and heart into that franchise. The Avs of course were previously known as the Quebec Nordiques.
Despite a Colorado upset over defending champs Detroit, Colorado was unable to get past the eventual champion Dallas Stars. Hunter had to decide if he wanted to come back again to try to get that elusive Cup, but he opted not to.
"It's a tough thing to retire, but the body's not as good as it used to be," Hunter said during his retirement speech
Hunter finished with 323 goals and 1,020 points in 1,407 games in his career. He ranked second all-time with 3,565 regular-season penalty minutes, trailing only Dave "Tiger" Williams. Hunter tops the all-time list for post-season penalty minutes with 729 in 186 games.