Dale Hunter is a happy man, back practicing with his Washington Capitals teammates for the first time since injuring New York Islanders star forward Pierre Turgeon on a late hit last April 28 in the first round of the National Hockey League playoffs.
Hunter slammed into Turgeon after the Islander scored in the sixth and final game of the series that eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs. He was fined and received a 21-game suspension for the hit on April 28.
According to the terms of the suspension, Hunter was not allowed to practice with the team until Nov. 12, two weeks before the Capitals' 22nd game of the season.
But yesterday, Brian Burke, NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations, informed the Capitals that Hunter would be allowed to resume practicing with the team immediately. Hunter still will not be allowed to play until Nov. 26, when the Capitals face the Pittsburgh Penguins at USAir Arena.
But just getting back on the ice with his teammates made Hunter feel great, especially when he found out how much they missed him.
He reached for his skates and found the laces cut. He replaced the laces, then reached for his helmet.
"My hand sunk into Vaseline," he said, a grin spreading across his face. "But at least I caught it before I put it on my head."
He cleaned his helmet, then headed for the ice and practice. Once there he got another surprise. More about that later.
Capitals general manager David Poile said he had numerous conversations with commissioner Gary Bettman about getting Hunter some relief and was delighted to get the call that released his center from purgatory.
"The suspension was a hard pill to swallow for the organization," Poile said. "But the hardest part was trying to understand why Dale was not allowed to practice."
Burke, who is in charge of league discipline, relented slightly.
"Given the length of Hunter's layoff from the game and the fact that the Capitals are on the road for five of the last 14 days of the suspension, we felt it appropriate to review the Capitals' request for an earlier return to practice," said Burke, noting Hunter has not played or practiced with the team for six months and five days. "The player is entitled to be in game-playing condition upon theexpiration of the suspension. So we determined that he could begin practicing now."
Capitals coach Terry Murray said: "If they kept it at two weeks, he would have only had five practices with us. Now we're looking at 10 full practices. What a difference, in terms of getting him physically and mentally ready to play.
"Brian played the game and knows the importance of being in peak condition in terms of avoiding injury. Dale is a proud athlete. This will give him the time he needs to get ready."
Yesterday, Murray put his team through passing and timing drills, two-on-ones and sprints.
"It was a pretty tough skate for me, because you lose your timing," Hunter said. "But the sprints were the worst. I was doubled over. But it felt good to be out there and be part of a team. It's hard skating alone. You know this is a little kid's game, and I felt just like a little kid. I had fun."
Hunter said last season's incident with Turgeon is behind him and again declined to reveal his feelings on the suspension. He said the incident will not change his style of play.
"It happened," Hunter said. "It's not going to happen again. I've played this way through my whole career. You try to hit a guy clean. That's what I do. I'm just looking forward to the future."
He's also looking forward to finding out who turned the tables on him yesterday. Hunter is known as the team's biggest practical joker. So seeing Hunter cope with cut laces and Vaseline delighted his teammates.
And when he stepped on the ice and his skates nearly flew out from under him, everyone had a good laugh.
"Someone put clear tape on the blades," Hunter said. "Usually, you can count on landing on your [backside] when someone does that to you. I was fortunate I just looked like a little kid who had never skated."
It was a big Capitals welcome for Hunter, but team captain Kevin Hatcher feigned concern. "Geez, he was slipping all over the place," Hatcher said. "I don't know who would do something like that -- and I'm not telling."
Goalie Rick Tabaracci, who will not reveal what Hunter did to him as a welcome-to-the-team prank last season, also said he was mystified.
"Maybe Dale was just so excited about being back, he did it to himself," Tabaracci said, deadpan.
Dale Hunter looked around him. He said he has spies and he's going to find out who did it.
"But I'm not the kind of guy who would go out and get even," he said, thus ending his first day of practice by leaving his teammates in stitches.