His penalty time over, Capitals' Hunter ready to get back on the ice


Since he was little more than a toddler, Dale Hunter has loved pulling on the thick socks, snapping the suspenders to the bulky pants and slipping into the oversized jersey.

Tonight, the Washington Capitals center will put them all on slowly, savoring what it feels like to be a hockey player again.

Hunter is at last free from a 21-game suspension, the longest on-ice suspension in NHL history, for the late hit he delivered to New York Islanders star forward Pierre Turgeon in last season's playoffs.

Finally, he can return to the role he knows best, that of being a grown man reveling in a kid's game.

"I'm looking at it like it's opening night," Hunter, 33, said of the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at USAir Arena. "I'm pumped up. I'm excited. It's nice to start the season again -- if just a little late."

He planned to sleep well last night and get to the arena by 5 p.m. He will go to the locker room, get his sticks ready, get a cup of coffee and read the Penguins stats.

When Hunter steps on the ice, Capitals coach Terry Murray said he expects the near-sellout crowd to go crazy.

"Hunter's line could very well be my starting line," Murray said. "There will be a lot of emotion out there that we could take advantage of."

The plan is to start Hunter with left wing Dimitri Khristich and rookie right wing Pat Peake.

The Capitals have been searching most of the season for offense and hope Hunter can show them the way.

"We're not quite ready to call him 'Moses Hunter' yet, but having Dale back has to be a plus, and we're looking forward to our resurgence," Capitals general manager David Poile said.

Hunter and Khristich have played together in the past, and Murray describes them as a good mix.

"They have a good feel for each other," Murray said. "AndPeake is a young guy who can get himself open and could very well feed off both of them."

Murray clearly is delighted at the prospect of Hunter's return. The team has missed Hunter's gutsy play in the corners and in front of the net.

The Capitals also have missed his offense. A year ago Hunter had 79 points, tied for third-best on the Caps. Through six seasons with Washington, Hunter has averaged better than 20 goals a season, many of them on the power play, a part of the game in which the Caps have been struggling.

"It will be good to get Dale back," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "I think we're looking forward to getting him back in the lineup as much as he is. It's going to be good.

"He has grit, and he stirs up the puck a little bit with the other team and creates some more room for our forwards."

Hunter has two subjects he will not talk about: his value to the Capitals and the notorious hit on Turgeon.

"The incident is history, and I'm sick of hearing about it and being asked about it," he said.

As for what he can do for his team, he at first laughed.

"I'm just happy to be here. I'm just trying to help the team win, and, God willing, I'll be around a long, long time," Hunter said, grinning. "That's from 'Bull Durham.' Remember when they were trying to teach the pitcher how to talk to the press? It's a great quote. It works for almost every question."

When pressed about what he contributes, Hunter shrugged and said: "Everyone contributes something."

Hunter's hit, which came while Turgeon had his arms in the air celebrating a goal, knocked Turgeon out of the playoffs for six games. It has been called one of the most vicious in pro sports.

"He just about killed the guy, and the hit was way beyond the line," New York Islanders general manager Don Maloney said. "But it was a long suspension -- the longest in NHL history -- and we have bigger things to worry about now. I'm sure Dale has learned his lesson and will keep himself under control. He has to be able to control himself."

Poile has maintained that Hunter's punishment was too severe. He said again this week he doesn't believe any player caught up in the game stops to speculate whether what he is about to do will be judged worthy of a suspension.

"And I still don't believe Dale thought about the severity of the situation," Poile said. "But the bottom line now is that this guy is out of jail. It's done."

Murray said Hunter, whose 14-year NHL career has been filled with successes built on physical play, still may feel some bitterness.

"It was the longest suspension in the history of the league, and this league has been in business a long, long time," Murray said. "To miss the games, to lose the money and to miss doing what he loves to do best because of what happened, I would think he's a little bitter. But, hey, he's going to put it behind him. I suspect he's not going to talk about it to anybody. He was beaten up pretty bad, and maybe still is in some areas, by the media. I think he has a right to just put it behind him."

Murray defines Hunter as a player everyone in the league would love to have and, even after the incident with Turgeon, Maloney agrees.

"I played junior hockey with Dale," Maloney said. "I know what kind of player he is, and I think we're all looking for intense players. There's not a team in the league who wouldn't want a Dale Hunter."

In case anyone has forgotten during the past seven months what kind of a player Hunter is, Murray offers this assessment:

"I don't want to say he's a throwback to the old school, but I don't see a lot of Dale Hunters in the NHL today," Murray said. "He's just a very determined person. He wants to be successful at all costs. He wants to help his team, and he'll help his teammates in any given situation, to give them the comfort they need in order to play their best game.

"He's Bobby Clarke, that's who he is," Murray said.

"He's just another one of those guys who wants to win."

Tonight, Dale Hunter is just another guy glad to be back at work again.

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