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Rough Chips Off The Old Block
E.M. Swift
December 10, 1984
The NHL's Hunter brothers, Dave, Dale and Mark, learned to play hockey the old-fashioned way, from their old-fashioned father, Dick
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December 10, 1984

Rough Chips Off The Old Block

The NHL's Hunter brothers, Dave, Dale and Mark, learned to play hockey the old-fashioned way, from their old-fashioned father, Dick

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Few would disagree. And never was that more apparent than during last year's playoffs, when Dale went into a slump and the Nordiques lost four games to two to the archrival Canadiens in the Adams Division championship. The slump was caused, according to most observers, by Montreal coach Jacques Lemaire's tactic of playing brother Mark's line against Dale's throughout the series. Two years earlier, Dale had accidentally run into and fallen on top of Mark during a game in Quebec, dislocating Mark's kneecap. Mark, just 19 at the time, underwent three operations and missed the better part of two seasons because of the injury. He recovered just in time for the '84 playoffs, and Dale was noticeably passive whenever he found himself on the ice at the same time as Mark. The one time Dale showed his customary spark was during the last game of the series, when he touched off a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the second period that carried over to the start of the third. Ten players were ejected, including both Hunters, and following the bloodbath, Montreal scored five third-period goals for a come-from-behind 5-3 win.

Dick and Bernice were in the stands for that one but claim to have seen worse fights in some of the Junior B games Dick coached. Asked if he was worried that Mark and Dale were going to go after each other, he says, "You know, I never told the boys not to fight each other on the ice, but I know they never would. They got too much respect for one another."

Mark agrees, although at one point during that epic brawl he did pull Dale off one of his teammates before both moved on to other targets. "It's tough on both of us," he says. "The type of hockey we play, we'd be going after each other all the time if we didn't know each other. But it's just not worth it to go fighting your brother."

In the summer, Mark and Dale live in Oil Springs, where each has purchased a 150-acre farm close enough to their father's to share a new combine. Whoever loses first in the playoffs must, by gentleman's agreement, return home to help get the other's land ready for the planting of soybeans. Neither Dale nor Mark has much of a hankering for the bright lights of the city—unlike their older brother Dave, who plans to retire in Edmonton and continue selling commercial oil tanks, as he does in the off-season now—and both are happy to get back home. "All you see during the season is concrete," says Mark, who drives a Ford Bronco around Montreal. "It's nice to get back to the open spaces, eh?"

Though they play in the heart of French Canada, Dale and Mark speak no French. But, then, they're farmers—men of few words, in any case. During Canadiens-Nordiques games, each admits to quietly watching the other when he's on the ice—curious, proud, respectful. The injury to Mark's knee was an accident, plain and simple, one of life's little mishaps. As farmers, they are used to dealing with the whims of fate and nature and have learned not to curse them. This season, Mark's knee feels as good as new, and he has responded by scoring six goals. Lemaire thinks Mark can score 30. "He has one of the best shots on the club," Lemaire says. "He can score from anywhere, but he must skate all the time to get chances. It's a matter of confidence for him."

Mark was the first draft choice of the Canadiens in 1981, shortly after Dave had decimated Guy Lafleur in the first round of that year's playoffs. Few people think that was a coincidence. Montreal had finished third in the NHL in the regular season, and Edmonton finished 14th. It was supposed to be no contest. But the upstart Oilers wiped out the Canadiens in three straight games, foretelling their coming rise to the top. The key to the series wasn't Gretzky, who put in his usual superb performance, but Dave Hunter, who held Lafleur, the Montreal star, to a single assist. "We were scared——, and that's the truth," recalls Dave, who did his best to put his teammates at ease by clobbering Lafleur into the boards early in the first period of the opening game at the Forum. It was the first of a succession of physical indignities heaped upon Le Grand Guy. While Lafleur's teammates stood idly by—with the single exception of Guy Lapointe, who hit Dave over the head with his helmet during a brawl and was ejected for his efforts—Dave elbowed, crosschecked, slashed, held and interfered with Lafleur for the three games. "I'm not bionic," Lafleur said after the series. "Hockey sticks hurt me, too."

Until the playoffs, Dave's contribution to the Oilers' high-powered attack is largely overlooked. He scored a career-high 22 goals last season—but who's paying attention when Gretzky has 87? "Dave's at his best when he has a specific role to play," says Sather. Translation: Stay with the other team's scoring star and let's see some welts when he touches the puck. "He's strong, he's tough, and he can skate with anybody. He kicks the crap out of Bossy. He's the kind of guy who wins games for you."

Adds Sinden: "It's like football. No matter how many fancy plays you put in, if you can't block and tackle, you lose. If you can't check in hockey, you lose."

The most important move that Sather made last season was acquiring center Kevin McClelland in November to play between Hunter and Pat Hughes. Presto chango! The Oilers had one of the most effective checking lines in the league. In the critical opening game of the Stanley Cup final—the only one won by the visiting team—the Oilers took on the Isles at their own game and beat them 1-0. They outchecked the Islanders. Gretzky was invisible, a non-factor. The lone goal was scored by McClelland, who converted a feed by Hughes after Dave had knocked the puck loose along the boards. A mucking, grinding piece of work—and the most important goal of the series. "It was the most satisfying game I've ever played," Dave says. "Things change so much in the playoffs. The play's rougher, more intense, which helps the guys who grind it out. When you're covering a guy like Lafleur or Bossy, you've got to interfere a lot, take the body. The more you interfere and grab, the more it gets them off their game. I don't think I'm dirty. I'm not out there to hurt anybody. Some days I feel like a guy out there going to work like anyone else. You have a job to do, and you do it."

It's a job. It's not fun. Whoever said hockey was supposed to be fun, anyway? Where do they get them ideas? It's the sort of hockey the Hunter brothers have been playing all their lives. Bobby Gould, a member of the Washington Capitals, grew up in Petrolia and played on the Pee Wee All-Stars with Dave. Dick, of course, was the coach. Gould describes Dick as tough but very fair. "I can remember one game," Gould says. "We were winning 7-0 against a team of lesser caliber. Things started to get a little sloppy during one of our shifts, and Dick told the guys on the bench that if the other team scored a goal, whoever was on the ice for us was through for the day. Well, just then the other guys scored, and when we skated to the bench, Dick said, 'You're through. Get inside.' We didn't know what was going on. We were the top line. But we skated off, changed and waited up in the mezzanine for the game to end. Dick encouraged us to play both ways. If we won 4-0, it was a better game than if we won 8-4."

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