When Dale Hunter finally traded in his convict's stripes for Washington Capital stars and stripes, he didn't exactly look as if he had been scared straight. Last Friday night, after serving an unprecedented 21-game suspension, Hunter returned to the ice for the first time since April, and he acted very much like his old cutthroat self. He contributed to each of the Caps' goals in a 4-4 draw with the Pittsburgh Penguins, mostly by stirring up the action in the Penguin crease. Heck, Hunter would probably have found a way to win the game if only he hadn't spent 12 of the final 14 minutes right back in the penalty box, renewing old acquaintances. So much for the NHL's Capital punishment.
To review the blotter: The 33-year-old Hunter was suspended last spring for hitting New York Islander Pierre Turgeon from behind in Game 6 of the Patrick Division semifinals. Turgeon had just scored the fifth straight Islander goal in the 5-3 series-clinching win when Hunter blindsided him, separating his shoulder and sidelining him for seven games. Hunter was sentenced to sit out the first 21 games of the '93 season (one quarter of the regular season) and to forfeit $150,000 (one quarter of his $600,000 salary). The severity of the punishment—the league's longest suspension for an on-ice incident—was due not only to the damage Hunter did to Turgeon's shoulder, but also to the black eye he administered to the NHL in this era when image is everything.
The ensuing six months were not easy for Hunter, who became the hunted. Hounded by reporters, he steadfastly refused to rehash the blindside check, saying only that he couldn't wait to be paroled. The Cap center spent some of the summer at the family farm in Ontario, but even there he found little joy. In August, Hunter lost his mother, Bern ice, to cancer.
Without Hunter—who last year had career highs of 79 points and 59 assists—Washington opened this season with six defeats and was 10-11 upon his return. "Dale is the heart of this club, and with him back we expect a boost," says Cap G.M. David Poile, "but we're not calling him 'Moses' Hunter yet."
Against Pittsburgh, Hunter played as if he were trying to squeeze those 21 missed games into one. He had two assists, one during his thunderous welcoming ovation, a mere 19 seconds into his first shift; he drew a penalty that led to a power-play goal; and he knocked over the Penguin goalie moments before the Caps' fourth goal. Hunter also racked up 14 minutes in penalties, including a misconduct. None of the above stats are surprising for a man who in 13 years in the league has never failed to lead his team to the playoffs. Because of his brutish style on the ice, however, his critics are quick to mention that he is the alltime playoff leader in penalty minutes and is third overall in that category in NHL history.
"Dale's not a monster," Cap coach Terry Murray said after Friday's game. "He's a distracter. I challenge other coaches to look at what he did tonight and tell me they don't want that kind of distraction." Hunter's value was underscored in his second game back, on Sunday. After he left in the first period with a sprained ligament in his left knee that will keep him off the ice for three to six weeks, the Caps fell to the New York Rangers 3-1. Hunter wasn't happy to be sidelined again. On Friday, watching the final minutes of the game tick away, Hunter had said to old pal Bill Brooks, a prickly former cop who always mans the Caps' penalty box, "Brookie, I'm so happy to be back, I don't even mind being in here with you."