True greatness can be difficult to describe.
You can know it when you see it, but explaining what makes it so is virtually impossible even for those who can be called truly great.
Often times it seems to come down to little things. But those little things often lead to great things.
London Knights head coach Dale Hunter has reached 900 victories in the Ontario Hockey League adding a new milestone to an already great coaching career.
Hunter has hit the number faster than any other head coach in OHL history and while his place among the greats is certainly cemented he continues to bring success to the teams and players he guides from behind the London bench.
If you go back to the beginning of the 2022-23 OHL season there seemed to be an outside chance Hunter would reach it. The Knights needed to win 44 games to have it happen. In a 68 game season that isn’t easy. Last year only two OHL teams were able to reach that number.
It happened with a 6-3 victory by his Knights in Windsor, Ont., on March 25, 2023.
If you go back to the beginning of Hunter’s OHL coaching career it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he navigated this year’s club to a place among the league’s best. He has been guiding his teams to huge heights year after year after year.
Dale Hunter stepped behind the bench during the 2001-02 season when the Knights were looking for a new head coach. The obvious choice to fill the role at the time appeared to be Mark Hunter. Mark had an excellent coaching resume. Dale had almost no experience at all.
But Dale started with a simple strategy. He had played for quite a few coaches in his life. He had watched what resonated with players and he had watched what fell flat.
Hunter did his best to use the things that brought success while avoiding everything else.
Four months after his first game as head coach Hunter’s eighth place London squad upset the top-seeded Plymouth Whalers in six games in the 2002 playoffs. Then the Knights pushed the loaded and eventual OHL-champion Erie Otters to overtime of a sixth game before Carlo Colaiacovo of the Otters tipped in the series winner.
Hunter got everything he could out of a young and inexperienced roster. He had them prepared to win and he made them believe they could win.
Then he helped his players to make it happen.
It’s a formula that has been repeated ever since.
A formula that has seen the wins grow bigger. From those early upsets to the Canadian Hockey League’s biggest stage where London has twice captured the Memorial Cup and to major junior’s largest International setting where Mark and Dale Hunter helped to construct and then execute a gold medal performance with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Hunter does not look for accolades or attention. He always credits his players and points out to anyone asking that, “they are the ones blocking the shots and taking the hits.”
Still there are so many moments where a coach directly impacts a game. Fans don’t get to see them but they happen. A change on a line or an extra shift for someone Hunter knows “is going that night” and suddenly a game swings in his team’s favour.
It happened on opening night at Budweiser Gardens (then the John Labatt Centre) in 2002 when the Knights found themselves down 4-1 to Plymouth early in the second period. A quick goaltending change snapped his players out of a sluggish start and London came back to win 5-4.
But some of Hunter’s greatest moves have been much more subtle.
In 2016 at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alta., London had brought a 16-game winning streak into the championship game against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The Knights had earned a bye and had been from Wednesday to Sunday leading up to the final.
They scored the first goal of the game but the Huskies came back and took a 2-1 lead and the clock started to tick down late into the third period.
With 4:26 remaining in regulation time London was called for an intentional offside at the Rouyn-Noranda blue line and the game went into its final scheduled TV timeout. The face-off came back deep in Knights territory. On the bench London defenceman Brandon Crawley stood up and gave an inspired speech about the game ”not ending this way” but Hunter’s mind was at work. The line of Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak had been the best in all of the Canadian Hockey League that year. They had just been on the ice before the timeout began.
Dvorak was due to go out and take the defensive zone draw but he would get off the ice as quickly as possible to rejoin Marner and Tkachuk for their next turn.
Hunter made a decision as Dvorak skated away from the bench.
“I knew we needed to get something going so I called out to (Dvorak) to stay out,” Hunter remembers.
Dvorak won the draw to Max Jones and he carried the puck up ice and got it into the Huskies zone before getting knocked down. Aaron Berisha chased the puck into the right corner and Jones got to his skates and went flying into that same corner with a big hit that knocked the puck to Berisha.
Berisha centred it to Dvorak who wasn’t supposed to be there. He would normally have gone to the bench as Jones came up the ice. But Hunter had told him to stay out and Dvorak was in position to take the Berisha pass and score the game-tying goal that set up the ultimate drama of the Knights Memorial Cup victory in overtime.
It was a little thing but it was a vital thing. It ended up leading to a great thing. The kind of gut feeling that Hunter has made use of throughout his career.
It appeared in the gold medal game at the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship. With just over four minutes remaining in the third period Team Canada was tied 3-3 with Team Russia.
Hunter’s players had battled back from a 3-1 deficit but the pace of the game had stalled.
Chances weren’t really coming either way.
Hunter recalls looking down the seated line of Team Canada sweaters in front of him for something that might “get something going.”
“Akil Thomas had scored big goals against (the London Knights),” admitted Hunter.
Thomas had been playing the role of 13th forward in that game so he wasn’t on a regular line but Hunter gave him a tap and as Team Canada made a change on the fly and Thomas jumped on the ice, caught up to a puck that was shot up the ice and put a backhand shot into the back of the net for what would be the eventual game winning goal.
Little things that lead to great things.
Hunter is always looking for the next little thing that can help his team.
“Hockey keeps you on your toes. You watch any team or any game and you can learn from it…. drills… ideas… It’s enjoyable.”
But some of his greatest joys come with the relationships he has built with his players.
“(Former Knights captain) Scott Aarssen brought his three little kids into the coach’s room the other day. That’s a big change. But they all come back. And we follow all of them. That’s what’s great.”
Next up for Dale Hunter in OHL coaching milestones is not 1000 wins but second place on the all-time list. The late Bert Templeton won 907 games during his outstanding career.
Former Ottawa 67’s head coach Brian Kilrea is the all-time winningest coach in Ontario Hockey history. He amassed 1194 victories during his Hall of Fame career.
Hunter and Kilrea met up before the most recent game between London and the Ottawa 67’s in Ottawa, Ont., on Jan. 27, 2023.
Asked what the two of them talked about Hunter replied, “Just some little things.”
No doubt little things that will continue to lead to even more great things for Dale Hunter.