Blustery and wet, the season's first snow blows across the plowed, muddy fields of southern Ontario like an idea just slightly ahead of its time. Not much is sticking, for now. It has been a wet fall, and the soybean harvest, delayed by the rain, is finally in; the winter wheat is healthy and green; and the Hunter farm, a 640-acre spread outside Oil Springs (pop. 638), a spit of a town on the outskirts of Petrolia (pop. 4,186), 35 miles southeast of the Port Huron (Mich.) Bridge, is as ready as it will ever be for winter.
Dick Hunter, 48, glances out the window at the storm. You've heard of chips off the old block. Dick is the old block—stout, short, with a flat nose, slate-blue eyes and a purplish tattoo on each thick farmer's forearm. A former youth-hockey coach, he now has three sons in the NHL: Dave, 26, a left wing for the Edmonton Oilers; Dale, 24, a center for the Quebec Nordiques; and Mark, 22, a right wing for the Montreal Canadiens. All are tough, aggressive players. Guys who take the body and aren't afraid to throw an elbow into the bargain, a manner of play drilled into them by Dick, who taught them the best way to keep their teeth was to carry their sticks up high. All three have kept their teeth.
In the Hunter kitchen is the puck with which Mark scored his first NHL goal, on Oct. 8, 1981, during his first shift in the league. There's a photograph of Dave holding the Stanley Cup following the Oilers' five-game trouncing of the New York Islanders last May. There's another photo of Dave and Dale on the Petrolia Pee Wee All-Stars, whom Dick coached to the Ontario State Championship, B Division, in 1971.
"You take a fiery kid in the mold of Dale, say," Dick says, pointing to the image of Dale as a not-so-angelic nine-year-old. "They don't want them kind of kids in youth hockey no more. Fired-up kids. They cause trouble. Nowadays they want you to play for fun. Where do they get them kind of ideas? Play for fun! It was no fun when my boys were coming along. We played to win. And we'd do anything to do it, too. If you're going to drive 200 miles to play a hockey game, you might just as well win 'er, eh? We were always poor losers around here, isn't that right, Neece?"
December 10, 1984
Bernice Hunter, a trim, handsome woman, laughs. "Oh my," she says.
"Nope," Dick says, chuckling. "None of ours are too graceful losers."
None of theirs are too graceful any things, which is exactly what NHL coaches and general managers admire about the Hunter brothers. Let the Wayne Gretzkys and the Mike Bossys of the league provide the grace out there; somebody's got to do the checking and dig the puck out of the corners. The dirty work. "They're a bit of a throwback to the old days—muckers and grinders who play hard-nosed, traditional hockey," says David Poile, general manager of the Washington Capitals.
Elbow to the chops. Slash to the ankle. Good hard check into the end boards. It's tough to administer pain gracefully. "There isn't one of them who wouldn't make a good Bruin," says Boston general manager Harry Sinden. "The type of guys you hate when they're against you, but you love to have on your own team. Dale's always spearing guys in the back of the legs or whacking them all the way down the ice. He's pretty cute."
If you think Dale's cute, wait till you hear about his cuddly brother Dave. "One night against Chicago, Dave knocked Denis Savard out of the game with a hit," says Oiler coach and general manager Glen Sather with relish. "Was it clean? Sure. An elbow to the face. There's nothing clean about Dave. He's a farm boy. They're all farm boys, the Hunters. Crude and mean."
Says Quebec's coach, Michel Bergeron, "Every coach wants a Hunter." And he's right.
The most famous brother act in hockey is the Sutter sextet of Brian, Darryl, Duane, Brent, Ron and Rich. The Sutters, like the Hunters, grew up on a farm, which may or may not have something to do with the brand of hockey played by both clans—good ol' country hardball. Dick Hunter happens to feel there is a relationship between being raised on a farm, where you work for everything you get, and good honest two-way hockey players, but a more reasonable explanation is that tough kids are the result of a tough upbringing.
"Kids today, they sit and watch TV," Dick says. "They go everywhere on these motorbikes. Our boys didn't have no motorbikes. They didn't have bikes most of the time. They got out and run if they wanted to go down the road and play. After doing their chores at night, they'd play hockey out under that light pole till they were pretty near froze. Sunday afternoons I'd take them to public skating at the Petrolia rink. I'd tell them, 'I'll take you, but you're not going to sit around talking or having a hot dog. You're going to skate.' I never did their skates up. That's one thing I wouldn't do. Even when they were little wee guys. If they really wanted to skate bad enough, they'd do 'em up somehow. The boys'd be out there, wobbling around, their skates all loose, but they learned. And it built up their ankles, too. Oh, they sure liked that game.
"We never ever thought about any of them playing professionally. Sometimes I kind of wish we'd built the boys up more, but you know, I never thought they'd make it. My oldest boy, Ron, was really the standout among them in minor hockey. When he made it to Major Junior A, well, we thought that was just like the NHL. The other boys would come with Bernice and me to see him play for Kitchener and see him traveling in a great big Greyhound bus. Geez, did that ever look nice to them. They were right off the farm is what—never even seen a bus before. Then Ron would come home and tell them the team had given him a new pair of skates, and they couldn't believe it. That's how it starts. The older one gets a taste of it, and them other ones want it, too.
"People are always saying how Dale uses his stick, how he's feisty and mean and all. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but Dale takes a lot, too. He's short—five-foot-nine—and them other guys throw their elbows around and hit him in the ears and give him a helluva beating. They're trying to put that little wee bit of fear in him, and I don't blame them. But they're never going to do it. No, sir. I remember when he was nine years old, a day like this, blowing and cold, and the boys were outside playing football. We looked out, and there was Dave, two years older and a damn sight bigger, putting the boots to him. Dale was crying, but he never come in and tattled. Ain't that right, Neece?"
"About five minutes later, Dave comes in hollering and shows his mom the back of his thigh." Dick starts to laugh at the memory. " 'Look what that little bugger Dale did to me,' he says. 'Bit me!' 'Well, you asked for it!' we told him. 'We saw you puttin' the boots to him.' Yessir. My boys always played it tough. But then, that was my way, too."
Biting was one of the few things Dale was not penalized for last season, his fourth straight during which he received more than 200 minutes in penalties. In 77 games he incurred 81 penalties, including two misconducts, 14 fighting majors, 21 roughing minors, 16 high-sticking minors, two high-sticking majors, one cross-checking major and one slashing major for which he received a three-game suspension. "You couldn't classify him as conservative with his stick," says Sinden, not without admiration. "He's pretty liberal with it, although I've personally never seen him try to hurt anyone, swing it at someone's head or something. But it's too bad that Dale's belligerence sometimes overshadows his ability. He's a good playmaker, decent goal scorer and excellent penalty killer. Not unlike Bobby Clarke used to be. Not quite in Clarke's class, but that type of player."
Dale, whose bellicosity has made him the Nordiques' most popular player, centers Michel Goulet and various rightwingers. Through Sunday, Dale has three goals, 18 assists and just 38 penalty minutes this year. The Nordiques, however, have bumped along to a 12-11-1 record, which some observers attribute to Dale's on-ice mellowing—a charge he dismisses as nonsense. "I go three or four games without a fight, and people say I've mellowed," he says. "I'll get my 200 minutes this year just like every other year. They tend to come in bunches."
Dale certainly didn't look like he was mellowing earlier this season when, with 30 seconds to play and Quebec trailing Montreal 4-2, he chased rookie defense-man Chris Chelios of the Canadiens around the rink, brandishing his stick like a pitchfork. As Chelios stickhandled in circles, Hunter speared at him seven times and finally tried a vicious two-hander, which, had it connected, might have broken Chelios's ankle. Because his weapon never actually found the mark, Dale wasn't penalized for the assault. But it was an outrageous exhibition, bordering on lunacy in the closing moments of defeat.
Says Mark Hunter, who watched the incident from the Montreal bench, "You've got to take Dale the way he is. He's played that way for 24 years, and he'll never change his style. He's the heart behind that team."
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."
Oldtime hockey, Hunter style. Says Dick, "We never had no superstars on our team. No, sir. We played plenty of teams with superstars, too, and they never beat us. Our guys were just interested in winning the hockey game, not in getting five or six goals. When the boys used to come back from a game, the wife and I would ask them, 'Did you win?' Never, 'Did you score?' Not till after we found out if they'd won the game. What makes a hockey team is a certain amount of grinders and a certain amount of scorers. You can't have all one kind of player. But you've gotta have a certain number of them fiery kids that want to win no matter what the cost."
The Oilers, Nordiques and Canadiens each have such a player. And if the Hunter style isn't often pretty, pretty doesn't win hockey games in this league. "The Hunter brothers will do anything to stay in the NHL," sums up Gould. "They're not afraid to do anything."