Starting tomorrow, the Caps play 33 games in 65 days. That is...
Hunter Returns to the Scene of the Crime
As the Capitals travel to Uniondale to take on the New York Islanders on Tuesday night, there will be many storylines that you will hear about going into this important game. You may hear how pivotal this game is for playoff position, how the Capitals must maintain their hot streak as they head on the road where their 12-18-3 record away from the Phone Booth puts them near the bottom of the conference, or even how Alex Ovechkin’s two points over his last seven games just won’t cut it and that he needs to step it up during this important stretch. However, there is one storyline that seems to be lost in the shuffle of everything else. It’s something that Washington Capitals fans may have forgotten, but can guarantee it’s something that haunts New York Islanders fans. It’s also something that hangs like a black cloud over Dale Hunter’s playing career, and it’s something that many people define his entire career by. Let’s go back in time and take a look at exactly what happened.
The day was April 28th, 1993. The Washington Capitals were playing the New York Islanders in the 6th game of the Patrick Division Semifinals at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Islanders has a 3-2 advantage in the series and were looking to end the season of Dale Hunter and Company a lot earlier than they had anticipated. With the score 4-1 in the Islanders favor with a little less than nine minutes left to play in the 3rd period, everyone in the building and watching on TV had a sense that the Islanders would cruise to a victory in the game and the series, with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins waiting for them in the next round. After a face-off outside of the Islanders defensive zone between Hunter and star Islanders center Pierre Turgeon, the Capitals controlled the puck which got turned over to the Islanders, who then dumped the puck back into the Capitals zone. After the Capitals regained possession and moved the puck through the neutral zone, they decided to dump the puck in deep behind the net which was controlled by Islanders goaltender Glenn Healy (before you ask, yes it’s the same Glenn Healy that broadcasts now whom nobody can stand to listen to.) The Islanders moved the puck again, which was once again dumped deep into the Capitals zone, which was regained by Capitals heavy hitter Al Iafrate. Iafrate moves the puck over to Hunter, and as Hunter starts to skate with the puck Turgeon stole it away from him and well… see for yourself.
You almost get a sense of a black cloud hanging over the Coliseum as Turgeon is just lying there on the ice. In one brief moment, every Islanders fan just saw their Stanley Cup hopes vanish in front of them. Turgeon would miss the next series against the Penguins (where the Islanders upset the defending champions four games to three), but would return in the Prince Of Wales Conference Championship Series against the Montreal Canadiens. Turgeon would not be 100 percent healthy, and it would cost the Isles a chance to play for The Cup. The Isles would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions four games to two. On Tuesday night, Hunter returns to the Nassau Coliseum for the first time as a head coach to take on the team who’s championship dreams he crushed almost 19 years ago.
Ed Frankovic, who currently covers the Capitals for WNST, worked for the Capitals organization and was at the Coliseum when this incident took place. He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the incident. “[Islanders head coach] Al Albour’s wife was hopping mad,” he said. “You know how they talked about Giselle going off after the Super Bowl? She was going off about Turgeon after the game because it had ended the Islanders chances that season.” After the team left the Coliseum, Frankovic remembers an incident when the team buses were pulling out of the arena: “Back then, the Caps would do two buses. I was on the bus with me and the other staff and the doctors. I was on the bus with Craig Laughlin and I think Kenny… I know Locker was on there and I think Shawn Simpson was too because he was doing radio. And there were two buses, and the players and coaches were behind us and we were the first bus going out from underneath. All of a sudden it was like machine gun fire ‘boom boom boom boom.’ Stuff was hitting the bus from all around and we ducked and hit the ground. It was like someone was shooting at the bus. They were pelting us [with rocks] as we were coming up the ramp before we hit the street. Everyone was like ‘wow, this is crazy.’ Luckily, none of the windows broke. We all knew why we were getting hit, because Hunts took out Turgeon.” After the team made it out of the Nassau Coliseum parking lot unscathed and in one piece, Frankovic talked about what happened in the airport as the team was preparing to head back to Washington. “We took the bus over to LaGuardia. We all got out, and David Poile, who was the GM and Hunter didn’t go into the terminal with us. The terminal was closed at that time of night, but they got into a cab because he was meeting with the commissioner the next day because of the incident. We all knew he was going to get suspended for the hit. They got a hotel and stayed in New York and the rest of us flew back. It was a solemn flight back.”
So what was the outcome of Hunter’s hearing the commissioner? He was suspended for 21 games, which at the time was a league record and still sits as the 7th longest suspension in NHL history. Even though Hunter and Turgeon have made amends, the suspension doesn’t soften the blow of what could’ve been for the Islanders and their fans.
So, have Islanders fans forgotten what happened that night?
A fan held this sign during the February 28th game at the Verizon Center. As you can tell, they have not forgotten, nor will they ever. To give you some more context: As most of you know I live in the middle of Islanders Country. My best friend is a diehard Islanders fan and we talk hockey every time we get together. I was out with him the day after Dale Hunter was hired as the head coach to replace Bruce Boudreau and I asked him what his opinion was of the hiring. He said “Jeff, you know I have the utmost respect for the Capitals, but Dale Hunter is a [expletive-filled tirade].” And that, in a nutshell, is what fans here think of him. He will always be remembered as the guy who ruined their chance at a Stanley Cup. There are other fans that will always remember the hit and associate him with it, and not the scoring finesse he once had.
Tuesday night will be a very interesting night to say the least. Throughout his career, Hunter has always walked into visiting arenas hearing a chorus of boos from the fans. However, the Nassau Coliseum isn’t just another visiting arena, and Islanders fans aren’t just another group of fans.
S/T to Ed Frankovic for the interview. If you’re not already following him on Twitter, do yourself a favor and click here to follow him for some great insight in the sport of hockey that spans decades.