Dylan Hunter survives jeers and proves he belongs

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:26 AM ET

Dylan Hunter never let on, but underneath the bright, cheery facade, it did trouble him.

No 16-year-old could continually turn a blind eye to the signs questioning his ability, or a deaf ear to the catcalls claiming the only reason he was with the London Knights was because daddy owned and coached the team.

There were nights the kid was almost in tears, but displaying true Hunter grit, he sucked it up and worked at proving his critics wrong.

He has turned those jeers into cheers.

"I don't know how I would have handled it," teammate, linemate and best friend Corey Perry said of Dylan.

"At times it got cruel. There were some signs and you could hear things from the crowd, but after the game he'd laugh about it. That's the way Dylan is, he'd laugh about it and shrug it off just as quickly as it came upon him.

"He had a lot of courage and he's come a long way and he's proven himself. It was a struggle the first two years, but the last two years have been unbelievable. It's made him a better player. You can't take all that criticism and not do anything with it. You've got to try to answer some critics and go out there and show your stuff."

The Knights have been showing their stuff this week at the Memorial Cup and find themselves in tomorrow's championship game after an undefeated round-robin.

Dylan never let teammates know the hurt he was experiencing. He'd idolized his father, who'd played 19 years in the NHL. Dale didn't retire until Dylan was 14 and he'd seen his father play in one Stanley Cup final.

Basil McRae, an ex-Knight and a minority partner with Dale and Mark Hunter in the Knights ownership, spent 16 years in the NHL, some of those years playing with Dale. McRae has a 15-year-old son, Philip.

"Dale said Dylan was losing his confidence and there was a lot of pressure, but he always said Dylan would have to work harder and get through it and he would get better," McRae said yesterday. "But all of a sudden you've got 4,000 people being negative to you in your own building and you're not used to it. It's always hard for an ex-player's son because he's always got to live in the shadow of his dad or be compared to his father. And multiply that by Dale owning the team and coaching the team. But one thing about the Hunters is they're tough and they don't make any excuses."

Dylan was out of shape when he was drafted by the Knights in the second round in 2001. There were nights that first season he'd be sucking wind 30 seconds into a shift. The fans were unmerciful.

"Dylan's such a great kid and such a deep-thinking kid and takes things so personally," McRae said. "The Hunters are tough farmers and Dale I think was very honest with him, and not overly compassionate about it, and told him he had to work his way out of it and he did.

"That's how they got to where they are and there's no rose-coloured glasses in that family, that's for sure."

Things weren't rosy for Dylan that first season.

"It hurt," he said of the biting words from people who were supposed to be adults. "But hockey's hockey and you're always going to get that. I heard that in Kitchener and Windsor and if it affects you, you can't play because it's always going to happen.

"He (dad) always said whatever doesn't bring you down makes you stronger. He saw me play through it and I guess he respects that."

Dad does.

"Through my career, I heard a lot and I told him, 'Don't listen to it,' " Dale said. "He's the one who has to deal with it and he did it himself and I'm proud of him for it. He overcame it. He played under a lot of pressure and he succeeded.

"This is not about me, it's about him. He's the one who did it and I'm proud of him for it. He's the one who learned to be mentally tough. It's more pressure than normal, but it does make you mentally tough."

Dale -- who has another son, Tucker, 15, waiting in the wings -- said most NHL players don't push their sons toward hockey. "They've been through it already and it's up to the kids and Dylan did it all on his own."

McRae said Dale never coddled his son.

"He never did give him an out," McRae said. "It took a little while, but he worked harder and trained harder and everyone could see the skill he had, but a lot of it was confidence. I've seen guys who have played in the National League 15 years and when they're 35 they lose their confidence, so why wouldn't a kid (of) 16 lose his confidence?"

"That's the problem. It's not who's better or if you're as good as your dad, it's a lot of people expect you to be the same type of player and in Dylan's defence he's not the same type of player or the same personality as Dale.

"And my son is the same way. He's not like me. His personality is more like my wife's, thank God."

McRae believes Dylan will play in the NHL.

"A team like Buffalo Sabres (who drafted him in 2004), they got the steal of the draft in the ninth round."

Dylan said his dad's advice has always been simple: "If you're going to succeed, you're going to succeed on your own. I'm not going to push you."

And that's how it has been.

"He never was like that," Dylan said. "He left me on my own to do it.

"It's kind of a jinx to have an NHL dad. The sons of NHL dads have a lot of trouble playing. There's so much pressure to follow in the footsteps, but if you love the game enough, you can always play through it."

The taunts from the fans have stopped, at least at the John Labatt Centre, but he still hears it from opponents.

"I've heard it all before," Dylan said. "I just laugh it off now.

"But we were in Sudbury and there was (Mike) Foligno's kid (Nick) and I had to say it," Hunter said of the Wolves' father-son/coach-player combination. "I had to get him once. That was the only time I could say it. He kind of looked at me and realized who it was, but I had to say it once."

McRae said there's so much pressure on an NHLer's son playing in Canada, "but it is a great story, the father-son story, and people like to read about that.

"Sometimes they don't always turn out the way we want them to turn out. I think it was something Dylan didn't quite expect and when it hit him, instead of just sloughing it off, he took it very personally and it just mounted.

"But over time, he worked his way out of it and I think now the fans love him. I see a lot of Hunter sweaters."

Unbeknownst to Dale, Dylan has dedicated this season to his father.

"My father never won a Stanley Cup or a Memorial Cup. I saw him go all the way to the final (in 1998 when Washington lost to Detroit) and it was heartbreaking with me, so I couldn't imagine how it was for him.

"So it would be nice to get this for him and for how many years he sacrificed to try to get the Cup. I bawled my eyes out for three straight days, I was so devastated."

It wasn't the first time Dylan would cry over hockey, but those tears have dried and turned to joy -- for both father and son.


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