Hunter goes for Knighthood

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

The most successfully innovative guy in hockey right now isn't some NCAA college coach in Boston or a brainy fellow in Sweden planning the next trap or torpedo system designed to revolutionize the game.

Believe it or not, it's Dale Hunter, whose surprising London Knights have clinched a third straight OHL regular season title -- and are again the No. 1 ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.

In a campaign that was supposed to belong to deeper OHL teams, such as Kitchener and Peterborough, the wily off-season cash-crop farmer near Petrolia has kept the defending Memorial Cup champs on top with a five-forward power play, a veteran forward on defence, a small group of stars who play half the game, a band of checkers who remain motivated -- and a goalie who has stayed sharp despite a string of 45 straight starts.

"You experiment and try things," Hunter said. "Sometimes, they work and sometimes they don't, but you don't know what's going to happen if you don't try."

One strategy that worked is replacing injured defenceman Frank Rediker with veteran forward Trevor Kell, who has become one of the team's most reliable blue-liners.

A lot of coaches wouldn't have the courage to make a move like that in the heat of a playoff race, but there is no fear in the Knights dressing room.

"I feel you should be able to play every position and that guys shouldn't think of themselves as just forwards or defence," Hunter said. "When you get to the NHL, you'll play anywhere just to stay. When Ken Klee, who was just traded from Toronto, came into the league with the (Washington) Capitals, he started as a forward. You never know what's going to happen in the pros."

Chalk talks and on-ice teaching breaks are conventional coaching tools, but have little place in Hunter's high-tempo practices.

"My feet used to get cold all the time and I didn't like standing around," the former 19-year NHLer said. "The guys know the drills I like to run and you try to do repetitive things they'll face in a game without turning it into a scrimmage. They're scrimmaging all the time in the games anyway."

No matter how poorly someone is playing, Hunter refuses to publicly yell or humiliate them -- on the bench, in the dressing room or in the media.

"We've all been through it and it's embarrassing," Hunter said. "I'm not going to do that to a player in front of his peers. We'll have a one-on-one meeting. I don't have to say much."

It's clear Hunter and assistants Jacques Beaulieu and Jeff Perry have created an atmosphere in which the players enjoy coming to the rink and hang around together away from it.

"We have that same chemistry as last year," Beaulieu said. "Guys will come early and stay for an extra half-hour to work on different things. You never want it to feel like a chore to come to the rink or the players are going to start cutting corners. You're never going to win like that."

The Hunter approach -- especially the way ice time is handled -- is a pro-style set-up and wouldn't work well in minor hockey. But keeping the players interested and motivated is a universal goal.

"Everything we do in practice is game-oriented and every day, we see something new from Dale," Knights forward Adam Perry said. "Those guys watch all the game tapes and we go into every game prepared. We never see anything we haven't seen before."

Hunter, who participates in the drills to the point where he took a puck in the head this year, had seen every possible coaching style during his playing days. He mixes his own ideas with the approaches he liked from his old bench bosses -- and drops everything he hated as a player.

"Bryan Murray was a great coach and he's doing a pretty good job in Ottawa (with the Senators) right now," Hunter said. "He was my coach in Washington back in 1987 when I was traded there. He wasn't a yeller."

Hunter took over the Knights five years ago without any coaching experience. He will be in the running for a third straight OHL coach of the year title and has garnered NHL interest along the way.

"I take that stuff on a year-by-year basis. I enjoy coaching this age group and watching the teenagers grow up. I have Dylan and two other teenagers at home, a boy and a girl, and the teenage years are an exciting time of life. I didn't know how I'd do as a coach but you never know unless you try."

DALE HUNTER'S TOP 5 INNOVATIONS

1. Five-forward power play

Recognizing the strength of his forwards and lack of offence from his back end, Hunter puts five forwards out with the man advantage and the Knights again have the top unit in the OHL. He uses four of his forwards -- David Bolland, Dylan Hunter, Rob Schremp and Sergei Kostitsyn -- for all of the two- or five-minute power play.

2. Forwards on defence

Veteran Robbie Drummond and Trevor Kell start by killing penalties on defence, but Kell becomes a regular defender -- and a good one -- after an injury to Frank Rediker. Hunter doesn't believe in defined positions.

3. Stars on ice

In the new era of ultra-important special teams, Hunter plays his small band of star forwards -- Rob Schremp, David Bolland, Dylan Hunter -- nearly 30 minutes a game. He combats cheap shots by continuing to roll out the same stellar power play even when the game is out of reach.

4. The dressing room

Hunter avoids excessive appearances in the team dressing room and usually won't go in for 24 hours after a game. He requires his veteran players to show leadership and challenges them to take charge of the room and be responsible for their teammates.

5. Fresh practices

Hunter hates when players have to stand around on the ice and listen for minutes at a time to learn a new drill. He wants them constantly moving with speed, handling the puck and making smart decisions with it. However, he empties his old bag of pro tricks slowly and introduces a new skill when he sees it's required after watching and re-watching tape of his team's game.


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