Threads of success

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Head coaches of NHL teams are usually impeccably dressed and look more like millionaire stock traders than guys whose key decision is which players should be out on the ice.

London Knights' Dale Hunter, who has won two of every three junior hockey games he has coached, took along his trusty tan jacket to Saginaw yesterday for his second straight gig as coach of the Western Conference team at the OHL's all-star festival.

He left Saginaw last night with a 13-9 loss and his brown jacket.

Five minutes after the annual no-hitter ended, the 19-year NHLer was back in more casual and unassuming threads for the trip home.

"I only have one jacket," Hunter, 46, said before going behind the bench. "It's not the same one as the Memorial Cup, but it's the same one as last year. I didn't get rid of it. Times are tough."

Times are definitely not tough on the ice for Hunter and the Knights, who have discovered a formula to beat junior hockey's long-standing creed: "Sooner or later, teams are forced to rebuild."

With a contender this year and early projections indicating they'll be a force again next season, Hunter doesn't look like he has much interest in expanding his wardrobe and advancing to the big leagues any time soon.

"If it happens, it happens -- I like coaching junior," he said. "The biggest difference (between juniors and pros) is it's a lot more money (in the pros), so there's a lot of pressure on those coaches. When I started playing (in the NHL), 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs. Now, there's 30 teams and it's still just 16 that make it. So . . . there's 14 owners who aren't very happy."

Hunter is clearly comfortable in London, where as co-owner and president of the team he has ultimate job security and never feels it necessary to resort to public relations ploys to boost his image. He's made some masterful decisions with the Knights on special teams and line combos -- moves that might not work with the same effect in pro.

"In the NHL, you're dealing with more egos, an age range from 20- to 40-year-olds, and there's money involved, so you have to be careful how you do things," he said. "But I watched a Rangers game the other night and Jaromir Jagr was out for the whole two minutes of a power play, so some things are the same.

"In the OHL, you often play three games in a row on the weekend and then get a break. In the NHL, it's two games, then a day off, then another game and a couple of days off, so you have to deal with that in a different way."

Whether or not he receives and accepts the chance to move up, Hunter's influence has been infiltrating the pro game through the players he's coached.

"We're always looking for skill here -- you look at a guy like Corey Perry, who was a first-round pick, and a guy who wasn't as high a pick like Dennis Wideman, and they're both playing," Hunter said. "Then, there's a Dan Girardi, who was a free agent but he worked hard, got bigger and did everything he was asked to do. He's out there with the New York Rangers the other night and playing in the NHL. It's good to see."

Hunter warns the offensive hockey he likes to coach doesn't always transfer quickly to the pro game -- something last year's OHL leading scorer Rob Schremp has endured this season in the American league.

"I like a free-wheeling style and guys who can beat a defenceman one-on-one," Hunter said. "When they first get to the pros, they're the youngest ones in the league and playing against older, stronger guys. All of a sudden, it's not as easy to beat someone one-on-one anymore. It's a process."

Hunter's philosophy on preparation is to show players tape of themselves and correct mistakes, while the coaches watch the opposition's film and point out tendencies and weaknesses the Knights can exploit.

"It's like football where you look at the tape to see why a quarterback throws into double coverage," Hunter said. "With all the games archived on the computer, it's easy to do. On the trip to Sudbury after playing in the Soo, we watched the games right on the bus."

Though Hunter fosters that technical environment, he sticks to hockey strategy, special teams organization and ice time decisions rather than working a laptop.

"No, Dave (Gagner) does the computer stuff. I do know how to turn it on now, though."

That would mark one of the first steps in submitting an application to Hockey Canada to coach the Canadian junior team -- a process Hunter says he's never done, but won't elaborate on why he won't.

It's strange because the world juniors and NHL both share one major philosophy -- winning is everything. If there's one thing Hunter has proven in his six years as a head coach, he knows how to string together victories.

But right now, he simply feels more comfortable slipping into a trusty tan jacket -- at least in that three-hour period during a game.

DALE HUNTER'S COACHING RECORD

Hunter has coached 371 London Knights regular season games and has 245 wins

2001-02: 19 wins, 25 losses, 6 ties, 0 overtime losses, 44 points

2002-03: 31-27-7-3, 72 points

2003-04: 53-11-2-2, 110 points (OHL regular season title)

2004-05: 59-7-2, 120 points (OHL regular season title, playoff title, Memorial Cup title)

2005-06: 49-15-4, 102 points (OHL regular season title, OHL playoff finalist)

2006-07 (to date): 34-11-4, 72 points


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