In Bugsy’s Sunday afternoon three Marines in their dress blues knew exactly who Dale Hunter was two tables over, and the coach knew exactly who they were. Coach Johnson, too, seated with his new boss, greeted the soldiers with warm respect and gratitude. I enjoyed being a witness to the moment. I enjoyed greatly seeing my hockey hero in our town’s hockey bar on a day off.
By queer, delightful coincidence I decided at the last minute to don my Dale Hunter Quebec Nordiques sweater for my Sunday visit to Bugsy’s. I needed to remind the out-of-town friends I was meeting there that Bugsy’s was a hockey bar, even while every TV screen was broadcasting NFL football that day. I had a heavy flannel shirt on over my sweater, and the two hockey coaches were the first folks I saw in the bar as I walked in. I walked right up to the table where they were seated sipping cold ones and unveiled my allegiance.
“Now that’s old school!” the head coach said, smiling at his assistant.
I regaled the coaches with warm welcomes and then left them to their off-day relaxation. My friends, apprised of my stunning good fortune, implored me to return to the coaches’ table and request a photo, and for the legend to sign my sweater, and I confess, I gave it a brief moment’s consideration. But I’ve been imbued by a modicum of media professionalism working with the Capitals’ media relations team in recent years, and more importantly, I’m a big believer that our sports heroes need come space out in public to be just like us, free from memorabilia pleadings and such. For me on Sunday it was more than enough thrill to shake the legend’s hand and say, “Welcome home.”
If you’ve been to Bugsy’s just once you know that owner Bryan Watson has made it a shrine of sorts to our sport. My football-loving friends on Sunday were stunned by the framed photos of brutally beaten up ice warriors that gloriously clutter Bugsy’s walls. I’d forgotten, but Dale Hunter’s home white Capitals sweater is encased and hung prominently in the bar. Sunday I really enjoyed looking at that historic sweater and seeing the legend who wore it relaxing some 20 feet away. It was for me one of the more powerful proof points of our arrival as a hockey town. A hockey town needs a hockey legend, of course, and better if he’s actually in town and once in a while out and about so that soldiers can stop by his table and salute him.
I’ve been around Alexander Ovechkin, one of the greatest hockey players in the world, a great deal the past five years, literally hundreds of up close encounters in Capitals’ locker rooms. I’ve interviewed Sidney Crosby in the visitor’s locker room at Verizon Center. I’ve chatted up Bryan Murray and Peter Bondra and famous New York Times reporters while being credentialed to cover the Caps. None of those experiences delivered anything approaching the exhilaration I experienced with my proximity to Coach Hunter on Sunday. It seems silly, and then it doesn’t.
For the first time since I started blogging with credentials I felt awestruck Sunday, but in a good and healthy way. I was quasi-trembling for nearly three hours seated almost immediately next to the new coach. I knew that no other coach, no other figure from the Capitals’ past, could make me feel that way. Distracted as I was, I had difficulty listening to my friends’ conversation with any fidelity. Obviously I didn’t give a damn about the football overhead.
There’s just something about this moment, and that set of silver hair, and those steely blue eyes conveying still a warrior’s intensity, even in Sunday relaxation; just something almost notoriously novel in his being here, right now, taking charge of these Washington Capitals. I know that George McPhee believes it, but my belief is rooted largely in devotional faith, not any objective, dispassionate analysis. And I’m not apologizing for it.
On Sunday I liked a lot that over the course of about three hours the coach, seated with his assistant and later joined by Bugsy himself, never once glanced up at all the football on all the TV screens. The hockey men were there to toss back a few cold ones and . . . talk hockey. On their day off.
Understandably, at so critical a moment for the Capitals, we all want hard and fast evidence that this momentous change will deliver the goods, that this particular change is paramount among final tinkering by George McPhee with his grand design. It is our fervent hope. But of course we can’t know, not before next spring. Instead, we’re supposed to relish all the drama fraught with the unknown journey. For this hockey fan, Dale Hunter’s return home, to lead, is an unmistakable signal that our hockey culture is changing, already, and this Christmas that’s good enough for me.