After holding the title of Capitals head coach for 169 days or 60 regular season games and 14 tightly fought playoff battles, Dale Hunter's players were surprised to hear that their bench boss would not be returning. After a meeting with Hunter, Caps general manager George McPhee announced just two days after the Caps' season ended that Hunter had decided to return to his home in London, Ontario for family reasons.
Some players, who saw their careers blossom under Hunter's reign, sounded mournful.
"It's disappointing. It's sad, I think. The transformation of this hockey club stems from him and you just have to respect the guy. He came into this team, hasn't strayed away from his game plan and we all respect him as a coach and we're sad to see him go."
"We understand his reasons for going back. I just had a short chat with him and shook his hand and asked him if there's anything I can do to convince him to stay. He was great. I was sort of shocked when I found out but he will be missed I really learned a lot from him and really valued the effort he put in.
"I was (surprised) because I thought he really enjoyed it. He's a capital through and through he loved being around the rink he loved being around the guys --you could tell. He was a hockey player. I understand his motives for leaving and I'd never question that he's got family and that's going to trump anything that we have going here."
"It kind of sucks, actually. He was a great coach and he brought a system that I think really worked and we played good hockey in the playoffs and he's done so many good things for this team. Ireally wanted to see him back next year."
"He did such a great job of changing our system and changing the way we all thought about the game. His stepping down was kind of a shock to me and I also loved him as a coach. It wasn't what I wanted to hear. I'm grateful for the opportunity he gave me and owe him a lot."
"It surprised me a fair bit. I didn't know what to expect, I knew it was a possibility but I think it's taken a lot of guys by surprise. It's really unfortunate because he was very very very well-liked and everybody thinks that what he's taught us and how he taught us is very valuable so it's tough to see a guy like that not be back, but I mean everybody has their own reasons and there's nothing we can do about it.
"His style was something that I really liked and it was easy for me to understand...it's upsetting because i was really happy with everything."
Others respectfully spoke of the awkward growing pains --and diminished roles-- some experienced in Hunter's system. Once again, Alex Ovechkin's ice time was a major theme --and not for direct questions from the media about it.
"Whether or not you're happy that's how the team is playing and that's how you're going to have to play to have the team be successful.
"I thought Alex Ovechkin's minutes were being determined by the scores and how the games played out. It had nothing to do with benching him. It's just the style of coaching that dale wanted to play."
"He made everybody extremely accountable. It's not like he singled guys out or yelled at anybody. He did it by who played, what lines, stuff like that. He made sure that the guys who were playing extremely hard were going to get a ton of minutes. You saw guys like Beags (Jay Beagle) and Hendy (Matt Hendricks) and those guys like that get as much ice as they did. You got the exact same thing every night. So he made everybody open and really understand what his vision was so when everybody's clear on the ice, you're usually clear off the ice too."
All seemed to agree however: Hunter changed the Capitals for the better.
"I think there was a lot of grey area before on how we need to play as a hockey club, too much pressure on individuals and now we know how to play as a hockey team and that's going to help us down the road."
"He taught us as much about leadership and team aspect, and respect amongst players and trust in teammates as he did about hockey. It's like having another veteran in the locker room. He was great. He changed the culture around here a little bit, which the rest of us really enjoyed.
"He had such a great influence. There were some things culture-wise that had to be adjusted a little bit in order for our team to succeed, I believe."
"I know for myself he gave me confidence. He gave me the ability to play more, the opportunity to play more, and with that I gained confidence in myself. I gained confidence in my game. As a team I think that went all the way through the line up ... I think the way that he got us to play as a group is something that we need to focus on a lot in the room ... I think as we came together we played our best hockey."
"I thought Dale got a lot of really good messages across with this team and did a lot of things that this team needed as far as a commitment in certain areas of the game, whether it was defensively. The word accountable was kind of beaten to death at the beginning of this year but I think he got it to the point where everyone expected a certain style of play from each other and I think that was the best imprint he made on this team.
"Dale stuck to his personality and he coached his way and I think he treated everyone pretty much the same."
"He gave everyone a chance to figure things out on their own: to look inside yourself and figure out what you need to do in order to be successful. There's usually a lot of pressure put on to guys through coaches and to figure things out quick. I think he was very patient and that attributes to his career and his playing career."
"He really transformed this team into a team that works extremely hard, is very honest and one that I think other teams don't like playing against...he put this team on a very good path and hopefully we can continue down that road next year."