If you glance at the roll call of coaches Tim Hunter played for in his 17-year pro career, it’s easy to see why he ended up being one himself.
The tough-as-nails Hunter played for characters like Bert Templeton, John Brophy and Tom McVie in the minors and for Stanley Cup winners like the late Bob Johnson and Terry Crisp with the Calgary Flames.
There also were accomplished bench bosses like Pierre Page, Al McNeil, Guy Charron, Doug Risebrough, Al Sims and Pat Quinn, as well as assistant coaches Bob Murdoch, Jacques Martin, Ron Wilson and Ron Smith, all who later became head coaches in the NHL.
It was early in Hunter’s career with the Flames that he first thought about one day becoming a coach.
“I had really good coaches in Bob Johnson and Terry Crisp,” said the 58-year-old Hunter, who will lead Canada at the world junior championship in Victoria and Vancouver later this month. “To see the great job these two guys did as coaches and how much I enjoyed playing for them. I think it was solidified when I went to Vancouver and played for Pat Quinn.”
Quinn, who died in 2014, became a mentor to Hunter and the fact that he coached Canada to gold at this tournament a decade ago hasn’t been lost on the Calgary native.
Seeking out Quinn
When Hunter and his 1993-94 Vancouver Canucks teammates assembled for a 20th anniversary reunion in May 2014 to reminisce about their unforgettable trip to the Stanley Cup final, Hunter huddled with Quinn as much as he could to discuss the fine art of coaching.
A few weeks later Quinn, in his role as part-owner of the Vancouver Giants, wanted to hire Hunter as the new head coach of his WHL club.
Since his playing days ended in 1997 Hunter spent 14 of the next 16 years as an assistant coach in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Capitals again. He had interviewed several times in the latter years for head coaching positions in the NHL and AHL, but the answer was the same.
“They wanted somebody with head coach experience,” Hunter said. “It didn’t matter that I had spent nearly 35 years on the bench as a player or assistant coach. They wanted a person who had made a stamp on his own and ran his own program.”
Hunter took 2013-14 off to catch his breath, attend to his other passion — fly fishing — and decide his next move. It was an easy decision to return to junior as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors. This is Hunter’s fourth season in Moose Jaw and third with the national junior team. He was an assistant on the team that won silver in Montreal two years ago and gold last January in Buffalo.
Pressure a ‘negative’
But now Hunter is the top man. He’ll face plenty of pressure and scrutiny.
“Pressure and scrutiny are negatives,” said the man who won a Stanley Cup with the 1988-89 Flames and went two more finals as a player with the 1985-86 Flames and the aforementioned Canucks, as well as an assistant coach in his first season with the 1997-98 Capitals.
“I look at this as a challenge and opportunity. These players dreamt of one day playing in this tournament as kids waking up on Boxing Day. Hockey Canada does a good job of isolating the players from outside elements and eternalizing what has to be done. In Montreal and Toronto, we embraced the sea of red and it was almost like that in Buffalo. We’re looking for a similarity here on the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island.”
After Hunter had skated his final shift for the Sharks in 1997 he was offered a job to stay in San Jose and join the coaching staff. But he instead signed on with the Capitals because of his familiarity with Wilson, then the Capitals head coach, and Washington general manager George McPhee. Wilson was an assistant coach in Vancouver and McPhee was part of the management team when Hunter was with the Canucks as a player.
“I thought things were easy back then and I would be going to the Stanley Cup final every year,” Hunter said with a chuckle, recalling the Capitals’ trip to the 1997-98 Stanley Cup final.
The most difficult thing about making the transition from player to coach for Hunter was being a couple feet from the action but he no longer could jump over the boards and change the tone of the game with a big hit or a fight. Hunter was, after all, a physical force who piled up more than 3,000 penalty minutes in the NHL.
“I was really lucky to have good coaches throughout my entire hockey journey, event my coach in pee wee, John Cozens,” Hunter said. “To show you how small the hockey world is he’s the grandfather of Dylan Cozens, who plays in Lethbridge. John was a leader and got me on track.
“I’ve taken a little bit from everyone. A flower from here, flower from there to make my own bouquet. To build my way of doing things. I treat the players the way I would want to be treated.”
There is no doubt Quinn has had the most influence on Hunter. When the two were together for the reunion, they talked about coaching; they talked about the world juniors.
“He treated us like men,” Hunter said. “He was there to guide you, but then he turned the team over to the players. When you do that you get everything back and then some.”