Former Seattle Breaker Tim Hunter back in town to face Thunderbirds
When second-year head coach Tim Hunter takes his place behind the Moose Jaw bench Saturday night at the ShoWare Center, it will be a homecoming of sorts.
Before taking over the Warriors’ bench last year, Hunter spent 15 seasons as an assistant coach in the NHL, and before that he played 815 games with four NHL teams. But before all that, he spent two years playing defense for the Seattle Breakers.
Hunter joined the Breakers early on in the franchise’s history and played two full seasons from 1977 to 1980. He was drafted by the Atlanta Flames in the third round of the 1979 NHL Draft after putting up 49 points and 300 penalty minutes with Seattle.
“We weren’t a great team but we had a good group of guys and competed really hard,” he said of those Breakers days. “I was fortunate enough to play a lot in both my 18- and 19-year-old years and it was a great experience for me.”
The Breakers would change their names to the Thunderbirds a few seasons after Hunter’s departure and Saturday night will be the first time he’s faced off against his junior franchise in Seattle.
Hunter’s Breakers teams didn’t play in an arena as nice and modern as the ShoWare Center. He played in the now shuddered Mercer Arena that had chain-link fence instead of glass around the ice. While the fence is long gone, he does remember how loud Seattle fans were, something that hasn’t changed.
“Seattle’s got a great hockey history, back to the Totems and the old Western Hockey League,” he said. “Good fans and they were pretty rowdy. Especially down in the corner where I played right defense. Each time along the boards there, you’d pin them along the boards and they’d get beer poured on them. It was a lot of fun.”
Hunter has more of a connection to the Thunderbirds than just his playing days. He coached Mathew Barzal and Ethan Bear for Team Canada at the U-18’s the summer before last and is well aware of the skill they posses.
He also played against and coached current Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk. Hunter was an assistant coach for the Washington Capitals from 1997 to 2002 and Konowalchuk was with the team that whole time.
“I both played against Steve and coached him and he was rock solid as a player,” Hunter said. “Just a good, gritty, grinding winger and hard-nosed. To coach him, he was one of those guys that was a maintenance-free hockey player. He liked to be a pro and knew what it took to be a pro. He worked hard, trained hard and competed hard every night for the team. He was a selfless hockey player and a team-first guy.”
Hunter said watching the T-Birds on tape, he sees things that he referred to as a “Konowalchuk hallmark.” He mentioned how hard they play in all three zones and the compete level that Seattle plays with each night. All things that can also be said about Hunter himself.
As a tough defenseman, Hunter was not shy when it came to dropping the gloves.
He holds the Calgary Flames’ franchise record for career penalty minutes and even set the NHL record for penalty minutes in the playoffs in 1983. But beyond that, Hunter could play hockey. He was a grinding and physical defenseman and was a member of the Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup championship team.
He would play 10 seasons for his hometown Flames before going on to play for the Quebec Nordiques, Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks.
Hunter then moved behind the bench, where he spent many years as an assistant coach. He made the move to junior with Moose Jaw two years ago because he’s always wanted to be head coach in the NHL. He says he would run into one road block in that goal – a lack of head coaching experience.
“I thought it would try to get some head coaching experience in the best developmental hockey league there is and that’s the Western Hockey League,” he said. “It’s been a great learning experience and I only wished I’d done it a lot earlier. I’ve really enjoyed it. I enjoy running my own team and putting my fingerprint on it.”
Moving from coaching pro hockey players, who are adults, to developing kids in their late teens has been an adjustment. He said that he’s enjoyed that challenge and that teaching the players on his team goes beyond the game on the ice.
“There’s something new all the time. Really, we’re teaching life lessons through sports,” he said. “Not all these kids are going to be drafted into the National Hockey League. They’re going to play in the Western Hockey League, get a scholarship and go on to be good citizens in the community. We’re teaching young boys to be men.”
The team that Hunter will bring into the ShoWare Center on Saturday night is a talented one. The Warriors just missed the playoffs last season but are off to a good start this year. They are led by perhaps the best player in all of junior hockey in Brayden Point, who leads the WHL in scoring but has been on the shelf with an upper-body injury.
While Point will most likely not play on Saturday, the Warriors have plenty of other weapons.
Dryden Hunt has had a good season along with two young players in Noah Gregor and Brett Howden. In net, Zach Sawchenko has been lights out and represented the WHL in the recently completed Canada-Russia Superseries. Moose Jaw also struck gold in the import draft and selected Russian forward Nikita Popugaev, who is young, big and loaded with skill.
“We’re in a rebuilding year, we’ve got a really young team, a developing team,” Hunter said of his Warriors. “Our time will come next year and the year after. I tell our players all the time, ‘The only thing the other guys have on you is experience’ and if we pay attention to details and cross our t’s and dot our i’s, we can compete with every team in this league.”
There will be a lot of talent on both sides Saturday night and it will be great to see a former Seattle Breaker back in Seattle. Thankfully there will be no chain-link fences.