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Ron Wilson has fond memories of coaching Dale Hunter

Washington Capitals' new head coach Dale Hunter walks towards the locker room to address the media before his first NHL game as head coach, in Washington November 29, 2011. REUTERS/Molly Riley

Molly Riley/Reuters

If you spend enough time as a coach in the NHL, eventually you'll start to be joined in those ranks by your players.

For Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson, that reality is nothing new – although it will still be special to coach against Dale Hunter when his team meets the Washington Capitals on Friday.

Wilson coached Hunter with the Capitals for two years beginning in 1997-98, a season in which Washington went on a surprise run to the finals in his first year behind the bench.

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More than a decade after his playing career ended, Hunter was appointed the Capitals coach last week in his first NHL coaching job.

"He was a real warrior," Wilson said. "I had him the last two years of his career, and the only time he went to the finals.

"At that point in his career, he was kind of a third or fourth liner. Didn't play that much, but he was a real leader in the room. He had an incredible sense of humour and was a practical joker. He's a great guy. A very down-to-earth person."

Hunter isn't the first former player who Wilson has had to face as a coach, as the Colorado Avalanche's Joe Sacco played under him for seven seasons in Anaheim and Washington.

"I'm not saying I pay attention to how well he's doing, but he's done fairly well in Colorado I think," Wilson said. "I'm proud of him."

As for what the Leafs can expect from the Hunter-led Capitals, Wilson sees a grittier approach than they had under Bruce Boudreau.

"They're a little bit harder on the fore-check," he said. "Probably finishing their checks more. That's what I've seen up to this point."

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The Capitals have been in freefall since early November, going 4-10-1 leading up to a much-needed win in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Despite their struggles – which included a 7-1 loss to Toronto a few weeks ago – the Leafs said they will be wary of their firepower, including Alex Ovechkin.

"It's always a battle when you're playing against a guy like that," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "With the skill that he's got, he's a top guy in the league for a reason."

"You have to know where he is at all times," Wilson said. "I think everybody knows what his tendencies are and have been trying to take some of those areas he likes to go to away… But you're constantly worried when he's on the ice that he could explode at any time."

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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