When Dale Hawerchuk died Tuesday morning after battling cancer, the hockey world lost a Hall of Fame player and person, a sublimely talented performer who never seemed bothered by the fact that he was underappreciated and, in many ways, a victim of circumstance. As a man and a teammate, Hawerchuk was every bit as unassuming.
Remember the 1987 Canada Cup final game? If so, you undoubtedly recall the Gretzky-to-Lemieux play that led to the winning goal with 1:26 left to give Canada a 6-5 win in one of the greatest games ever played. What you might not remember is that Dale Hawerchuk scored a goal and an assist in that game and that the winning play started as a defensive zone faceoff for Canada, which Hawerchuk won. As brilliant as Gretzky and Lemieux were that night, Hawerchuk was named MVP of the game. It was one of the very few times Hawerchuk was recognized for outshining two of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
And make no mistake, Hawerchuk was a superstar, albeit one caught in the vortex of Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux on a team, the Winnipeg Jets, that just happened to be in the same division as Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames, who spent much of the ’80s in hockey’s version of an arms war. Hawerchuk was by far the largest fish in the NHL’s smallest pond, but he never acted that way. (You know he currently sits 20th overall on the NHL’s all-time scoring list, right? Not that he’d ever say anything about that.)
“He’s one of the most humble superstars there ever was,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, who played parts of four seasons with Hawerchuk in Winnipeg. “Everybody knew how great he was as a hockey player, but as a person, he treated everyone equally. It didn’t matter if you were the trainer or the fourth-line guy or a star on the team. He treated everyone the same. I think one of the best characteristics a person can have is humility and he had it. He was a humble superstar.”
By the time Hawerchuk had joined the Winnipeg Jets for the 1981-82 season, he was already a two-time Memorial Cup winner, the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year and the best prospect in junior hockey. And he did not disappoint, ever. In his first season with the Jets, he became the youngest 100-point scorer in NHL history at the time and captured the Calder Trophy, the only individual accolade he would win over the course of his career. “He came in at 18 and was an elite go-to superstar right from the beginning,” said Bill Lesuk, who was a scout with the Jets when they drafted Hawerchuk first overall in 1981. “You rarely see that in any era. Dale had a tremendous impact on the entire organization.”
Aside from the fact that the Jets won only one playoff round with Hawerchuk in their lineup, it was not because of the man they called ‘Ducky’. In his eight seasons in Winnipeg, Hawerchuk recorded six 100-point seasons and scored 90-plus points in two more. He had an indelible impact on the Jets and, even though he asked for a trade in 1990, he remains one of the most beloved former Jets with the local fan base.
“Dale Hawerchuk put Winnipeg and the Jets on the map the day he arrived in this city in 1981,” the Jets said in a statement. “And the love for our community and the remarkable Hall of Fame career will keep it there for many generations to come. Dale had a relationship with our fans unlike any other player in the history of our franchise. Whether at home or on the world stage, ‘Ducky’ was embraced by so many, so often because of his humility and the grace by which he always carried himself. Dale was quite simply one of the finest human beings we have ever known that also just happened to be a superstar.”
Hawerchuk went on to endear himself to another fan base in Buffalo, where he played five more seasons, then finished his career with the St. Louis Blues, then Philadelphia Flyers. It was with the Flyers in his final season of 1996-97 that he came closest to the Stanley Cup when the Flyers were swept in the final by the Detroit Red Wings. He will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest all-time NHL players, with Marcel Dionne and Eric Lindros in that conversation, to never win a Stanley Cup.
Hawerchuk played long enough to enjoy the salary explosion in the NHL and earned almost $11 million through the course of his career. With that kind of nest egg, he could have been content to raise horses on his farm in retirement, which he did, but it speaks to Hawerchuk’s humility that he began his coaching career as an assistant with the Orangeville Crushers before moving on to the Barrie Colts. And as he did in Winnipeg, when the Jets improved by 42 points in his rookie season, Hawerchuk had an instant impact on his new team. The Colts were decimated when he arrived in 2010-11 and finished in last place, but improved by 54 points the next season.
“We knew we weren’t going to make the playoffs that first year, and I remember Dale saying, ‘Just give me once around the league,’ ” said Colts GM Jason Ford. “He wasn’t going to come in and direct everything and tell everybody what to do like he had everything figured out. He was a good listener and learner and by his second season, we improved by 50-plus points and then we’re competing for a championship.”
Along the way, Hawerchuk had a hand in developing a good number of NHL players, among them Mark Scheifele, Andrei Svechnikov, Aaron Ekblad and Tanner Pearson. Ford went to visit Hawerchuk for the last time over the weekend and said that former players were constantly coming and going. Ford said he and Hawerchuk were watching the Carolina-Boston game and Hawerchuk was remarking on how fresh the players looked because of the layoff. “And just as he says that, Svechnikov goes down,” Ford said.
Dale Hawerchuk was just 57 years old and leaves a wife and three children, and, as the NHL said in its statement, “countless teammates and fans who were fortunate enough to see him play and call him a friend.”
– With a file from Brian Costello