In Memoriam: Dale Hawerchuk (1963 – 2020)

On Tuesday August 18th with the Philadelphia Flyers preparing to play Game 4 of their First Round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, the hockey world was floored by the news that Dale Hawerchuk had passed away at the age of 57.  Hawerchuk had battled valiantly against stomach cancer after being diagnosed in October of 2019.  After ringing the bell at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie, Ontario to signify an end to his chemotherapy treatments; there was hope that Hawerchuk had come through the difficult treatment process and would be able to resume his coaching position with the Barrie Colts of the OHL.  The cancer had other plans and returned aggressively only months later leading to his passing.

As a hockey fan, the news of Dale’s passing saddened me tremendously.  Hawerchuk was an early favorite player of mine as hockey began to take my interest growing up.  While many associate the NHL of the 1980’s with the dynasties of the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers, and superstars like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux; make no mistake that Dale Hawerchuk was indeed a bona fide superstar of that era and was the key reason why the Winnipeg Jets were able to survive the NHL’s merger with the World Hockey Association (WHA).

Let’s not mince words.  The WHA was a hated rival of the NHL.  In business, rivals had to be vanquished fully and completely to ensure total victory.  The Winnipeg Jets were the most successful franchise of the WHA, winning 3 Avco Cup Championships in 1976, 1978, and 1979 (the year that the WHA merged with the NHL).  The Jets also notoriously lured NHL superstar Bobby Hull to the WHA with the first ever $1 million dollar contract, and had other notable star players like Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. After massive financial difficulties it became clear that the WHA would not be able to survive.  When the NHL merger with the WHA occurred in 1979, the league added the New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets.  Only the Edmonton Oilers franchise still exists today as the only franchise to make it through to the present; as the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, and the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes.

Winnipeg was a storied WHA franchise, but in the NHL the team struggled mightily in the standings.  The Jets finished dead last in the NHL in their first two seasons including a franchise worst 9-57-14 record in the 1980-81 season.  Something magical was needed in order to turn the franchise around and provide hope to the rabid fans of the Jets.  With their awful season setting the franchise record for futility, the Jets were awarded the first overall selection in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft.  Future Hall of Fame players like Ron Francis, Chris Chelios, Grant Fuhr, and Al MacInnis were all available.  In the end, the Jets selected Dale Hawerchuk with the first overall selection and changed the direction of the franchise.

Check out this clip of Dale Hawerchuk’s career courtesy of the Winnipeg Jets.

As a junior player, Dale Hawerchuk played in the QMJHL for the Cornwall Royals for two seasons (a rarity for a player who was born in Toronto).  In his first season, he was named QMJHL Rookie of the year after scoring 103 points, won the QMJHL Championship, was named Playoff MVP, and won the Memorial Cup.  Can’t get any better than that right?  Well in his second and final season with Cornwall, Hawerchuk scored 81 goals and 102 assists for 183 points, a 2nd consecutive QMJHL Championship, a 2nd consecutive Memorial Cup, QMJHL Player of the Year, and was named Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year.

The first overall selection was clearly warranted, and the Jets eagerly signed and unveiled Hawerchuk to the Jets faithful in downtown Winnipeg as the cornerstone of the franchise.  The turnaround was immediate; the Jets had a 48-point turnaround in the standings and finished 2nd in the Norris Division.  Although the Jets exited the first round courtesy of the St. Louis Blues, Hawerchuk burst onto the scene with a 103 point rookie season and was a runaway winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1981-82.  He was also named as an NHL All-Star.

In succeeding seasons, Hawerchuk was an offensive force scoring over 100 points in six of his first seven seasons.  In 1984-85, Hawerchuk scored a career high 53 goals and 77 assists for 130 points.  Unfortunately for Hawerchuk, playoff success did not come as easily for the Jets as they only made it to the second round of the playoffs on two occasions (1985 and 1987).  The Winnipeg Jets always found themselves playing either the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky, or the Calgary Flames who also featured a very competitive team that were favorites to win the Stanley Cup in the late 1980’s.  In fact, Wayne Gretzky himself remarked that the Winnipeg Jets were a good team with Dale Hawerchuk and that goaltending was the only missing ingredient for them to be successful in the post-season.

In 1990, Hawerchuk was dealt by the Jets to the Buffalo Sabres in a package that saw the Sabres trade Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker and a draft pick that ended up being Keith Tkachuk.  Hawerchuk continued to be a productive player for Buffalo for five seasons, racking up at least 86 points in four of those years.  He hit a high of 98 points with the Sabres in 1991-92 and scored at least 30 goals twice. Injuries and the lockout in 1994-95 hampered his production.  Once again, Hawerchuk was not able to see his team past the second round of the playoffs.

As a free agent, Hawerchuk signed with the St. Louis Blues for the 1995-96 season and scored 41 points in 66 games.  He ended up being traded by the Blues during that first season in St. Louis to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Craig MacTavish.  In Philadelphia, Hawerchuk scored 20 points in 16 games as the Flyers were adding for a playoff push.  In that postseason, the Flyers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round but lost to the Florida Panthers in the second round.  The following year, Hawerchuk scored 34 points in 51 games and was named an All-Star for the 5th time in his career (albeit as a Commissioner’s selection).  Hawerchuk had the greatest opportunity to win the elusive Stanley Cup that he had been chasing that season with he Flyers, as they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, and New York Rangers on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1997.  Unfortunately for Hawerchuk and the Flyers, Philadelphia would get swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four games.     

Coming so close to the games ultimate prize, Hawerchuk decided to hang up his skates following that defeat due to a nagging hip injury.  Hawerchuk played in the NHL for 16 seasons scoring an incredible 518 goals and 891 assists for 1409 points in 1188 games.  Dale Hawerchuk’s career outside the NHL is storied and rich as well.  Hawerchuk played in both the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cup tournaments and was a key contributor in helping Canada to win those championships.  In particular, Game 3 of the 1987 tournament was memorable as Hawerchuk was named the game MVP for scoring 1 goal and 2 assists against the U.S.S.R. in the deciding game of the series.  One of those assists was on one of the greatest goals in Canadian hockey history as Dale Hawerchuk took the faceoff in his own zone on a line alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.  Hawerchuk won he faceoff getting the puck to Lemieux, who raced down the ice with Wayne Gretzky in a two on one that could only be described as a goaltender’s worst nightmare.  Lemieux’s goal is an iconic moment in Canadian hockey history rivalled only by Henderson’s goal in the 1972 Summit Series, and Sidney Crosby’s ‘Golden Goal’ at the 2010 Olympic Games.

In many ways, that goal in 1987 is very emblematic of Hawerchuk’s hockey career; there were other more dominant superstars in his era, but Dale was an unbelievable star in his own right that allowed for other stars around him to shine even brighter.  Teemu Selanne is the greatest goal scorer in Winnipeg Jet’s history, but without hesitation there can be no doubt that Dale Hawerchuk is the greatest player.  He turned a franchise around as an 18 year old, and was beloved and revered by the passionate fans of Winnipeg.  He loved being a Jet as well, embracing the fans and the community as though he were never meant to be anywhere else.  While he made stops in four different NHL cities during his career, it is Winnipeg that most identifies with Dale Hawerchuk.  After all, the Jets fans already had nicknamed him ‘Ducky’ when he first put on the Jets uniform.  Dale also proudly proclaimed that of all the things the city of Winnipeg did for him, the greatest gift of all was meeting his wife Crystal there.  Hawerchuk gave much of his time towards charities such as the Easter Seals campaign, and raised money for many other charitable organizations through the golf tournaments that he ran in both Muskoka and Manitoba on a regular basis. 

Dale Hawerchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.  He has continued to be directly associated with the game as he has been the Head Coach of the Barrie Colts of the OHL since 2010.  It is always tragic to see someone who shone so brightly fade away far too early.  The Flyers have seen current and past players battle against cancer far too often recently; as evidenced by the examples of Oskar Lindblom, Jack McIlhargey, and now Dale Hawerchuk.  He is survived by his wife Crystal and his children Ben, Eric, and Alexis.  Condolences, thoughts, and prayers to all of Dale’s family and friends during this terribly difficult time.  The hockey world has lost a star and a legend, but those that knew Dale Hawerchuk on a personal level lost far more. 

Please consider supporting the charity set up in Dale’s name that will support many of the causes that were near and dear to the Hawerchuk family.  Check out their website at www.hawerchukstrong.com.

Rest in peace Ducky. 

         

***

What do you think about the article?

Feel free to leave any comments or feedback via twitter or at www.brotherlypuck.com.  .

Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,

I remain,

Manny Benevides

@mannybenevides

photo credit: nhl.com

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