Oh, what must have been going through Dale Hawerchuk’s mind on Aug. 13, 1981.
The 18-year-old stood at the corner of Winnipeg’s Portage and Main — the site supreme for public spectacles in the city — in front of nearly 1,000 Winnipeg Jets’ fans, who’d flocked to the heart of downtown over the lunch hour just to watch him sign a piece of paper.
The fresh-faced, mop-headed teen looked “like Prince Charming in a dark blue suit,” a Winnipeg Free Press article from the time noted, and — despite 2,000 eyes cast squarely upon him — was “composed” as he signed a five-year contract and displayed the number 10 jersey he’d don over a decade of domination.
“People have been wishing me good luck all day,” he told the Free Press’ Reyn Davis. “Everyone seems anxious to get the season going. Just like I am. They’ve got the fever already.”From ‘Hawerchuk signing signals hockey fever,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 08/13/81.
The fans had the fever for good reason. The young man expected to bring their fledgling franchise to new heights had arrived.
Hawerchuk passed away on Aug. 18, 2020, at age 57 after a battle with stomach cancer. In his honour, here’s a look back at “Ducky’s” outstanding rookie campaign that followed the hoopla at the iconic intersection.
“He Was the Man in That Town”
The Jets’ first and only first-overall pick, Hawerchuk was feted as a once-in-a-generation player, a can’t miss superstar capable of single-handedly turning a franchise into a contender.
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And did the Jets ever need a foundational player to build upon. Their first two seasons since joining the NHL after the 1979 NHL-WHA Merger were fraught with futility.
They’d only won 29 out of their first 160 games as a franchise, and captured just nine — yes, that’s right, nine — victories in 1979-80. That made them the league’s worst team by a long shot, but also granted them the privilege of selecting first overall.
Hawerchuk had just completed his second season with the Cornwall Royals, a season in which he eviscerated his competition.
He potted 81 goals and added 102 assists for 183 points in just 71 games for the QMJHL team, and led them to their second-straight Memorial Cup by recording 15 goals and 20 assists for 35 points in 19 playoff games and being named Cup MVP.
No wonder fans were excited to see what the reigning CHL player of the year could do to help the Jets — who had soared to the final WHA championship just two seasons before — lift off again.
“There’s no denying it, he was the man in that town,” former teammate Dave Babych told the Winnipeg Free Press on Aug. 18. “We knew things were going to turn around with our team, but not as drastically as when Dale came. It was instant.”From ‘Tributes pour in for humble Jet who grew into superstar,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 08/18/2020.
A Rookie Season for the Ages
“Dale came into the league with a lot of fanfare, and it was justified,” Randy Carlyle, former Jets’ defenceman and teammate of Hawerchuk’s for seven seasons between 1983 and 1990, told the Free Press.
There was no adjustment period for the Toronto-born Hawerchuk. He took the league by storm and shattered even the highest of expectations.
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Hawerchuk made his much-anticipated debut on Oct. 6, 1981 versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was kept off the scoresheet, but fans didn’t have to wait long to see him pop off.
Three days later, on Oct. 9 against the New York Rangers at Winnipeg Arena, he scored the first goal of his career. Just 54 seconds in, he zoomed into the offensive zone, shook his defender with a fake slap shot, then rifled one past Steve Baker, stick side. An impressive goal and just a taste of the things to come.
He recorded two goals and two assists that game, the first of 31 multi-point nights on the season for a Jets team that improved by 24 wins and 48 points.
Some other notable accomplishments include his first hat trick — on Oct. 25 against the Los Angeles Kings — and his first five-point effort — On March 13 against the Maple Leafs at Maple Leafs Gardens.
While his accomplishments were overshadowed by a player you may have heard of named Wayne Gretzky — who recorded 212 points for the Edmonton Oilers that season — by the time the Jets played their final regular season game in early April, the slippery, versatile, and reliable Hawerchuk was a star in his own right; a player who understood the game at a deep level despite his young age.
A second-period tally in a 7-5 win on March 30 against the Minnesota North Stars pushed his point total to triple digits, and he finished up with 103.
His 45 goals surpassed Marcel Dionne’s record for most goals by a rookie centre by six.
Humble Hawerchuk Led Jets to Playoff Berth, Captured Calder Memorial Trophy
Less than a year after being selected, Hawerchuk was already the heart and soul of the Jets and the main reason they finished second in the Norris Division (with a 33-33-14 record) and qualified for the NHL postseason for the first time. He led the team in scoring, with 12 more points than Morris Lukowich.
Unfortunately, the Jets lost three games to one to the St. Louis Blues in the first round. Hawerchuk did his part, though, recording a goal and seven assists in the four games.
The campaign culminated in Hawerchuk winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He received 46 first-place votes, 39 more than his closest rival, Barry Pederson.
His trademark humility and grace that so many, in their messages and statements of tribute they’ve made in the wake of his passing, were already on display as he accepted the award in Montreal.
“It was a good year for rookies,” he said. “So many did well.”From ‘Hawerchuk’s Prayer Heeded,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 06/09/82)
That’s one of the reasons Hawerchuk was so beloved in Winnipeg, and one of the reasons so many in the city are paying him tribute by laying sticks, pucks, photos, flowers, and candles in front of his #10 banner that was moved to True North Square.
He was an immense talent but didn’t put on airs or seek the spotlight. As True North Sports & Entertainment Executive Chairman and Jets’ co-owner Mark Chipman put it:
“He was as advertised — that humble kid who came through here and did all of his talking with his game and never lost his sense of humility, notwithstanding a Hall of Fame career. Right to the last couple of days, he just was Dale. Obviously, I think we’ll all remember his achievements on the ice, but I’m just going to remember him as a wonderful friend.”From ‘Tributes pour in for humble Jet who grew into superstar,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 08/18/2020.
Rookie Season Was Just the Beginning For Hawerchuk
The 1981-82 season was just the beginning of Hawerchuk’s storied career. He registered 379 goals and 929 points with the Jets over nine seasons, had five more 100-plus point campaigns, reached the 50-goal mark in 1984-85, and served as captain between 1984 and 1989.
In 2017, the Jets honoured their first-ever 50-goal guy by inducting him into their Hall of Fame and raising his banner to the Bell MTS Place rafters. Now, there are plans in place to erect a statue in his honour at True North Square.
Indeed, Hawerchuk put the Jets on the map when he burst onto the scene, and his impact on the franchise will last for generations. He was a great player from the get-go, and a great man until the end.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.