After a long battle with cancer, NHL legend and Hall of Fame member Dale Hawerchuk left this world on August 18, 2020. He left behind a legacy that will affect the game of hockey for years and possibly decades to come. For me personally, his passing carries a little bit of extra sadness. Hawerchuk was one of the first players that helped me fall in love with the game of hockey.
A Personal Story
Hawerchuk has been synonymous with “hockey” for me for about as long as I can remember. My parents didn’t have cable until after I went off to college, so growing up in South Jersey, what little regular season hockey I got to watch was the Philadelphia Flyers on WPHL17. I had a little TV in my room with a “rabbit ear” antenna that I had to fiddle with to make the games come in clear enough to see the puck. The first hockey game I can clearly remember watching on TV was around 1991 and it was between the Flyers and Buffalo Sabres. I can remember hearing “Hawerchuk” said a lot along with some guy named “Andreychuk” and a kid named “Mogilny”.
For my 8th birthday, I got a Sega Genesis with NHLPA 93. Immediately upon firing it up, I selected the Sabres and made myself a line of Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Hawerchuk. As I got older, and I got newer versions of the NHL video games where they let you trade players and build rosters, Hawerchuk was a guy that I had to have on every team I built. The steady, sure-handed center always anchored my 2nd line, no matter which team I ran through the 1995-96 season with. He won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils many times in my video game land.
I didn’t get to watch him a lot until his final season when he played for the Flyers. By that point he’d gotten a bit slower and time had stolen much of the player he once was. But, the sure-handedness was still there. Even though his hips ultimately failed him, the steady, sure hands capable of utter wizardry with a hockey stick never did. I remember an almost business-like approach to his game.
Play responsibly without the puck, try to get the puck, and then try to make something good happen once you’ve got it. I was sad when he retired but at the same time, the young hockey fan in me was glad to go back to hating the Flyers full time. It did seem wrong though that the closest he ever came to hoisting the Stanley Cup was in that final season when the Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
It wasn’t until I got much older that I began to realize how great of a player it had been my privilege to watch. Growing up in the 1990s made that true for a lot of hockey players, but with Hawerchuk it felt like I had missed so much more. He was so good when I got to see him and I didn’t even see him at his best. I can only say I remember him as a Sabre and a Flyer, but Hawerchuk carved most of his NHL legacy during his earlier days in Winnipeg.
In 9 seasons with the original Winnipeg Jets, Hawerchuk amassed 929 points in 713 regular-season games. He missed a total of 7 games during the hard-hitting 1980s. After being picked 1st overall, in his rookie season of 1981-82, he won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year and helped lead his Jets to a first-round playoff loss against the St. Louis Blues. It’s worth mentioning that there wasn’t a draft lottery in those days, so the Jets picked him 1st overall because they had been the worst team in the league the previous year.
They won 9 games in an 80-game season, finishing 9-57-14. So profound was his effect on the ice that he helped carry the team to the playoffs with a 33-33-14 record. Hawerchuk’s 103 points led the team and in 2nd place, Morris Lukowich saw the best statistical season of his NHL career with 92 points.
In 8 of his 9 seasons in Winnipeg, the Jets made the playoffs. In those days of the 1980s, the Campbell Conference was a meat grinder in the playoffs. After the 1982 loss to St. Louis, the Jets found themselves suffering a defeat at the hand of the Edmonton Oilers 6 times from 1983-1990. In 5 of those years, the Oilers went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Winnipeg’s senior vice-president and director of hockey operations, Craig Heisinger once coined the term “low-maintenance superstar” for Hawerchuk. The nickname kinda stuck with him. I found no readily available historical accounts of him ever being anything less than a model player for every team he played for, known especially for his humility.
Even repeated thrashings by the Oilers in the playoffs never prompted the superstar to speak out publicly. For much of his time in Winnipeg, he was the primary offensive producer; Paul MacLean had some good years with Hawerchuk, and Thomas Steen had a couple of good seasons during that time. Hawerchuk soldiered on, put points on the board, and did everything he could do to try to help his team win hockey games. What more could a team ask for?
Impact After Playing Days Were Done
In his post-NHL years, Hawerchuk was a willing contributor and interviewee for TSN. He came up often on NHL-related top 10 specials. But where his post-NHL impact will be felt the most will be from his time coaching junior hockey in the OHL.
From 2010-2019, Hawerchuk was the head coach of the Barrie Colts of the OHL. There are currently 15 NHL players who once called him “Coach” and that number will likely be added to in the coming years. Considering Tyson Foerster is 2020 draft-eligible and could go in the 1st round, Hawerchuk’s direct influence on the NHL could last for the next 15 years or more. If any of his former players go on to be coaches themselves, his influence could extend even further. It would not be strange for echoes of his influence on the game to carry on for decades yet to come.
RELATED: Dale Hawerchuk Trade Revisited
The man they called “Ducky” will be mourned by many throughout the game. For me, it’s a bittersweet moment to be here writing this article about him. Hawerchuk helped begin my love affair with the sport of hockey, and without him, I might not be doing this. But in truth, he was so much bigger than that. He put Winnipeg on the hockey map, he won the faceoff that led to the Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux goal in the 1987 Canada Cup, he scored 518 regular-season goals and assisted on 891.
He spent his entire life devoted to the game. During his last days, he called many of his old friends and former teammates to tell them of his worsened condition and to talk to them. That final gesture alone tells you where hockey lived in this man’s heart. His friends, fans, former teammates, and former players all gained something from having him be a part of their lives. The game of hockey is going to miss him dearly. Thankfully, he left us quite a legacy to remember him by.