Longtime Winnipeg Jets star Dale Hawerchuk dies after cancer battle

Dale Hawerchuk, a hockey phenom who became the face of the Winnipeg Jets en route to the Hall of Fame, has died at the age of 57 after a battle with cancer.

Longtime Winnipeg Jets star Dale Hawerchuk dies after cancer battle

Dale Hawerchuk, a hockey phenom who became the face of the Winnipeg Jets en route to the Hall of Fame, has died at the age of 57 after a battle with stomach cancer.

The Jets and Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, a team Hawerchuk coached, confirmed the death on Twitter on Tuesday. 

"After an incredibly brave and difficult battle with cancer, our dad has passed away. My family is so proud of him and the way he fought. #HawerchukStrong," Eric Hawerchuk, one of Dale and wife Crystal's three children, wrote on Twitter.

A teenage star, Hawerchuk was drafted first overall by the Jets in 1981. He went on to play nine seasons in Winnipeg and five in Buffalo before finishing up his distinguished 16-year NHL career with stints in St. Louis and Philadelphia.

Hawerchuk recorded 518 goals and 1,409 points in 1,188 regular-season games (he added 30 more goals and 99 assists in 97 playoff games).

"A low-maintenance superstar," said Craig Heisinger, Winnipeg's senior vice-president and director of hockey operations.

At five foot 11 and 190 pounds, Hawerchuk wasn't blessed with size or blistering speed. But the five-time all-star had a knack of getting to loose pucks and then creating something out of nothing. Hawerchuk could breeze past opponents and knew what to do when he neared the goal.

"I was fortunate to see Dale come into the league," Jets chairman Mark Chipman said Tuesday. "I think we were all still very much in awe of the fact the Winnipeg Jets had joined the National Hockey League. I think it was Dale's arrival that really cemented the future of the franchise and I think we all have recollections of that first year, that Calder (Trophy) year and then everything that would follow.

"He was truly a superstar as a hockey player, but I think why he was so loved here was not just that but largely the fact that he made this his home and became one of us. I think everybody shared that sense of pride in Dale's career as a player."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister added: "All Jets fans mourn the loss of one of the NHL's all time greatest players."

Former Jets star Teemu Selanne said he had a chance to talk to Hawerchuk on Monday and say goodbye.

"What an incredible human being," Selanne tweeted.

Montreal Canadiens associate coach Kirk Muller also had a chance to speak with Hawerchuk in recent days.

"I talked to Dale a few days ago, and we had a good chance to chat. A good friend, had a real good opportunity to play against one of the all-time best players. As a hockey player, we all know how great he was, but he was a good friend and just a really special person, did a lot for charities. It's a real loss for us in the hockey world."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Hawerchuk "one of the most decorated players in our game's history."

In September 2019, Hawerchuk took a leave of absence from coaching the Colts to undergo chemotherapy treatment.

"For some reason the Lord put me in this kind of fight and I'm ready to fight it," he told TSN in October 2019. "I want to live to tell the story."

Eric Hawerchuk said in July on Twitter that the cancer had returned after his dad completed chemotherapy in April.

Dale Hawerchuk, the longest-serving coach in Colts history, was going into his 10th season behind Barrie's bench. He had led the Colts to the playoffs in six of his nine previous seasons.

At Barrie, Hawerchuk coached the likes of Aaron Ekblad, Mark Scheifele, Tanner Pearson and Ryan Suzuki.

Calgary Flames players Andrew Mangiapane and Rasmus Andersson remembered playing for Hawerchuk in Barrie.

"I don't know where I'd be without him," said Mangiapane. "Very sad news today. I owe my career basically to him and the whole Barrie organization."

Andersson, from Sweden, said "Dale was a fantastic human being. Such a great person. My first week in Barrie he invited us over to his house and really just welcomed me to Canada. I cannot say enough good things about him as a person. Obviously a real good coach, too."

"It's awful news."

The NHL held a moment of silence for Hawerchuk before Tuesday's opening playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers in Toronto.

Born April 4, 1963, in Toronto, Hawerchuk grew up in nearby Oshawa, getting his first pair of skates at age two and playing competitively at four. As a peewee, he broke Guy Lafleur's record by scoring all eight goals in an 8-1 victory in the final of a tournament in Montreal.

At 15, he was offered a tryout by the Oshawa Generals. He ended up playing instead for the Oshawa Legionaires in the Metro Jr. B Hockey League in 1978-79.

Some 23 years later, he remembered his Oshawa days during his 2001 induction speech at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"I started my career just down the road in Oshawa here, maybe a 45-minute drive — well maybe a little further now with the traffic," he said. "I had many dreams and aspirations to make the National Hockey League. And I was very fortunate I got to live those dreams for 16 years in the National Hockey League."

"I enjoyed every city and organization I played in," he added.

Hawerchuk was highly touted coming into junior and was drafted sixth overall by the Cornwall Royals, who then played in the Quebec league but took part in the Ontario draft.

Hawerchuk led the Royals to back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1980 and '81 with teammates that included Scott Arniel, Marc Crawford, Dan Daoust and Doug Gilmour.

Hawerchuk was named Memorial Cup MVP in 1981 when he set a tournament record with eight goals and tied another with 13 points.

He collected 103 points in being named the QMJHL's top rookie. The next season, as a 17-year-old, he led the Quebec league in goals (81), assists (102) and points (183) when he was named Canadian major junior player of the year.

A grateful John Ferguson drafted Hawerchuk in 1981. Hawerchuk went to Winnipeg as an 18-year-old and spent nine years there, saying he felt like he grew up in the Manitoba capital.

The Jets had finished last in the league prior to drafting Hawerchuk, who signed his first pro contract before a bevy of Manitoba notables, including the mayor, at the corner of Portage and Main after arriving in a Brinks truck.

He did not disappoint. The teenager scored 45 goals and collected 103 points, was named rookie of the year — the youngest recipient at the time — and led Winnipeg to a 48-point improvement, the largest single-season turnaround in the NHL.

"Just one of the greatest. You could tell from day one. We knew from when he was 18 years old as a player that he would turn the (Jets) franchise around. Certainly one of the best I’ve ever played with and coached," said Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness, who played with and coached Hawerchuk in the '80s. 

He was the youngest player in NHL history to reach 100 points, a record broken by Sidney Crosby in 2006. No wonder his early career came with comparisons to Wayne Gretzky.

"He has the same instincts, that puck sense, of Gretzky," said Mike Doran, Winnipeg's director of player personnel in 1981.

In 1987, Hawerchuk made history with Gretzky at the Canada Cup in Hamilton. He won the faceoff in his own end that led to a Gretzky-Mario Lemieux rush and Lemieux's famous winning goal in a 6-5 victory that decided the tightly contested three-game series.

"It turned out fantastic," said Hawerchuk, who often answered Canada's call.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Jets were no more (the team was revived in Winnipeg in 2011). But he said the Jets "are etched in my mind every day that I live."

The franchise moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes. Eleven years later, Hawerchuk joined Bobby Hull and Thomas Steen on the Coyotes' ring of honour.

Hawerchuk re-wrote the Jets record book before being traded to Buffalo during the 1990 NHL draft. As an unrestricted free agent, Hawerchuk signed with the St. Louis Blues in 1995 before being dealt to Philadelphia whom he helped to the Stanley Cup final in 96-97 season, his final season.

Slowed down by a hip issue, he retired at the age of 34.

Hawerchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 along with Viacheslav Fetisov, Mike Gartner and Jari Kurri in the player category.

"It's like going back down memory lane," he said in his induction speech.

"All the experiences have been fantastic," he added. "I mean, sometimes they didn't feel so great. You had your highs and lows. But when I look back on it, I wouldn't change a thing ... Even though I didn't win a Stanley Cup, I still wouldn't change a thing. I think to ask for more would be greedy."

Known as Ducky by his teammates, Hawerchuk was inducted into the Jets' Hall of Fame prior to their game against the visiting Arizona Coyotes in November 2017.

"Tonight we fly Ducky's number high," said a tribute video, to the sounds of Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home," before his No. 10 was raised to the rafters.

"Please welcome home perhaps the greatest Jet of all time," said the PA announcer.

Hawerchuk played 713 games as a Jet, recording 379 goals and 929 points. He also served five seasons as captain.

"I've been to every part of (Manitoba), either golfing or playing (softball)," Hawerchuk said. "I've gotten to see Manitobans, seen their passion not only for their province and the game of hockey, but their passion for the Jets. I'm honoured and I'm very humbled."

After retiring, he became part of the ownership group of the Tier II junior Orangeville Crushers, stepping behind the bench in 2007 prior to joining Barrie.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2020.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press