Hawerchuks legacy of caring endures through Scheifele, Jets

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Not only was Hawerchuk a Hockey Hall of Famer as a player, he became a junior coach who influenced the careers of several NHL players, including Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele.

“We got to know him, we got to learn from him,” Scheifele said. “It’s the 12-year-old kid that won’t have the chance to learn from him, that gets drafted to Barrie (of the Ontario Hockey League) but won’t get to learn from Dale, I feel sorry for the kids who aren’t going to get that opportunity. That’s what makes me sad.”

Hawerchuk scored 1,409 points (518 goals, 891 assists) in 1,188 regular-season games for with the Jets, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers during 16 seasons (1981-1997). The No. 1 pick of the 1981 NHL Draft by the Jets had 99 points (30 goals, 69 assists) in 97 Stanley Cup Playoff games and was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

Following his retirement, Hawerchuk raised show-jumping horses before becoming coach of Barrie. After nine seasons coaching Barrie, he stepped away from the job after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in August 2019. He rang the Bell of Hope at a Barrie hospital after successfully completing his chemotherapy treatments April 13, but the cancer returned in late July. He was 57 when he died.

Video: Hall of Fame Center Dale Hawerchuk passes at 57

At the start of Hockey Fights Cancer month, Scheifele said the impact of Hawerchuk’s mentorship being cut short will be felt for some time because it was so powerful.

“He did things very quietly,” Scheifele said. “I know guys that played for him, and we all talked when he passed away, and it was just amazing what he did for all of us. Every single guy was like, ‘Yep, best coach I’ve ever had by far,’ or ‘Amazing guy.’ Not a bad word. One my buddies is Erik Bradford, who actually got traded by Barrie. He might have had a sour taste in his mouth but did not. He always says, ‘No, Dale will be an untouchable in my books for the rest of my life. He even traded me, but that’s how much respect I have for him and how much he taught me and how much he did in my life.’ That’s what Dale was.

“We all got lucky, me, Tanner Pearson, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Bradford, Colin Behenna, every guy that played for him, we were the lucky ones.”

Scheifele is a major element of Hawerchuk’s legacy, in Barrie and in Winnipeg in particular, a franchise center who was mentored by a franchise center.

Less than a month after their relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg, the Jets selected Scheifele with the No. 7 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. He had decided to play for Barrie after one meeting with Hawerchuk in the summer of 2010, not long after the team had acquired his OHL rights in a trade from Saginaw.

“It’s funny to say, but it was almost love at first sight,” Scheifele said. “He spoke my language. I thought, ‘This is the guy I want to play for.’ I was committed to Cornell [University] at the time and I was pretty adamant on going there, and all of a sudden, I talked to Dale and I felt like I had to go play for this guy, that I’d go to war for this guy. This guy is going to teach me how to become an NHLer, and I was pretty much sold from that day on. … That meeting will always be in my memory banks.”

The relationship with Scheifele was a precursor of connections and reconnections to come, each part of the foundation of Hawerchuk’s legacy.

Hawerchuk already was an icon of the Jets’ past, having won the Calder Trophy voted as NHL rookie of the year in 1981-82. He was captain of the original Jets from 1984-90 and had his best NHL season in 1984-85, when he scored 130 points (53 goals, 77 assists) in 80 games.

Hawerchuk left the Jets in a trade to the Sabres on June 16, 1990, and the original Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix in 1996.

Video: Remembering Dale Hawerchuk: Royal Round Tribute

Between 1996 and 2011, Winnipeg had teams in the now-defunct International Hockey League and the American Hockey League. True North Sports and Entertainment, headed by Mark Chipman and David Thomson, then purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and moved them to Winnipeg in 2011.

Hawerchuk again became a figure associated with the Jets.

“He’s given us our history back,” said Chipman, who is Jets executive chairman. “He’s bridged the two eras, the first 17 (years in the NHL) and now us going into Year 10 in an elegant and seamless way. He’s the connection for us. And there are other players as well who have been wonderful, but Dale really took pride in being that for us.

“I think I came to learn after the fact that he was really excited about the prospect of a team coming back here because he said to me one day that he kind of felt like a ship without a harbor, so to speak, that the Jets were the most significant part of his playing career and his maturation as a player and a person.”

As the Jets established themselves after the relocation, the desire increased to build a bridge to honor past Jets and involve alumni. Even though it was from a different franchise, that remained part of the city’s history.

The main section of the bridge was Hawerchuk, who played a big part at the 2016 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic outdoor game between the Jets and Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field, including the alumni game that was part of the weekend.

“In my observation, the most credible guy to do that with was Dale, beloved by his teammates and respected in our community,” Chipman said. “I felt very fortunate that this friendship had matured to the point where I could say, ‘Hey, we really would like to build this around you, frankly, and do it against the Oilers and invite Wayne [Gretzky] and that crew.’ When he agreed to do that, it gave me the confidence to reach out to Wayne, who was equally gracious. But the first thing he asked was whether Dale was involved, which was a real signal to me to the extent of the respect that was shared between those two players.

“And it just kind of took off from there. We’re benefitting from it to this day. So Dale was instrumental in helping us reconnect to that era and reestablishing our alumni.”

Video: EDM@WPG: Gretzky and Hawerchuk drop the opening puck

Regardless of the era, there were constants about Hawerchuk.

He was encouraging, caring and humble no matter his role, player, coach or father, his oldest son Eric said.

“Coaching in Barrie, it became a real big part of his life and our family,” said Eric, a 31-year-old professional golfer. “He really enjoyed that, watching these kids grow, not just as hockey players, but as young men. I thought it seemed like raising a bunch of teenagers at times. Coaching kids that age has to be very difficult, but he loved it.”

In recent years, Hawerchuk’s coaching path brought a whole new set of relationships, and whether a young player was bound for the NHL had no bearing on them, Eric said. He said his father emphasized hard work, dedication and humility — life skills, really, and qualities he’s been hearing about a lot from family, friends, former teammates and players who have reached out in the nearly three months since Dale’s fight ended.

Growing up, those were staples in the Hawerchuk house, where an elite NHL player did not see himself as anything but a good husband and father.

“I know he knew he was good, but he kind of always taught me, ‘You don’t tell other people how good you are. You let them tell you because if they’re not telling you, you’re probably not as good as you think,’ Eric said. “That always kind of stuck with me about him. I think plenty of people told him how good he was and he knew, but he would never, ever talk about it. It was always kind of a cool quality of his.”

After he successfully navigated his first cancer treatments in late 2019 and early this year, Hawerchuk hatched the idea of Hawerchuk Strong with his friends Andrew Jackson and John Webster as a way to continue charitable work that had included an annual golf tournament in Ontario since 2002.

The fundraising initiative will live on at Hawerchuk’s insistence, with Eric agreeing to take on his father’s role. Hawerchuk Strong aims to raise awareness and support the health care community in addition to Dale’s original goal of supporting charities that focus on children, like Easter Seals and the True North Youth Foundation.

“Dale kind of left it in our hands,” Eric said. “He didn’t want that to stop for these kids, and that will be a big part of our whole initiative going forward, helping them.”

Video: Crystal Hawerchuk announces Jets’ first-round pick

Perpetuating memories and Hawerchuk’s legacy will continue in numerous forms. In Winnipeg, for instance, the Jets have commissioned a bronze statue of Hawerchuk that will be placed in True North Square, just across the street from Bell MTS Place.

Hawerchuk was thrilled to hear that news just a few weeks before he died, Chipman said, not surprising because his genuineness never changed, even in the late going when the fight against cancer became an increasing struggle.

“I think he was concerned about his family, not himself, right to the very end,” Chipman said. “I don’t think there was any fear in his heart, never sensed that. Man, he fought. He really fought. The first go-round, he really, really fought hard, and there were some long days and weeks. I don’t even know how to sum this up. Unbelievable courage and strength and humility and then grace to accept this horrible outcome that he was facing.”

Hawerchuk will be remembered by many as the low-maintenance star, an enduring idea about his father that puts a smile on Eric’s face.

“I like that one,” Eric said. “He just kind of liked to really instill a sense of humbleness about what he had achieved. That’s a really cool way to go through life and I hope I can have a bit of that myself going forward. Just seeing my siblings and my mom, I’m proud of them and the way they’ve handled all of this. I know that I see a lot of his qualities in my whole family. I think he left behind a pretty cool legacy.”

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