Dale Hawerchuk Q&A: Jets vs. Leafs, solving McDavid, dangers of speed

Scott Oake sits down with Wayne Gretzky and Dale Hawerchuk as the Oilers and Jets prepare to face off at the Heritage Classic.

Dale Hawerchuk knows firsthand both the thrills and dangers of this game.

After skating in 1,188 NHL contests and piling up 1,409 points (only 19th most all-time), the Hall of Famer stays involved. As head coach of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, he helped mold current Jets No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele and was forced to strategize ways to stifle Connor McDavid when he was tearing up junior.

The 54-year-old marvels at the speed of today’s hockey but is well aware of the repercussions it can bring. So this past weekend he devoted his time to the Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer’s in support of Baycrest.

North America’s largest on-ice charity hockey tournament gives hundreds of fans a chance to lace ’em up alongside NHL alumni like Hawershuk to raise money for care, education and innovation in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease. The tournament has raised more than $30 million for the Baycrest Foundation.

We sat down with the Winnipeg Jets legend at the tournament to discuss what it's like mingling with beer-leaguers and to get his take on the current Jets, the old Smythe Division clashes, draft night, the Sidney Crosby concussion, and being left off the NHL's 100 greatest list.

SPORTSNET.CA: Why is it important for you to be part of this Pro-Am?
DALE HAWERCHUK: I was here when they first started. It’s incredible how much money they raise and the scale of the event. Just to organize it is something else. An incredible fundraiser for Baycrest. A lot of guys who played that are in the area, they always like to be part of it. This is a big event in Toronto.

So, what's it like for you skating with average Joes for charity? What kinds of questions do the guys ask?
Who’s the toughest guy you ever played against? Who’s the best goalie? What’s the best road town? Of course, they all want to know how you made it. Some of the guys have always been rec players, but some played at a junior level, and they want to know what separated you to make it. The funny part is, when you play with guys who were pretty good juniors and the rest of the team knows it, they think they’ll go out there and show ’em. Then when they play with the [NHL alumni], they realize, "Whoa, they’re a notch above." They see why their buddy didn’t make it. For the most part, the guys just love it. They love seeing a former player make plays on the ice but also get some insight into what makes them tick, or get their opinion on the current players. The dressing room is pretty fun.

What is your take on the current Jets?
I like ’em. They had a year when it just didn’t happen. I always say to people, “You gotta find your mojo and run with it.” Toronto! They had a great year. Got their mojo and ran with it. And when you have it, you have to make hay. It’s harvest time. Bring it in. Because you never know what’s going to happen next year. You get into injuries, guys have off years, goaltending issues. So, to me, Toronto and Winnipeg were on opposite ends of the spectrum. One found their mojo, the other didn’t.

"In Winnipeg, we hoped the guy playing NCAA could step right in. In Philly, they just went and traded for Paul Coffey."

That’s how it is in the NHL these days. Look at the upper-echelon teams: How do you pick the winner? Tough call. There was a time before the [salary] cap where you knew the teams going for it could buy guys. The difference between Winnipeg and Philly was, in Winnipeg, we hoped the guy playing NCAA could step right in. In Philly, they just went and traded for Paul Coffey. That was the difference back then. With the cap, you can trade some of your future, but so much depends on who gets their mojo going. Pittsburgh—they’ve had it for a while and they’re running with it. When you don’t have it, you gotta find it. I don’t think Winnipeg got it together. It’s timing: When your goalie’s struggling, you gotta be scoring. The good teams do that. Everyone thought [Frederik] Andersen was struggling at the beginning of the year, but the team was scoring goals—kept them in it.

Who sticks out to you in today’s NHL? Maybe name someone less obvious than Connor and Sid.
Well, I saw Connor a lot coaching against him in Barrie. Pretty special player. Crosby, too. We’re starting to see what [Ryan] Getzlaf can do. He’s a real gamer. People ask me who I cheer for, and you have a closeness with the teams you played for. But honestly, I just love watching a good game. Jonathan Toews is the epitome of a great centreman. He’s the Bryan Trottier of this era. Not because they’ve won Cups, just the way they played. So selfless, but they’ve had good wingers. When I teach my kids, I say, “Let’s watch video on Jonathan Toews. That’s how you play in your own end. If you want to learn positioning, he’s the guy."

So was Toews your model for Mark Scheifele when you coached him in Barrie?
Schief’s on his way there. Some people say I’m a players’ coach, I’m an offensive coach, I’m a creative coach, whatever. I never want to take that way from a player. The guys who play for me know it all starts before they get the puck. If you’re not good defensively, you don’t get the amount of touches you want to get. Mark has learned that so well. Each year in our league he got better and better. Now I watch him in the pros, he’s one of the top centres in the league. If you want to be the best, you have to keep pushing yourself. He’s a pusher.

Do you still speak with Scheifele much?
Once in a while. He was the dream kid coming into junior hockey. His attitude surpasses so many people’s. He loves walking into the rink, grinning ear to ear, and can’t wait to work hard. He almost makes the coach’s job easier because he pushes the pace all the time, and everyone tries to keep up. People don’t know this: They think I really steered Winnipeg onto Mark. No. Winnipeg called me once. They said, “We just interviewed this kid. Is he really for real?” That was their only question. I said, “Oh, yeah. He’s the real deal.” He blows you away when you meet him—you see the passion in his personality, and he brings it out in his game.

"When I teach my kids, I say, 'Let’s watch video on Jonathan Toews.' "

You went first overall in 1981. Describe draft day.
Special. All through that year I was rated to go first. We didn’t have the social media, but my teammates would joke around. The odd article would come out in the Montreal Gazette or something—I played in Cornwall [Ont.]—that said, “Oh, Buffalo’s trying to get the first pick from Winnipeg.” So I’d go to my stall, and they’d put a Sabres logo on my stall that day. Or Montreal’s rumoured, and a Canadiens logo would be on my stall. It was funny leading up to it. Just a few days before the draft, Winnipeg called my agent, Gus Bidali, and said, “We’re taking him.”

Were you still nervous?
I was. I didn’t know [Jets GM] John Ferguson. We talked the day before and shook hands. If you know John Ferguson, when he shakes your hand, that’s his word. He meant that. But as they’re coming to the pick, you’re like, “I wonder if they traded it...” It’s in your mind. It was exciting. John Ferguson was huge to me—the morals he had, the passion he had for the game. He’s not with us anymore. He’s one guy I miss. I could always lean on his shoulder.

So how did it feel to get traded to Buffalo in that 1990 blockbuster?
I was fine with it at that point. It was a different regime. There were a lot of things going on that weren’t the same when Ferguson was there, so it was a good change for me.

I had you making the NHL’s all-time 100 greatest list. How did you feel about not making that group?
A lot of people called wanting to interview me. I said, “Look. It’s 100 years. That’s one player a year.” There’s so many great players on the list; there’s so many great players off the list. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It would’ve been an honour, for sure. It’s not going to change my life.

Did you hear from any peers saying you should’ve been included?
Well, a lot of people that were there came back and told me that a lot of the [top 100] guys were saying that. You know what? Everyone’s got their opinion. It is what it is. I watched it; it was great. I loved all those players. I was a student of the game. I love the history of the game. Those old guys—they were great players. How can you argue with that?

OK, let's go back to McDavid for a second. How do you even begin to game-plan kids for Connor?
Tell you a funny story. We always talked about angling him. Force him one way. Keep him to the outside. Don’t let him cut back. Once he cuts back, you have to check him and find where the wingers are, and find the D supporting the rush. It’s dangerous. Not easy to do. We were up 5-3 late in an exhibition game, and he came and scored or set up to tie it up, then he scored in the shootout to win it. Somebody was asking our European goalie about Connor McDavid after he had, like, five points that night. The goalie said, “Well, McDavid’s at a certain level, but I’m on a higher level.” Somebody tweeted later: “Yeah, I guess you are. Your jock strap’s up in the rafters.” [laughing] That’s what this guy does, and he does it at the NHL level. His speed. Think how fast the game is. Who thought someone could be that much quicker than the rest? It’s like Bobby Orr when he broke in. And his vision’s like Gretz—sees everybody on the ice. Pretty good release. Mario had that release, that quick snap shot.

See that ankle-breaking pivot and snipe he pulled on the Ducks in this series?
He used to play in a summer hockey league here with OHL guys. He was worth the price of admission, and it was free to get in. [laughs] Some of the stuff he’d do was incredible, and it was on a nightly basis. Only a select few like him come along.

Ever wonder how far your Jets would've gone if they weren't in that Smythe Division when the Oilers and Flames were also at their best? Did you question playoff alignment?
At that stage of your career, you’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about the challenge of beating these guys: If we get through, we can maybe win it. The hardest part about Edmonton people don’t realize? As high-octane as they were, come playoffs, they could shut it down pretty good. They could defend. You get a good offensive player and ask him to defend, he’ll be the best defensive player because he’s already thinking like the offensive guy. He knows how to shut him down. They used to do that; 8-6 wins became 3-2 or 2-1. Of course, they had Fuhr in net—money goalie. I played with Grant in the Canada Cups, and when you needed a big save, he gave it to you.

How much pride did you take in your defensive game in the '80s?
When you come in, you didn’t know it that well. You just competed hard. The more years you get, you understand it more. They get [defensive responsibility] at a younger age now. As you go on and you want to win a Cup, that part’s huge. It goes a long way on the ice; it goes a long way with your teammates. That’s how you get results.

"I’ve been in situations where I’ve been totally knocked out and I wake up in the dressing room."

Any thoughts on the Crosby hit?
I’ve seen a lot worse. It’s unfortunate. Whenever you lose your balance, you’re vulnerable. It’s like when McDavid got hurt [last season]. If he doesn’t lose his balance, nothing happens. The slash on Crosby was a little high, but we’ve seen worse slashes. Then he’s falling into [Matt Niskanen], who’s trying to make a play. I know he hit his stick, but Crosby’s knee-high at that point. His stick is down. Because the game is so fast, there are times when people lose their balance and become vulnerable. I’ve been in those situations, and you think back: How could I avoid that? I’ve been in situations where I’ve been totally knocked out and I wake up in the dressing room. Just because of a collision. Two guys turn and run into each other.

In those days, did you go right back into the game?
No. I broke my nose, broke my cheekbone. That was in Chicago. I went back to Winnipeg, got operated on, and was playing a week later.

Wow.
That’s the way it was, right? People don’t understand how fast and dangerous the game is. That’s why you pay people a lot of money to play that game. It’s a dangerous game.