WINNIPEG — Dale Hawerchuk is gone way too young. That cannot be argued after the 57-year-old succumbed to stomach cancer on Tuesday.
When it comes to the matter of the legacy the Winnipeg Jets legend had forged, that was cemented a long, long time ago.
A Hall of Famer on the ice, Hawerchuk was an even better person — and that’s saying something.
The tributes poured in on Tuesday, with former teammates, players he coached and others whose lives he touched sharing plenty of heartfelt thoughts about their time together.
Within those numerous words was a common thread. A genuine love and appreciation was evident, as Hawerchuk cared an awful lot about those he came into contact with.
Those feelings were mutual and the bonds were lasting ones, right until the very end.
Hawerchuk showed incredible courage in fighting this deadly disease and in recent days he took the time to make a number of phone calls to say goodbye to many of his dearest friends. Those chats wouldn’t have been easy for either party, though the impact they’ll have is another testament to Hawerchuk and his character.
Hawerchuk was chosen first-overall by the Jets in 1981, a young phenom who blossomed into one of the best players of his era during a 16-year career.
No, the playoff success for the Jets during his tenure didn’t rival that of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but Hawerchuk was appreciated by his contemporaries as much as his teammates.
During a Zoom call on Tuesday, Jets governor Mark Chipman revealed the organization was planning to immortalize Hawerchuk’s career with a statue.
“Since we started the Jets Hall of Fame, we had anticipated doing a public display of the inductees, and we had some time ago decided we would anchor that off of one statue,” said Chipman, who shared the news with Hawerchuk last week on a call that also included Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger.
“And we had it clear in our mind that that honour belonged to Dale. I don’t have a timeline on exactly when that will occur, because everything is so much on hold and up in the air with this world we’re living in right now. But I’m really pleased we were able to share that with Dale and that we’ll be able to memorialize his incredible career and the impact he had on this community in a significant way.”
An emotional Chipman tried to put into words what it was like being a Winnipegger watching Hawerchuk in those early years in the NHL.
“Like many, I was fortunate to see Dale come into the league and we were all very much in awe of the fact the Winnipeg Jets had joined the NHL,” said Chipman. “It was Dale’s arrival that really cemented the future of the franchise and 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 why he was so loved here was not only that, but the fact he made this his home and became one of us. Everybody shared that sense of pride in Dale as a player. Those who got to know him would all say that as great of a player as he was, he was a finer human being. He was as advertised, that humble kid who came in here and did his talking with his game and never lost that humility, notwithstanding a Hall of Fame career.”
Hawerchuk’s Jets Hall of Fame banner was moved to True North Square on Tuesday night and a steady stream of fans took the time to stop by to pay their respects.
Many of those individuals were wearing Hawerchuk jerseys or T-shirts with his trademark No. 10 on the back. Some of them wept openly or shared a stashed-away memory of a day gone by with a friend.
Numerous pictures were taken in front of the banner and a video montage on the screen in the background caused many in attendance to take a nostalgic stroll down memory lane.
There was Hawerchuk signing his first contract with the late John Ferguson at his introductory press conference at Portage and Main.
There were classic photos of Hawerchuk from his time with the Cornwall Royals, All-Star shots of him representing the Campbell Conference, some memorable moments from his time suiting up with Team Canada and other photos from his nine seasons with the Jets.
There were also shots of him participating in the 2016 Heritage Classic, scoring a goal in the alumni-game victory over the Edmonton Oilers in a scene that was not exactly reminiscent of those 1980s dynasty years.
About the only thing missing on this night was an impromptu street hockey game like the one that broke out at Portage and Main on the night news broke of the Jets returning via relocation from Atlanta back in late May of 2011.
Hawerchuk always exuded his pride for the place he called home, even after he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres.
When the NHL returned to Winnipeg, Hawerchuk helped bridge the gap between Jets 1.0 and Jets 2.0. He was a frequent visitor to the downtown arena in Winnipeg and when he was shown on the video board, fans rose to their feet and let out a boisterous roar.
Hawerchuk was quick to embrace being part of the Jets’ alumni, while also serving as a valuable resource for current players.
“It was comforting to know he was in our corner and that he shared our enthusiasm for bringing the game back to Winnipeg,” said Chipman. “He knew how regarded he was and I think he really cherished that and never took it for granted. Right to the end, he was just continuing to do the things that he always did to make people feel good.”
Current Jets captain Blake Wheeler weighed in with his thoughts about Hawerchuk on social media.
“My thoughts are with the Hawerchuk’s,” Wheeler shared on Twitter. “Dale is the greatest Jet to ever play in this city. I will forever cherish the advice he has given me over the years.”
Hawerchuk’s impact on Jets centre Mark Scheifele is well-documented and the former Barrie Colts star reiterated one of the greatest lessons he learned from his head coach during a season-ending Zoom call last week.
“Dale Hawerchuk told me this my first year with him, he said, ‘Watching the NHL is an education. It’s a school class on its own. You can learn from the best players in the world every single day,’” said Scheifele. “I’ve taken that to heart ever since he told me that and now that’s maybe 12 years ago. I’m thankful for that lesson.”
Hawerchuk taught many players valuable lessons about the game he loved and about life in general. That’s another critical part of his legacy.
Hawerchuk also provided numerous not-so-subtle reminders about everything that is good about the place those of us call home here in Manitoba.
He’s one of the greatest athletes to play in this community and it’s hard to imagine there being a bigger ambassador for the province.
Hawerchuk is one of us, and his contributions both on and off the ice won’t ever be forgotten.
“Dale was a humble guy. He was a regular guy. What you saw was what he was,” said Chipman. “Winnipeg is — I think we pride ourselves in the fact that there’s not a lot of pretense in this community. We are who we are and we don’t try to be something we’re not and we’re proud of that. And that was Dale as well.
“He was just who he was. He told me many, many times how proud he was to be a Manitoban — that he considered himself to be a Manitoban. And it’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to actually have been one. He lived here.
“This was his home for a long stretch and long after he left, he stayed really connected and I think that just resonated with people here. So you had this bonafide superstar whose persona just kind of fit with what we are about here in this city and province.”