‘He inspired us all to be better people’: Jets pay tribute to Hawerchuk

Watch as the Winnipeg Jets unveil a statue in honour of team legend Dale Hawerchuk in True North square outside of Canada Life Centre.

WINNIPEG — Somewhere, Dale Hawerchuk was smiling.

The man who served as the perfect bridge from the original Winnipeg Jets to the current edition was honoured Saturday afternoon with the unveiling of a statue of his likeness at the heart of True North Square, just outside the downtown arena.

The ceremony featured comments from a number of players from the Jets 1.0 era and a cameo from Edmonton Oilers great and fellow Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who played with Hawerchuk in the 1987 Canada Cup and became a close friend.

Hawerchuk’s family was well represented, with those in attendance including his parents and his three children — Eric, Ben and Alexis.

Dale’s wife Crystal received a standing ovation for her poignant words about the life he lived and the impact the community had on him.

“He inspired us all to be better people. Everyone loved to be around him. He was special,” said Crystal. “The talent that we saw on the ice shone through his heart. He was generous with his time. He made a difference in the lives of many, and this is why we will not forget him.

“This statue is a testament to the giving life he lived.”

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Jets co-owner and governor Mark Chipman lamented the fact Hawerchuk — who died of stomach cancer in August of 2020 — wasn’t in attendance to see the love and adulation from the thousands of fans on the scene or to hear the words of his teammates and friends.

“Honestly the emotion that always comes to mind when I take time to process all this is just gratitude,” Chipman said. “Just gratitude to be part of this, to have gotten to know him the way I did, for the way he embraced us, the support of this community that we have for this team — which I experienced the day he signed here.

“That pride welled up in me in 1981. I’ll never forget it. I’ve never lost that sense of pride for our community and what this team means to it. No one epitomized that, or created that sense of pride, in my lifetime more than Dale.”

Chipman took some solace in being able to relay the news of the plan for the statue with Hawerchuk before his passing.

“It was our hope that he’d be here today when we did this,” Chipman said. “His health declined very rapidly and we were advised of that. We thought the least we could do is tell him.

“I remember the emotion from Dale and how thankful he was.”

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Those words were well received, according to Hawerchuk’s oldest son Eric, who was in the room when the news was delivered over the phone.

“I didn’t know that’s what they were calling about,” Eric recalled on Saturday after the ceremony. “I remember when they told him, that was probably the most emotional I had seen my dad through his whole battle. It really meant so much to him.

“I don’t think he had ever considered the thought that they would do something like that for him because he’s a humble guy. I’ll never forget that phone call. That’s five minutes I will never forget.”

Speaking of gratitude, Jets centre Mark Scheifele shared his thoughts about their strong relationship, which began during a conversation when Hawerchuk convinced him to join the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League after he had committed to going to Cornell of the NCAA.

“Just, a teacher. He was the best coach I’ve ever had. I don’t think there’s many out there like him,” Scheifele said. “He was a guy that just wanted to teach guys, no matter if you were a first-line or a fourth-liner, whoever it was he wanted to teach you about how to get better or what to do on the ice. He would be on the ice showing you how to do it.

“Whether it was about school, whether it was about being at home, whatever it was, he always had lessons to be taught, and that was one thing that I was so lucky that taught me a lesson every single day. Like I said in my speech, I get to drive by this statue every day and remember all those lessons, and that’s a pretty amazing thing for me to now experience.”

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Scheifele was excited to be able to swap stories with several of Hawerchuk’s teammates during the weekend.

“It’s amazing. Hearing the stories and hearing people talk about Dale, it gives you the chills,” Scheifefle said. “Obviously I knew he meant a big deal to the city, but then to see a statue and hear all of his ex-teammates talk about him and reminisce about the days that they had with them, me being able to talk about the days I had with him. It’s one of those things, you wish he was still here. We all know he’s watching over us right now and that’s a pretty peaceful thing to think about.”

Just as the moment is etched in time for Eric, the statue will be something that catches the attention of folks who stop by to see it and sparks a variety of memories.

Whether you saw Hawerchuk play live, watched a highlight on TV or perhaps on YouTube or have been regaled with stories of his greatness, he was known as an even better person — which is high praise for someone who is in the Hall of Fame.

Jets head coach Rick Bowness remembers what it was like when Hawerchuk came onto the scene as the first overall pick in the 1981 NHL Draft.

“He steps on the ice and we’re like, ‘Here’s our first-round pick, he’s the first pick overall,’ and you could tell then. Wow. This kid just took our franchise to a whole other level,” said Bowness, who played with and later coached Hawerchuk. “His playmaking, his skills, his vision, everything you saw as an 18-year-old kid before training camp. You go into training camp and he was clearly the best player. That was as an 18-year-old kid. You watch him grow as a man and a player, that was a lot of fun.”

Jets associate coach Scott Arniel first met Hawerchuk at training camp when the two were teenagers who would become teammates with the Cornwall Royals.

Not only would they capture a pair of Memorial Cups together, but they were also both drafted by the Jets in 1981 and would remain lifelong friends.

“I don’t know if there’s enough words,” said Arniel, asked what he thinks of when Hawerchuk’s name is brought up. “I don’t know if people on the outside (know) how much he cared about his family, about his friends, about his teammates. He was a superstar. He maybe didn’t get the recognition that other players got around the league at that time. But you wouldn’t have known it every day in the way he carried himself.

“He was just like everyone else. He was a humble guy and he was that way his whole career.”

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