(AP) — 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.
The 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’s sons, 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 had 518 goals and 1,409 points in 1,188 regular-season games. He added 30 more goals and 99 assists in 97 playoff games.
“The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Dale Hawerchuk, an instant and enduring star who captured the hearts of two hockey-loving cities, represented his country with class and distinction, and is one of the most decorated players in our game’s history,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
At 5-feet-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.
Hawerchuk had been battling stomach cancer. In September 2019, he 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 Canada’s 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.
Born April 4, 1963, in Toronto, Hawerchuk grew up in nearby Oshawa, getting his first pair of skates at age 2 and playing competitively at 4. As a peewee, he broke Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur’s record by scoring all eight goals in an 8-1 victory in the final of a tournament in Montreal.
Hawerchuk was drafted 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.
He did not disappoint. The teenager scored 45 goals and collected 103 points, was selected as the 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.
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.
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 honor.
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 the 1996-97 season, his final season.
Slowed down by a hip issue, he retired at the age of 34.
A shy type, Hawerchuk said he savored the moments with his teammates in the privacy of the dressing room the most.
“It’s a real special feeling and nobody can take that from you,” he said.
Hawerchuk missed the playoffs only once — in 1988-89 with Winnipeg — during his NHL career.
He averaged more than a point-per-game for 13 consecutive seasons, becoming the 23rd player to reach the 500-goal plateau in 1995-96 and the 31st player to have 1,000 points in 1990-91.
He was also the first NHLer to play in his 1,000th career game before his 31st birthday.
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.”
Hawerchuk was inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in November 2011.