Dale Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky were rivals in the NHL, but on Monday, the day before Hawerchuk died of cancer at 57, the two Hall of Fame forwards reminisced about when they were teammates.
Gretzky, hearing Hawerchuk was not doing well, called him, and of course the conversation turned to hockey, namely the 1987 Canada Cup against the Soviet Union, and the winning goal by Mario Lemieux with 1:26 left in the championship game.
“I had a really nice conversation with Dale yesterday and his son, Eric, and we were talking about the Canada Cup,” Gretzky told NHL.com on Tuesday. “And I was telling his son that he should be really proud of his dad, and obviously he was, that if you watched highlights, and because of the [coronavirus] pandemic we’ve gotten to see some of the games from 1987 that we haven’t seen for a long time. But if you looked at it and followed it closely, which I did, Dale played pretty much everywhere but left defense with Paul Coffey, left wing, right wing, everywhere.”
Gretzky was among the many members of the hockey community to remember Hawerchuk, who won the 1982 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 after an NHL career that saw him score 1,409 points (518 goals, 891 assists) in 1,188 career games for the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers. 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.
But it was his play with Gretzky and Lemieux that led to Canada’s 6-5 win the two talked about Monday. The play was a result of coach Mike Keenan putting Hawerchuk out with Gretzky and Lemieux for a face-off in Canada’s defensive zone.
Hawerchuk won the face-off, Lemieux scooped up the loose puck, took it up the boards, passed to Gretzky, who passed it back to Lemieux, who scored.
“I always remember we had two of the best defensive face-off men in the history of the game in Brent Sutter and Mark Messier, and a 5-5 game and a face-off in our own zone and Mike says, ‘Gretz, you and Mario and Howie go,’ and we’re going over the boards and Dale says, ‘Who’s taking the draw? Are you taking it?’ And I said, ‘I’m not taking this draw.’ And he looked at Mario and Mario said, ‘No, Dale, you’ve got it.’ So we always kind of laughed about that. He just stepped in there and the rest is history. … It was a really good group of guys. It was a memory, and I was telling this to Eric yesterday, that even as players and Canadian fans, it was one of those moments you never forget.”
Hawerchuk, who spent his first nine NHL seasons with the Jets (1981-90), was respected by all in the fierce, competitive days in the Smythe Division, said Gretzky, who played for the Edmonton Oilers from 1979-88.
“As good as our team was, and we did have a good team, I think if you talked to Calgary players as a whole, he was the one player they feared the most that could really change the game or the outcome of a series,” said Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,857 points (894 goals, 1,963 assists) in 1,487 career games. “He was that one guy that I think they would tell you was so special.”
Hawerchuk was captain of the original Jets from 1984-90 and remains beloved in the Manitoba capital. He was inducted into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame in 2017.
His NHL career-best season was 1984-85, when he had 130 points (53 goals, 77 assists) in 80 games.
“Probably one of my favorite memories was my rookie year, when he scored his 50th goal,” said defenseman Dave Ellett, Hawerchuk’s teammate from 1984-90. “He had a special year that year and the response in that arena was amazing. And it was a beautiful goal. And I can still picture his face as he was coming back to the bench; he was so happy.
“But off the ice, so humble. He cared. He wanted everyone to do well. I think sometimes it made him happier when his teammates did well. He helped a lot of people, that man.”
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill was Hawerchuk’s teammate in Winnipeg from 1984-88 and said with humility as his strong suit, Hawerchuk stood out.
“Such a humble person,” Nill said. “He didn’t use his position as a star player to influence other people, he used his personality, and that says a lot. You wouldn’t meet a better person. There are not a lot of times you’ll see star players go back and coach a junior team.”
Hawerchuk was the coach of Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League from 2010 until he stepped away because of his health in 2019.
“But that was his passion for the game,” Nill said. “He loved working with young kids and had a lot to teach them. It showed you the kind of person he was.”
Hawerchuk’s Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame banner was taken down in Bell MTS Place Tuesday and placed on public display in True North Square in the block next to the arena, executive chairman Mark Chipman said.
“Those guys don’t come along all that often that have that incredible combination of ability and humanity that he possessed,” Chipman said.
Chipman also said that a statue of Hawerchuk has been commissioned to anchor the team’s future new hall of fame display and that he informed Hawerchuk of that last week.
“He was such an important part of the fabric of not only the Jets but the city of Winnipeg,” Gretzky said. “He was a first pick overall with a lot of pressure. He went into a great hockey market and he embraced it and they embraced him.”