He is known simply as "Ducky" around here, a member of hockey royalty whose greatest years in his hall of fame career came as the proud leader of the Winnipeg Jets.
And now, as he's locked in the toughest battle of his life, Dale Hawerchuk says it's the bonds he formed along the way that are helping him get through some dark, scary times.
Yes, stomach cancer is taking a hell of a physical toll on the 56 year old. But Hawerchuk wants everyone to know his will to fight remains strong.
"People reaching out... I actually get pretty emotional." - Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk
"The support in the hockey world, friends, family, fans in Winnipeg... it's been incredible," Hawerchuk told me this week in a telephone chat from his Ontario home, his voice cracking as he struggled to find the words to express his gratitude.
"People reaching out... I actually get pretty emotional."
Hawerchuk first began to suspect something was wrong last June, as he battled acid reflux for the first time in his life. An eventual visit to a doctor and an initial CT scan both came up empty. He thought it might just be an ulcer.
"But then the problem wouldn't go away. I started getting worried, because I couldn't eat well. I was losing weight. I needed to lose a few pounds, but didn't want to do it that way, that's for sure. When I got scoped, that's when they saw the cancer," Hawerchuk said of the diagnosis in late-August.
"When you wake up from the scope and the doctor's looking at you at the end of the bed telling you, 'Sorry, I've got bad news for you... you've got cancer,' you think you're in a bad dream, right? And then you deal with it, It's like life though, you know. Everybody's got issues, things happen, but once you know what it is you make a plan to deal with it and do the best with it."
For Hawerchuk, that meant dramatic changes. He took a leave of absence as head coach of the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, a necessary but painful move for the hockey lifer who has helped shape the lives of many NHLers, including Jets top centre Mark Scheifele, since stepping behind the bench in 2010.
"I kinda knew when I was losing weight and I couldn't eat, I knew I was going to be in trouble to stay on as coach. This kind of cancer— I've got a feeding tube to help me supplement my nutrition — so I just knew there was no way I could do it," he said.
Then came the debilitating chemotherapy. Each session tested his resolve in a way he never imagined, while also shredding his immune system.
"Really bottomed you out, then you have to recover and do it all over again in two weeks. It's a tough thing to go through," he said.
Fortunately, it appears to have paid off. A light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, revealed recently after his fourth and final session.
"The cancer has shrunk in certain areas. In a couple areas it's gone, which is good. The chemo seemed to have a good effect. So now there's the opportunity to operate, which was the best plan all along," he said.
The former Jets captain is scheduled for surgery Jan. 6 to remove his entire stomach.
"Just get the disease out. They're just too worried about re-occurrence," he said.
"They basically attach the esophagus to the small intestine. You eat more often, smaller meals, but I'm doing that now anyways because the cancer was a pretty good size in my stomach. It got to a point where I couldn't even hardly eat. I've read up on different people talking about the trials and tribulations of having the stomach removed. For the most part, it's an adjustment in your life a little bit, but you can still lead a pretty good life."
And that, of course, is the ultimate goal, one his supporters believe he's going to accomplish.
"Watching Dale go through this, it definitely gives you a new appreciation for life. I try to put myself in his shoes and I’m not sure I’d be as able to handle it as well as him," his son Eric told me Friday.
"He’s very focused and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We have all learned a lot. I’m very confident he’s going to beat this thing."
Hawerchuk said some of the lessons learned along the way in becoming one of the best to lace up the blades are helping him now. The first-overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft played nine full seasons in Winnipeg before he was traded to Buffalo, finishing up his 16-year career with stops in St. Louis and Philadelphia. He had 1,409 points in 1,188 regular-season games (518 goals, 891 assists).
"There's so many times when you feel like you're down and out and trying to make it — whether it's minor hockey, junior, the pros, and once you're in the pros trying to stay at the level you want to be at all the time," Hawerchuk said.
"So there's a strong discipline. To beat cancer you've got to be disciplined. And you know there's going to be pain, and you've got to be able to keep the discipline through all of that."
One of his recent highlights was skating at IG Field in the alumni game as part of the 2016 Heritage Classic festivities between the Jets and Edmonton Oilers. His current condition meant he had to miss the event in late-October when the Jets took on the Calgary Flames in Regina.
Hawerchuk was top of mind for many in attendance, including former teammates such as Dave Ellett and Thomas Steen, and ex-rivals such as Jamie Macoun and Lanny McDonald. All offered up words of praise and support, along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Jets co-owner and chairman Mark Chipman.
"I hope I get healthy to be able to do the next Heritage Classic," Hawerchuk said.
Chipman has been in constant touch over the last few months along with other members of the franchise, including Scheifele.
"Mark's a pretty special person. Not only is he a good hockey player, but he's got a work ethic. I think anybody that comes around Mark, they're impressed right away, like I was when I first met him. When I saw what he brought to the rink every day, it was like, 'This kid's going to make it.' He's got a desire. They always say good things happen to good people, and he's definitely good people," Hawerchuk said.
He can't completely stay away from the rink, admitting he often checks in on his beloved Barrie Colts by showing up at practices and games when his health allows it.
"So many of my other guys have gone on to play university hockey, get a college degree, move into the business world. It's always nice to hear from those guys. You try to bring them up and make them good people. They all have the dream of playing in the NHL," he said.
"We know it's not going to be there for everyone. If we can help them out and get them on their way to the rest of their life in the world, just try to help them in that regard, that's an important part of what you do in junior hockey."
"Everybody's got issues, things happen, but once you know what it is you make a plan to deal with it and do the best with it." - Hawerchuk
Now it's Hawerchuk who needs their help. And he's been getting it in spades, along with the enduring love and support from his wife Crystal and their three children, Eric, Alexis and Ben.
"My wife, she was a nurse in Winnipeg, she's been incredible. She's pretty much saving my life. The kids have all been great. Everybody's helped out where they can, friends and family. Even like some days, hopping in the car, going downtown Toronto or whatever, back up to Barrie, for appointments, there's days you just feel like you can't do it. But you need the support. They've just been terrific," he said.
"I can't imagine trying to do this alone."
Thanks to a loving family and a wide network of friends and fans in the hockey community, he doesn't have to. Hawerchuk has one hell of a team helping him take on this miserable opponent.
"People in the Jets organization have been really good. Incredible. And fans, somehow they find out a way to reach you. The support from all over the world has been incredible. I can't thank people enough. It's important, you know, when you're going through this. It helps you fight through it," he said.
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