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As the long, painful days began to pile up, melting into weeks and then months, Dale Hawerchuk kept moving the goalposts.
At first, the Winnipeg Jets legend just wanted to live to see one more Christmas. Next, a family birthday early in the new year. Then, his own big day, celebrated earlier this month when he began his 58th trip around the sun. And now, a milestone he feared might never come, with his final scheduled treatment for stomach cancer finally in the rear-view mirror.
"When I was diagnosed last August, you're thinking, 'Man, that's a long road.' When I first thought of it, it felt like a death sentence. But the more I looked into it, the more people I talked to, the more I realized this was a battle you could win. It was like competing again," Hawerchuk told the Free Press Wednesday in a telephone interview from his Ontario home.
The NHL Hall of Famer underwent two months of debilitating chemotherapy last fall, which led to enough progress that he was able to undergo surgery to remove his entire stomach on Jan. 6. Once he was recovered enough from that, two more months of chemotherapy began, with the last round on April 13. He gets his feeding tube removed on Thursday and goes for scans next month, which will hopefully bring positive news.
"It feels to be good at this point. I don't think this a battle will ever be over, but life's a battle," said Hawerchuk, who credited family, friends, strangers and the global hockey community for cheering him on from the sidelines.
"There were times I felt down and out, where I didn't really know if I could do it anymore. But the support really helped push me through the dark days," he said.
One thing Hawerchuk never envisioned was getting through cancer treatments just as a pandemic was sweeping the globe. But that's the current reality of COVID-19, which made the last stages of his treatment risky given his compromised immune system.
Hawerchuk said his own eye-opening medical experience has given him new appreciation for the dedication and sacrifice being made right now by front-line workers, especially those in health care.
"They're in a battle, there's no question. We're all thankful for what they do. Not only them, but all the people that are working out there, who get up every morning and go to work. Those people are at the forefront now. They're the lifeblood of our society," said Hawerchuk.
Always a straight shooter on the ice, Hawerchuk pulled no punches Wednesday in talking about how we got to this stage -- and what it's going to take to get out of it. He feels the world was too slow to react to what was happening, especially here in North America.
"I hate to say it, but we all got caught with our pants down on this one," he said. "Even when it hit China, nobody really started worrying. Nobody seemed to have the foresight, and there's something wrong with that. It's like we're all caught up in our own little worlds."
As much as he'd enjoy seeing sports return, Hawerchuk isn't holding his breath on that happening anytime soon, nor does he understand why pro leagues including the NHL aren't coming to the same conclusion.
"It feels to be good at this point. I don't think this a battle will ever be over, but life's a battle." – Dale Hawerchuk
"There's going to be no sports until they get a vaccine or a cure. It's impossible to do. Why they're talking otherwise is beyond me," said Hawerchuk, who doesn't think playing in empty rinks or stadiums should even be an option at this point.
"If one person gets infected on a team, the whole league's compromised. At some point, enough's enough. This is where the world has got to wake up. I think I'd have more respect for the NHL and all these leagues if they said 'You know, we're done for this year,'" he said.
"Hopefully next year they can get something going, but I'm not seeing training camp in September. The potential to compromise the whole league from one person is so prevalent. I understand they want to get the revenue, but let's think about the pandemic."
Hawerchuk is currently on medical leave as head coach of the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. He's talked to his young players recently, including those who had their final year of eligibility come to a sudden halt without completion of the regular-season or playoffs.
"It's a tough finish for them. But when I talk to these kids I tell them hockey's great, we love it, we miss it. But it's not the world. This is the world," he said. "I think about the non sports fan as he opens up his computer and they're talking about maybe playing sports. Guys gotta be thinking are these people nuts, I can't even go to my job or I'm out of business and going broke. And these guys are talking about sports? I'm all about trying to get the economy going here, but we've got to be careful."
"There's going to be no sports until they get a vaccine or a cure. It's impossible to do. Why they're talking otherwise is beyond me." – Dale Hawerchuk
For those having trouble seeing the light right now, with seemingly so much darkness in the world around us, Hawerchuk offers up some hope based on his own lived experience.
"I've been quarantined for eight months, and I was sick a lot during that time. I'll say this, it can be done. You can do it. You change your habits, you do different things you might not have done before. It kind of broadens your horizons a little bit. But there's worse things that can be happening," he said.
"The mental part of it is tough, I get it. You just need some little victories. And then when you go through a tough part, you know you've had a victory before and you can have a victory again. That's what got me through it. My first week after chemo treatment was a killer. I dreaded it. But once I got through a couple of them I was like 'Hey I can do this.' More and more small victories eventually become a big victory."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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