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They'll build a statue for Dale Hawerchuk one day, a big, beautiful monument to a beloved member of sporting royalty. For now, a makeshift memorial will have to suffice.
His Hall of Fame banner, hanging downtown in True North Square as of Tuesday evening, has quickly been enveloped by a touching shrine which includes bouquets of flowers, candles, weathered posters bearing his likeness, old sticks and pucks and other precious keepsakes placed with tender loving care by mourners who have come to pay their respects.
Posted: 18/08/2020 2:20 PM
Dale Hawerchuk arrived in Winnipeg 39 years ago, a slender teen carrying the weight of a city’s hockey hopes and dreams on his shoulders. He became an instant smash, and the love affair between Winnipeg Jets fans and the kid from Toronto began.
“There’s no denying it, he was the man in that town,” former teammate Dave Babych recalled Tuesday. “We knew things were going to turn around with our team, but not as drastically as when Dale came. It was instant.
This is Hawerchuk's legacy, a superstar who was as humble off the ice as he was talented on it. The outpouring of grief, the flood of tears and tributes from the hockey world and beyond, should come as no surprise.
It's often been said that you should never meet your heroes, as there's a good chance they'll fail to live up to your lofty expectations. While that may be true for plenty of famous folks, it certainly wasn't the case for the man affectionately known as "Ducky."
In life, and now in death, it's clear that Hawerchuk was as revered and respected as a celebrity you'll find, and for reasons that go far beyond how many goals, assists and points he tallied in his incredible career.
"I honestly don’t think I ever heard someone say they didn’t like Dale Hawerchuk, and I don’t think I ever heard Dale Hawerchuk say he didn’t like someone," veteran hockey broadcaster Gord Miller wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
My first-ever meeting with Hawerchuk, a player I idolized as a little kid attending Jets 1.0 games with my father, came in the summer of 1994, when I was a 19-year-old journalism student working an internship at the Interlake Spectator. Hawerchuk and his family were still spending off-seasons at their cottage near Gimli, despite being traded to the Buffalo Sabres four years earlier.
He didn't have to give me the time of day, yet spent close to an hour chatting with this wide-eyed reporter-in-training who never forgot how much that interview meant. I recalled the story to the ever-modest Hawerchuk three years ago, where I caught up with him for a feature story while playing a round of golf at Elmhurst, in advance of the Players Cup tournament at Pine Ridge that oldest son Eric, then a member of the MacKenzie Tour, was about to compete in.
I kept in touch with Hawerchuk from that point and will always treasure the conversations I was able to have with him, especially in recent months, documenting his courageous health battle, his thoughts on the Jets, his view of the world in the middle of a global pandemic and so much more.
Last weekend, a friend asked me if I had started working yet on an obituary, in advance of the news we were all expecting to hear any day. That's a common thing in the journalism business. The truth is, I hadn't. I couldn't. The very thought about writing in the past about someone who was still with us, simply to save some time down the road, was too awful to bear.
And so Tuesday's news, while not unexpected, still hit hard.
One thing that became crystal clear in my talks with Hawerchuk is that he truly was one of us, a fiercely proud Manitoban to the core who never forgot what this special place meant to him and his family. Whether it was the fans cheering him on at the old Winnipeg Arena in his hockey heyday, or concerned strangers sending online well-wishes over the past year as stomach cancer waged war on his body, Hawerchuk repeatedly told me how a piece of his heart had always remained here.
Jets co-owner Mark Chipman, who was extremely close with Hawerchuk, shared some of that in his emotional Zoom chat with us on Tuesday afternoon, including how he helped bring together the 2016 Heritage Classic alumni game between the Jets and Oilers at IG Field.
"That humble kid who came through here and did all of his talking with his game and never lost his sense of humility, notwithstanding a Hall Of Fame career," is how Chipman described Hawerchuk who, knowing full well that death was imminent, was still signing autographs for fans as late as last weekend.
"Right to the end, he was just continuing to do the things that he always did to make people feel good," said Chipman.
"That humble kid who came through here and did all of his talking with his game and never lost his sense of humility, notwithstanding a Hall Of Fame career." – Mark Chipman
"I think we pride ourselves in the fact that there's not a lot of pretense in this community. We are who we are and we don't try to be something we're not and we're proud of that. And that was Dale as well. He was just who he was. He told me many, many times how proud he was to be a Manitoban — that he considered himself to be a Manitoban. So you had this bona fide superstar whose persona just kind of fit with what we are about here in this city and province."
Hours later, cameras caught Chipman sitting alone in True North Square, near the banner that had just been moved from Bell MTS Place, alone with his thoughts and his grief.
Like so many of you, I'm now comforted in knowing Hawerchuk is no longer suffering and that he got a chance to say goodbye to the most important people in his life in a series of heartbreaking phone calls to close friends. His one to Serge Savard, as documented by Montreal hockey writer Dave Stubbs, was especially moving.
"Dale called me three days ago, after the hospital sent him home when there was nothing more they could do for him. I'm 74 and I've never had a call like that in my life, and I hope I never have another one," Savard, a former teammate of Hawerchuk's who used to babysit his kids, told Stubbs for the NHL.com article.
"Dale said 'I just want to say goodbye, and I want you to say goodbye to your wife and to your kids for me. I love you all. He was crying and I started crying, too."
I'm also comforted by all the lovely stories, photos and memories of Hawerchuk being shared. Social media can be a dark and ugly place at times, but it can also connect us in incredible ways, reminding of us what's good and pure and truly important.
Let's now cling to those in this time of great sorrow and loss, taking solace in the joys he brought to so many, big and small, while keeping his family and friends in our thoughts.
And one day, hopefully not too far down the road, we'll have a permanent place to gather, where we can continue to honour an incredible man who left an indelible mark in our community, and in our lives.
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