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They would have loved to throw open the doors to anyone who wished to attend, allowing mourners from all walks of life to come and pay their final respects for Hockey Hall of Fame member Dale Hawerchuk, who died last week of stomach cancer at the age of 57.
Whether it was the biggest church you could find, or even a hockey rink, there's no question it would have been overflowing for a beloved figure who touched so many, especially in Winnipeg where the tears and tributes have been pouring in.
"It's incredible. Winnipeg never ceases to amaze me," an emotional Eric Hawerchuk, the oldest son of the legendary Winnipeg Jets star, told me in a telephone chat just hours before Monday's funeral in southern Ontario.
Unfortunately, the grieving family was forced to have a small, private service limited to a maximum of 60 people owing to COVID-19 restrictions. The original plan was to have an online stream available for anyone who wished to watch. But huge public interest caused the site to crash, with more than 4,000 visitors to the link by midday. A video of the event is expected to be made available this week, with details still to be worked out.
"It's tough when you're trying to make these decisions. He had so many friends and family, it's impossible to squeeze that into 60 people. We tried the best we could on that," said Hawerchuk.
He pointed to Winnipeg as a prime example, where Jets co-owner Mark Chipman and assistant general manager Craig Heisinger expressed regrets at not being able to attend, due to regulations that include a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon return to Manitoba. The same goes for numerous other prominent names in the hockey world who have reached out in recent days.
"My dad basically considered himself a Manitoban. I really think that Dale kind of embodies what Manitoba is. He kinda had a chip on his shoulder, he was a smaller guy, awkward skater, people said he couldn't make it. That's what Winnipeg is." — Eric Hawerchuk, oldest son of Dale Hawerchuk
"I've been speaking to Mark almost every day. He feels bad that they can't make it out here. I told him we'll come out there when the time's right, we'll be there when they unveil the statue. We're going to make sure it's a good send-off for Dale," said Hawerchuk.
There are also plans in the works for a larger celebration of life, perhaps in a few weeks, where they could find a way to accommodate a bigger crowd and still abide by public health regulations.
Chipman revealed last week that the organization will honour "Ducky" with a statue in True North Square, where his banner continues to hang over a makeshift public shrine.
"Eventually we'd like to get out to Winnipeg and really thank the fans of Winnipeg. The number of people that have reached out to me on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram from Winnipeg...I could spend the next week trying to reply and catch up. We're very lucky that way. We don't take that for granted," said Hawerchuk.
The glowing words, stories and pictures have comforted the Hawerchuk family during this difficult time and reminded them of how special this place is in their lives. Dale spent the first nine years of his NHL career here. He met his wife, Crystal, here. Eric was born here.
"I'm so proud to be born in Winnipeg and to be a Manitoban. My dad basically considered himself a Manitoban. I really think that Dale kind of embodies what Manitoba is. He kinda had a chip on his shoulder, he was a smaller guy, awkward skater, people said he couldn't make it. That's what Winnipeg is," said Hawerchuk
"The people there are so friendly and so determined and so happy. I can't say enough good things about Manitoba. We're so proud to have him be a Jet. I can't picture his career being anywhere else, not in a million years. Any time anyone brought up Winnipeg, a smile came on his face. Even at the end. So many good memories there."
Hawerchuk was one of the speakers at the funeral, and gave me some insight into a couple stories he planned to share. One involved Dale's other favourite sport, golf, which is where Eric, a pro who has competed on the Mackenzie Tour — PGA Tour Canada, really excelled.
"In my speech, I mention that one of my favourite lessons from him was always keep two balls in your pocket so you don't have to go back to your cart if you hit one in the s--t," Hawerchuk chuckled.
"We're so proud to have him be a Jet. I can't picture his career being anywhere else, not in a million years. Any time anyone brought up Winnipeg, a smile came on his face. Even at the end." — Eric Hawerchuk
The other one was more serious, hearkening back to a valuable lesson father taught son at an early age in Winnipeg.
"One time I was bragging, kind of flexing (to some other kids) that my dad's Dale Hawerchuk. They were like 'No he's not.' So I brought him around the corner to show these guys," said Hawerchuk.
"Dale freaked out. He took me around the corner and says 'You know what, you don't brag, you don't gloat. You let other people tell you how good you are. If they're telling you how good you are, you're probably not that good.' That always stuck. Ever since then I tried to be humble, about him and any of my own accomplishments. Because he's right."
Hawerchuk said he's found himself wanting to reach out to his father over the past week, asking him for much-needed advice.
"So sad that he's gone. He was my best buddy. I was even talking to the funeral company about certain logistics of it, and I was like 'Oh shoot, I wish I could ask my dad about this.' But I feel his presence," he said.
As we spoke late Sunday night, Hawerchuk had to put me on pause while he fielded another call — from Wayne Gretzky. He also revealed a touching chat he had earlier in the week with Rick Bowness, the head coach of the Dallas Stars who was a longtime friend and former teammate of Hawerchuk's.
"I've had so many of his old teammates and coaches reach out to me. It feels like big shoes to fill, even just to respond," he said.
"I'm trying to represent my dad and who he was as best as I can. It will be hard, but I'm going to try. I'll try to embody the charitable works that he did, and try to always make Manitoba proud."
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