It’s perhaps no surprise the man affectionately known as "Ducky" would much rather talk about the current state of his beloved Winnipeg Jets than just about anything else. Hockey is in his blood, after all. And he’s impressed by what he’s seeing these days.
"They have moxie that a lot of people underestimate. A lot of good teams have this moxie, they just feel like bring it on, the bigger the game," Dale Hawerchuk tells me on the phone from Ontario.
"They’ve got some mojo that way. Beating St. Louis the last couple games (twice last week), nobody expected that, I think with all the defencemen gone people were pretty unsure about that. They’re pretty resilient that way. Even with a little more luck they could be doing even that much better. I like the way they play. When you lose that much you’re going to have the odd rough night. They’re pretty consistent, you know. And when their goalie’s on they’re that much tougher."
Funny, a lot of people would suggest it’s Hawerchuk who is showing plenty of moxie right now, not to mention all kinds of toughness. The 56-year-old Jets legend and hockey Hall-of-Famer is currently in the fight of his life, having been diagnosed with stomach cancer late last summer. Since then, he’s undergone two months of debilitating chemotherapy, followed by major surgery on Jan. 6. His recovery from that has been hampered by catching pneumonia, extending his hospital stay to nearly two weeks.
"Sometimes these hospitals, there’s so much floating around there. Unfortunately that set me back. After going through the surgery like that, you get a little concerned about it. Coming home has definitely been a blessing, and I feel like I’m getting stronger every day now," said Hawerchuk.
"The surgeon felt good about it, which makes me feel good. They took my stomach out and part of my colon out, which they weren’t sure about before going in. Now it’s just adapting to eating less and a little more often. My appetite’s been good, I still have a feeding tube, we’ll see how that goes as I start chemo here in a couple weeks."
Two more months of chemotherapy is expected to start around Feb, 20, with the goal to "clean up anything surgery might not have picked up."
Hawerchuk is mentally trying to prepare himself for what’s to come.
"I’m ready to handle it, I’ve gone through it before and had good results from it. When you’ve had that, you kind of feel good about doing it even though you know there’s going to be some rough days. I’ve learned to handle it the more I’ve gone through it, just different things I do that kind of take some of what knocks you out so much. It just empties you. I do extra hydration things, different alternative stuff to try to keep some strength up," he said.
The hope, by around late April, is that scans will provide some terrific news.
"It’s coming along and I’m feeling good about it. Now it’s just trying to make sure we get all of the cancer out through the next round of chemo," he said.
Through it all, the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and perfect strangers continues to lift his spirits, a constant reminder of how much Hawerchuk means to so many.
"Yeah, it’s been huge. People are always reaching out to me which helps me a lot, too. It keeps me busy. The hockey world has been incredible that way, the support. That part, and your family, too, how big they are in this. I can’t imagine trying to do this alone, The support and the reach by people has been incredible," he said.
This week will be an extra-special one. Although he won’t be able to attend in person, Hawerchuk will be watching with pride as former teammates Randy Carlyle and Thomas Steen are entered into the Jets Hall of Fame prior to Tuesday night’s game against the New York Rangers at Bell MTS Place.
"Both those guys were great hockey players, and maybe even better teammates. They were great guys to have on the team," said Hawerchuk, who roomed with Steen on the road early in their careers.
And imagine his shock that Steen’s son, Alex, played his 1000th game -- in Winnipeg of all places -- earlier this month.
"(As a child) he was always in the dressing room with a cut-off hockey stick. He loved to play. And now here he is, 1,000 games later. I think you sure realize time flies. Having my diagnosis has made me realize how much time has flown by. When you hear about Alex and 1,000 games, you wonder where that time went. It seems like a blur," he said.
Hawerchuk, the first-overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft, played nine full seasons in Winnipeg before he was traded to Buffalo. He finished up his 16-year career with stops in St. Louis and Philadelphia, recording 1,409 points in 1,188 regular-season games (518 goals, 891 assists).
Hawerchuk said it’s great to see how Winnipeg still embraces its hockey history. His ties here remain strong, of course. Wife Crystal is from Winnipeg. Jets No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele was his star player in Barrie (he took a leave of absence from coaching last fall) prior to being drafted in 2011. And there are deep friendships, including with Jets chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman, who is always checking in.
"I find pretty much everything they do is pretty spot on. Mark (Chipman) does a lot, and he’s hired good people obviously. That’s the part I like the most about the Jets now. When I was there we were kind of a small budget team. Sometimes we probably didn’t do things you think we maybe should have done. But you can’t say they don’t do that now," said Hawerchuk.
"Everything they do is pretty well thought out and they cover a lot of bases with it. I think for all us guys that played in the past there, that’s something we’re really proud of."
The feeling is mutual, as Manitobans are certainly proud of their favourite hockey son and cheering him on in his fight against cancer.
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.
Updated on Monday, February 10, 2020 at 11:45 AM CST: adds photos, additional formatting