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PLAYING FIELD: Hawerchuk salt of the earth in many ways

Late Barrie Colts coach, who often went out of his way to help others behind the scenes, will be honoured tonight at Sadlon Arena

I can’t bring myself to erase Dale Hawerchuk’s cell number in my contacts.

It’s not that I knew the late Barrie Colts coach that well — I’m not sure he even knew my full name — but I always admired the Hockey Hall of Famer. He was one of the best examples of a superstar athlete who remained a humble and decent human being his entire life.

Keeping his number and a few old texts attached to it is an easy way to remember such a fine person.

“I don’t really know how to say this, but he was embarrassed of (a certain kind of attention),” says his son, Eric, when asked of some of the stories that have emerged of his dad’s kind nature. “He used to give away (money and gifts), but not want anyone to know.”

Indeed. Hawerchuk’s annual golf tournament in Winnipeg started because he wanted to help send a young girl for treatment in the United States that was not available in Canada. He once bought a hot tub for a young boy with muscular dystrophy because after every dip it briefly helped the boy become more mobile.

Locally, in 2016, organizers of the Canadian Tour were trying to quickly throw together a golf tournament in Barrie to fill a gap in its schedule. It was a logistical nightmare.

On the morning tee balls began to fly at National Pines, the event director was surprised to hear a mystery man had arrived early at the tournament gate and bought more than $1,000 worth of tickets to be given away to locals who otherwise wouldn’t know the tournament was on.

The only description given was that he was about 50, was wearing nice running shoes and “looked like an old hockey player.”

It was Hawerchuk. He had wanted to show his appreciation to tournament organizers for granting Eric, who had played the tour for a few years, a spot in the event.

Hawerchuk is being honoured by the Colts at tonight’s game against the Peterborough Petes in recognition of his decade-long contribution to the Ontario Hockey League club, serving as head coach from 2010 until 2019.

Hawerchuk stepped down before the 2019-20 season to seek treatment for stomach cancer. He died from the disease less than a year later, on Aug. 18, 2020. He was just 57.

There is, of course, a lot to admire and remember about Hawerchuk in pure hockey terms. The Winnipeg Jets, his first NHL club, unveiled a statue in his honour last weekend in Winnipeg in recognition of his iconic status in Manitoba’s capital.

A little more than a decade after retiring, Hawerchuk landed behind the bench of the Colts.

“He loved coaching in the OHL,” Eric remembers. “He had (NHL opportunities), but he turned them down to stay in Barrie.”

His stewardship solidified the franchise that, unfairly or not, had never quite recovered from the public relations hits it took from its controversial run to the 2000 Memorial Cup.

Hawerchuk provided the Colts with a certain legitimacy, a touch of humility and grace that some around the OHL thought it lacked from the fallout a decade earlier.

Moreover, his teams won. There was a run to the 2013 OHL final and the last-second Game 7 loss to the London Knights. Three years later, Hawerchuk led the Colts to the OHL Eastern Conference final. In his nine seasons in Barrie, Hawerchuk’s teams won at least one playoff round on five occasions. It hasn’t won a round since.

The Colts also became a league leader in the production of NHL talent. To wit, when they are announced next week, it is expected the Colts will be a top-five OHL club in providing graduates on NHL opening-night rosters.

Aaron Ekblad, who, like Hawerchuk, was taken No. 1 overall in the NHL Draft, tops the list, but many were lesser-celebrated junior players such as Andrew Mangiapane and Kevin Labanc.

“He liked finding that diamond in the rough,” Eric says.

When Hawerchuk died, many Colts employees, past and present, told stories of his generosity around the rink. One told a story on social media of how Hawerchuk called him aside and slid him a fistful of cash to take his girlfriend out to dinner. Hawerchuk had noticed the long hours the young man had logged around what was then called the Barrie Molson Centre.

A former NHLer with local connections told his own story about Hawerchuk. Darren Rumble was a Philadelphia Flyers call-up when Hawerchuk played there in the late 1990s, his last NHL stop. A defenceman, Rumble spent a lot of time around the big club without playing much. He once found his way into a card game on the team charter with three future Hall of Famers: Hawerchuk, Eric Lindros and Paul Coffey.

For some reason — Rumble recalls it was injury-related — Coffey dropped out of the game. So, Lindros changed the format to account for just three players. The problem for Rumble, who was earning mostly American Hockey League paycheques, was it happened extremely fast. One minute he was up, then down, then up again.

Luckily, the plane landed just after Rumble went on a huge run and was up $800.

A day later, when Rumble turned up at the Flyers practice rink, he peered into his stall and there was an envelope stuffed with eight crisp $100 bills. Knowing Rumble could be sent down at any moment and could use the extra cash, Hawerchuk made a point to make sure he quickly got Rumble his winnings.

“He was that type of guy who that when no one would even notice (otherwise),” remembers Rumble.

Hawerchuk is deeply missed by his family. Eric expressed sympathy for his younger brother, Ben, the former Colts forward, who has had to navigate the rough waters of professional hockey without his dad’s guidance.

But when asked if he felt cheated, Eric gave an honest answer and deferred to his dad: “Yeah, a little… but my dad lived a full life, even if it was only 57 years. It really bothered him (during treatment) at the hospital to see kids going through that, who hadn’t even lived yet.”

Dale Hawerchuk, the Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the most gifted players of his generation, thought of others right until the end.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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