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Colts president hopes to see Hawerchuk back behind the bench

'He's still fighting the fight ... He's probably the toughest guy I ever met,' said Colts owner, adding the Hall of Famer remains optimistic

With the OHL recently announcing plans to return to play on Dec. 1, Barrie Colts president and owner Howard Campbell knows exactly who he wants behind the bench for the season opener.

While longtime head coach Dale Hawerchuk is once again fighting cancer, Campbell has no plans to name an interim head coach.

"At this point, Dale is our guy and we're sticking with him," Campbell told BarrieToday. "We hope to see him back behind the bench on Dec. 1."

The Hockey Hall of Famer completed a first round of chemotherapy for stomach cancer back in late April, but son, Eric, announced in late July on Twitter: "My dad is back in his fight against cancer due to a resurgence of this terrible disease."

"You always stand with your buddy," said Campbell, who hired Hawerchuk to guide the Colts back in 2010. "He's our guy and we're going to win with him. We hope he's behind the bench on Dec. 1 leading us to victory."

Campbell calls Hawerchuk, who is back home resting now after recently undergoing more chemotherapy, one of his dearest friends.

"I told him the other day I hope we're standing at centre ice in a very short period of time hoisting the Memorial Cup over our heads," he said. "That's what our goal is and I'd love nothing more than to do that with him at the helm running the team."

Campbell talked to Hawerchuk and his wife, Crystal, on Sunday night and said they are both optimistic.

"He's still fighting the fight," Campbell said. "He's looking to get a little bit more nutrition into his body, which he thinks will help him. He's probably the toughest guy I ever met.

"This past week has been pretty tough for him, but that being said he's probably one of the most positive guys I've ever met. He's a very optimistic person," said Campbell. "He was talking to me yesterday about playing golf again. For anybody that knows Dale, golf is one of his all-time favourite passions."

Campbell has been impressed, but not surprised, with the outpouring of support for his head coach.

"We get lots of calls, people from all over the world," Campbell said. "People he played hockey with, played hockey against and all calling to inquire and pass along their hopes and prayers for him. He's a very popular guy and was very well respected in the NHL for many years whether you were on his team or you were against him.

"We're praying for him and he's in my thoughts every minute, hoping he's making a turn for the better," said Campbell. 

While Campbell was happy to see the OHL announce a date for a possible return to play through the COVID-19 pandemic, he knows there is still much that needs to happen before the season can start.

The plan is subject to ensuring the players, fans, staff and community are able to play and attend games safely. The OHL will continue to work with the government and health agencies over the next four months to finalize outstanding issues such as safe attendance at venues and cross-border travel for teams and players.

"We have to make sure we can get fans in the building, too," Campbell said. "Safety is first and we worry about everything, but at the same time if you can't get fans in the building then it's pretty hard to have a season. It all revolves around the fans and the sponsorship, that's how the team survives.

"We're cautiously optimistic that in December it will be all resolved and the kids can't get back to doing what they're doing, which is chasing their dreams," said Campbell.

As for just how many fans in attendance are required to make having a season viable, arenas won't have to be full.

"I think we're aiming for 50 per cent," Campbell said. "I think everybody's online for 50 per cent, we just don't know when the province will say what stage we're at that you can actually do that."

Campbell said the players are thrilled that at least they know when it's starting. Training camps normally begin in late August.

The return to play plan includes a 64-game schedule (normally 68) and a 16-team playoff format. 

"The kids are on the ice and most of them are training and back in the summer leagues, and all excited about our chances of getting back on the ice," he said.

 Campbell said the most important thing is a return to normalcy for everybody and not just hockey. He said the airlines, travel and restaurant and so many other industries have been hit hard.

"Every day that goes by we get to see more and more signs of that happening," he said of the low number of COVID-19 cases in the province and country. "Let's hope this second wave isn't as bad as everyone is saying it's going to be and sooner or later we're back to normal."

Campbell is anxious to see his young club pick up from last year when the club got much younger and finished strong before the pandemic brought the season to a halt with a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season.

"The draft we just had might be one of the best drafts we ever had," he said.

He believes the Colts can contend beyond the next season.

"Not just the next two years, the next three or four years if we build it properly," Campbell said. "We have enough picks now to do it. The next three to four years could be very exciting for the Colts in the OHL. I'm excited about the future, for sure."

One of the biggest questions surrounding the young squad is who will slide into that second-line centre role behind Evan Vierling. Campbell hopes second-year forward Ryan Del Monte can take a big step or Hunter Haight, this year's ninth overall pick, can contribute right off the start.

The Colts could also move captain Luke Bignell off the wing and back to centre.

"We might have it," Campbell said. "Del Monte might be it already and the Hunter Haight kid we got is a heck of a player and maybe by January he can log some minutes. Bignell can play centre, so we got some options there. "

Campbell also doesn't rule out making a deal for a veteran centre, though with the uncertainty in the middle of a pandemic, pulling the trigger on a trade in these times won't be easy.

"It's a very complicated situation now for trades," he said.

Fans looking to show support for Hawerchuk can do so by going to The new initiative supports important causes close to the Hall of Famer and the Hawerchuk family.   

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Gene Pereira

About the Author: Gene Pereira

An award-winning journalist, Gene is former sports editor of the Barrie Examiner and his byline has appeared in several newspapers. He is also the longtime colour analyst of the OHL Barrie Colts on Rogers TV
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