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Scheifele remembers Dale Hawerchuk as his 'guardian angel'

NHLers reminisce about how the late OHL coach, and Hockey Hall of Famer, shaped them as players and as people

Mark Scheifele believes he's had a guiding force through his hockey career.

"I think honestly Dale (Hawerchuk) was my guardian angel the entire way through hockey," the Winnipeg Jets centre said of his former Barrie Colts head coach, who died Tuesday after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.

Hawerchuk put the Kitchener native on the path to Barrie and eventually the road to the National Hockey League. The legacy continues now as Scheifele follows in his mentor's footsteps as a superstar with the resurrected Winnipeg Jets, who made him their first pick in 2011 after the franchise relocated from Atlanta. 

When he was a Kitchener Junior 'B' player, Scheifele believed his mind was made up. He was going to play in Huntsville and then take the NCAA college route by heading to Cornell to play for the Ivy League school. Then, just before the start of the 2010 OHL season, the Barrie Colts traded to acquire his rights from the Saginaw Spirit.

Hawerchuk had previously tried to get Scheifele to play on a tournament team heading to Sweden while he was coaching Tier II Junior 'A' in Orangeville. Now head coach in Barrie, he began the recruitment process for the Colts by sitting down with Scheifele and his mom, Mary Lou.

"I talked to Dale — it was probably a 15- to 30-minute conversation — and I was almost enticed in everything he was saying," recalled Scheifele, who is recovering from a high-ankle sprain suffered in the opening minutes of Winnipeg's qualifying-round series loss to the Calgary Flames. "Then I left that meeting and I was like, 'Mom, I want to go play for him.'

"Everything he said, everything he was explaining to me, just went straight to my heart. 'I want to go play for him and he's the right decision to come play here.' It was almost like God telling me this is your path and I want you to take it. He was everything to me, that's for sure," Scheifele told BarrieToday

A Hockey Hall of Famer, Hawerchuk will go down as one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of skates. He led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Cornwall Royals to back-to-back Memorial Cup titles in the early 1980s before embarking on a storied 16-year NHL career where he recorded 1,409 points (518 goals and 891 assists) over 1,188 career regular-season games spent between Winnipeg, Buffalo, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

For former Colts sniper Kevin Labanc, Hawerchuk was as valuable as a coach and mentor as he was a player.

"He wanted every player to succeed," the San Jose Sharks forward told BarrieToday. "He saw nothing but positives in your game. Whenever he thought it might (be something negative), he turned it into a way where you could harness it and turn it into a positive.

"He was a great coach and it was a privilege playing for him," Labanc added. 

It wasn't just on the ice where Labanc learned so much, but simply by watching how Hawerchuk carried himself and greeted everyone he met.

"He was just the nicest, most genuine person I've met," said the native of Staten Island, N.Y., who played three seasons in Barrie (2013-16) and won the OHL scoring title in his overage season. "He didn't need to be, he was a Hall of Famer. He could have been stuck-up, could have done whatever he wanted, but he wasn't.

"He was a very personable, approachable person. It didn't matter who he was talking to, he's going to take the time to anyone he met. I'm really fortunate and lucky to have had him as a coach and a friend as well."

Another former Barrie Colts standout, Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad, talked to Hawerchuk over the phone on Sunday. There was no shortage of life lessons in the discussion the 24-year-old had with his former coach.

"He was talking about family and how important it is and how he thought he lived a great life," said Ekblad, who was the Colts' first-overall pick in 2011 OHL Priority Selection and also went first overall to Florida in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. "I can only hope to live half the life he has and be a great father, and still as philanthropic as he has been with charities and stuff like that.

"He was just a great man and we all lost a great friend," Ekblad added. 

Hawerchuk got as much — perhaps even more — out of developing players and seeing them fulfill their dreams. He loved the game and he wanted his players to enjoy it as much as he did.

He saw that same passion in Scheifele and described him as a "rink rat."

"I learned that from him," said Scheifele, who spent three seasons with Barrie (2010-13), recording 84 goals and 217 points in just 158 games. "He was as big a rink rat as any of us. I know when I first got to Barrie he was the guy that said watch hockey."

Hawerchuk also told Scheifele to take part in the morning skate weekdays at the former Barrie Molson Centre. Or perhaps more appropriately nicknamed, 'The Breakfast Club.'

"He loved the camaraderie," Scheifele said.

They'd play 3-on-3 and 2-on-2, or have three guys shooting on the goalies at one end and other guys playing at the other end.

"I think Dale lived to play for that game," the Jets star said. "It was for him to show off his skills and everyone wanted Dale on their team because he was the best player on the ice."

"The 3-on-3 stuff was his favourite and he'd dance around all of us," said Ekblad, who played three seasons in Barrie (2011-14) before jumping right into the NHL when he was drafted. "(Dale was) looking like he was still playing five, six, seven years in the league in his prime. It was pretty fun to have that experience and watch him work the way he did, and I learned some valuable lessons from it."

Hawerchuk loved the banter with the guys, as well as the competition with the players and other coaches.

"I think that was so crucial for why he made such a great coach and why he has made such great players, because when you see your head coach – who is a Hall of Famer, one of the best players to ever play the game – loving playing 2-on-2, 3-on-3 as much as he did, it kind of was ingrained in you that this is fun," Scheifele said. "This is what we've done our whole lives. This is the love of our life, to play hockey and to enjoy it with all of our best friends. How can't you enjoy this?

"That's something I just learned by watching him, seeing him interact and seeing how much fun he had," the 27-year-old added. "And I think that was the greatest thing I saw and was able to pick up and find that love for the game and how great it really is."

Labanc, an American player with several options for his hockey career, said it would have been "crazy for me not to want to play for (Hawerchuk)."

Once the teenager arrived in Barrie, Labanc said it was everything he imagined. Hawerchuk was a player's coach who taught him the offensive side of the game.

"Hockey aside, he was such a fun guy to be around the rink with," Labanc said. "He was always cracking jokes and he always had a smile on his face. He just truly loved the game and I think that's what he passed on to not just me, but all the players that played for him and all his teammates as well."

Labanc recalls his first year in Barrie and after a rough week he arrived at the rink with a "sad face." Seeing his young American player down, Hawerchuk approached him.

"He just kind of come up to me and said, 'It's alright, we'll get the Canadian in you,'" Labanc recalled. "That's the one thing that really stuck with me. It wasn't until my (overage) year you just get a self-realization and just go over the past years that you'd been playing for the Barrie Colts and one of the memories that stuck out was that one.

"I'll never forget that. It just puts a smile on my face right now, that's for sure."

One of only five OHL players granted exceptional player status, Ekblad, despite being a year younger than his rookie teammates, made an instant impact. Hawerchuk showed a great deal of confidence in the young blue-liner, giving him top-four ice time while also playing him on both the penalty kill and the power play.

"It was really important coming in a year early with what had planned for me," Ekblad said. "To get that kind of coaching advice and confidence from such a great coach and an all-time great player, it really gave me the confidence to go out and be myself.

"It was great to be coached by him. Everything he said just kind of stuck," he added. "Whenever he said to do something, it would work almost instantly, so he has that kind of touch and grace behind everything he says and it was a pleasure to be able to play for him."

Scheifele says Hawerchuk just wanted all of his players to be their best. Not in a way of doing structure over and over, but to make them the best possible player, to make the next level and reach their ultimate potential.

"I just did everything he showed me," Scheifele said. "I just wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a Hall of Famer and just like him. He's the best coach I ever had, the best mentor. He did absolutely everything to make me a better hockey player and I owe so much of what I accomplished now, not only as a hockey player, but as a person to him."

For Labanc, the decision to come to Barrie was the one of the best decision's he's ever made.

"I wouldn't be here today without him, that's for sure," he said. "He brought the confidence in my game. He taught me the offensive side and he brought the Canadian in me. I'll take everything he taught me with me my whole career."

And so will many others who Hawerchuk coached or came across. His lessons and teachings will continue and you only have to turn on an NHL game to see them being carried on.

"So many great players have come from Barrie," Labanc said. "You've got Scheifele, Ekblad, (Andreas) Athanasiou, (Andrew) Mangiapane, Rasmus (Andersson) and (Mackenzie) Blackwood. The list just goes on and on and on of the players that he coached and players that succeeded. It says a lot about the person and the coach that he was."

Ekblad says he will mourn the loss of his former coach and admits these last couple of days haven't been easy. While it'll be difficult to live up the legacy left behind by their Hall of Fame coach, he believes he and other former players are going to celebrate his life and play every day like it's their last to honour Hawerchuk's memory.

"I wouldn't put us anywhere near Dale's ability on the ice, but sure if you want to say we're going to carry (his legacy) on as much as we can and hold him dear to us, then I hope he's watching over us every day. I think that'd be a great omen, for sure."

Hawerchuk's death at the age of 57 hit many people hard in the hockey world as well as the Barrie community. 

"It's a tough day. He'll be missed," Labanc said, his voice growing silent as he fought back his emotions. "People in Barrie and the Barrie Colts, we're all going to miss him and we're all always going to remember him."

For Scheifele, Hawerchuk was a friend and he'll always be his guardian angel.

"I knew he always cared about me and always wanted me to be my best," he said while also trying to hold back his emotions. "I'm so lucky to have had him in my life."

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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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