LaFontaine remembers Hawerchuk, a great teammate and a gentleman

Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame Class of 2012 inductees Rick Jeanneret, left, and Dale Hawerchuk, right, salute the crowd before an NHL hockey game between the Sabres and the Winnipeg Jets in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–Pat LaFontaine’s last great memory of Dale Hawerchuk was in April of 2019, when the two former Sabres greats were honored as two of the top 10 players in the history of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in an awards gala in Quebec City. 

“It was a wonderful event, the 50th anniversary of the league,” LaFontaine said Wednesday. “We had a chance to catch up and tell stories. Mario Lemieux was there, Pierre Larouche, Brad Richards. It was like being back in the locker room with the guys.

“Dale and I sat right next to each other. Oh, was he happy! We talked about our Buffalo days, junior hockey. It was a great group of guys. You know, when you play this game, you battle against each other, and if you’re lucky enough you’re on the same team. 

“But when it’s all said and done,” Patty said, “you’re all part of the same family.”

Five months after that dinner, Hawerchuk was diagnosed with stomach cancer. And On Tuesday, the hockey world suffered a death in the family when Hawerchuk lost his year-long battle at age 57. 

Hawerchuk began chemotherapy in September of ’19 and said he was ready to fight and wanted to live to tell the story. But the cancer returned last month, leaving the hockey world to grieve and remember the story of a gifted gentleman who left us too soon.

“I remember traveling to see him in the Memorial Cup when I was 14 or 15,” said LaFontaine, who was two years Dale’s junior and a rising star in Michigan. “I was in awe at his talent and leadership. He had super amazing hockey sense and unbelievable soft hands — like Gretzky.

“My wife had tears in her eyes when we heard,” LaFontaine said. “He’s only two years older; that’s way too young. He was a great guy, a superstar and Hall of Famer. He had a quiet demeanor, but he was a true gentleman, always a professional and a great teammate and player.”

Hawerchuk, a Toronto native, was a reluctant superstar, a quiet man who was the first star in the early NHL days of the Winnipeg Jets. As a 19-year-old rookie in 1981-82, he scored 103 points and became the youngest player to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. 

The Jets went from 32 points to 80 that season. Hawerchuk was credited with turning around the franchise. In his nine seasons in Winnipeg, he had 929 points, fifth in the NHL players during that time. He was the Jets. But they didn’t win big and Hawerchuk, who shunned the public limelight, came to be seen as distant and selfish. 

Soon after he was traded to Buffalo in 1990, I wrote a profile on Hawerchuk, who told me “The problem in Winnipeg was the media was looking for somebody to come in and be Wayne Gretzky. They wanted somebody to put Winnipeg on the map.”

He had no such burden in Buffalo, where Hawerchuk wasn’t required to be the singular face of the franchise. The Sabres had Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny and Pierre Turgeon. The next year, the Sabres moved Turgeon in a deal for LaFontaine.

The 1992-93 year was an unforgettable confluence of talent and chemistry. LaFontaine set the Sabres’ scoring record with 148 points. Mogilny had a team-record 76 goals. Hawerchuk had 80 assists, second-most in franchise history — to the 95 helpers LaFontaine had the very same year. 

“I’ll aways remember that power play,” LaFontaine said. “It was Andreychuk, Dale, myself, Mogilny and Doug Bodger. I’d put that power play up against just about any in the history of the game.”

The Sabres won their first playoff series in 10 years in 1993, sweeping the Bruins on the famous Brad May overtime goal in the final game. Fans tend to forget the amazing pass that Hawerchuk made from behind the net, fighting off two Bruins, to set up Yuri Khymlev for the game-tying goal.

But Hawerchuk, for all his talent, operated in the shadow of LaFontaine and Mogilny in those days, which is how he preferred it. But in the second round against the Canadiens, when Mogilny and LaFontaine both played hurt and were sidelined in Game 4, Hawerchuk was magnificent in defeat. 

He scored two points in every game of that series, and two points in the last six games of those playoffs. But Montreal won four in a row — all by a 4-3 score and the last three in overtime.

“I remember Dale stepping up in that series and me thinking, ‘This is vintage Hawerchuk,” LaFontaine said. “It reminded me of the player he was when I watched him at Cornwall in juniors. He was quiet and unassuming, but he had a knack for the big games.

“Dale shouldered a lot during those times. I look back at the team in ’93. We were an injured team and lost to Montreal, which went on to win the Stanley Cup. We could have been that close if we could have stayed healthy.”

Hawerchuk played his early NHL career in Winnipeg, a distant outpost, with few games shown in U.S. markets. So it was easy to dismiss him as a one-dimensional player, a creature of stats instead of a winning team player. 

But he often rose up in the clutch. He led his junior team to consecutive Memorial Cups as a 17- and 18-year-old with Cornwall. He was part of winning 1987 and ’91 squads in the Canada Cup, the international tournament that was regarded by many as the best hockey ever played. 

In 1987, Hawerchuk proved he could be a dominant defensive presence and was named MVP of the series finale in Canada’s memorable 6-5 victory over the Soviet Union.

Hawerchuk didn’t win a Memorial Cup as a coach, but he led the Barrie Colts of the OHL to seven playoff berths and four division crowns in nine years, compiling a record of 305-269-39. He coached the likes of Mark Schiefele, Andrei Svechnikov and Aaron Ekblad.

Jay McKee, the former Sabres defenseman, coached against Hawerchuk with the Kitchener Rangers. “It was a pleasure and an honor to coach across from you, Dale,” McKee tweeted on Tuesday. “You touched so many over the years with being the genuine good person you were. The game in the sky got a real good one today. You will be missed and your legend will live on.”

Hawerchuk, known to some as “Ducky”, had 518 goals and 1,409 points in his 16-year career. He was voted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. LaFontaine said it’s hard to believe that Hawerchuk wasn’t picked as one of the NHL’s top 100 players of all time by The Hockey News. It’s harder to believe he’s gone.

LaFontaine had been texting Hawerchuk two or three times a month to wish him well. He and Dale used to ride to the Sabres games together when they were teammates. He texted Hawerchuk when the cancer returned last month. Dale thanked him and said he was going to keep fighting. 

On Tuesday morning, Patty talked to Chris Reichert, a good friend and former Sabres strength coach. Reichert said Hawerchuk wasn’t doing well. LaFontaine fired off a text to Dale, saying “I’m thinking about you. Just wanted to let you know we’re in your corner.’ 

“He literally got right back to me, within a minute,” LaFontaine said. “He just said, ‘Thanks, buddy.’ Short and sweet. This was 8:15 yesterday morning. My wife and I went for an early dinner and Brad May had left a message.”

Hawerchuk had died half an hour earlier. Patty was shocked. He wanted to believe it was a good sign that Dale had texted him right back. He knew things were grave, but when it’s a teammate, someone you went to battle with, you assume he can fight through anything. 

“It reminds you of your mortality,” he said. “You know these things can happen. But you’re athletes, and you’re hopeful, and you’d like to think we can all live into the twilight of our lives. He was just starting out. It’s a sad, sad day. He’s going to be sorely missed.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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