Thanks to Wayne Gretzky, Hawerchuk was overshadowed during his career. But he was the first to cash in as a Group III free agent 20 years ago this summer.
Twenty years ago this summer, the first crop of elite-level Group III unrestricted free agents went on the open market. The NHL was coming off its first protracted work stoppage, and the 1994-95 season was reduced to 48 games for each of the league’s 26 teams. The new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association granted unconditional free agency for any player 32 or over once his contract expired. Among the first players to act was future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk. By that time, ‘Ducky’ was already a veteran of 14 NHL seasons and had 489 goals and 1,314 points. But this was his first real chance to cash in – he signed a $7.5-million deal over three seasons – and his first real opportunity to challenge for a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were loading up that summer 20 years ago, also signing UFAs Geoff Courtnall, Grant Fuhr and Brian Noonan. But it was Hawerchuk they really wanted, and negotiations with agent Gus Badali took just a few minutes. St. Louis coach-GM Mike Keenan knew he was getting an aging superstar who still had a lot to offer, because Keenan had watched Hawerchuk develop and dominate for the better part of a generation.
Playing in his prime, Hawerchuk made it look like the game came easily to him. He was a natural goal scorer and a deft playmaker. He was so good, in fact, that his name was often spoken in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky’s.
That’s because both players dominated the game like few who came before them. Neither scored high on artistic impression when it came to skating, but their vision and instincts were, for the most part, unrivalled. Hawerchuk never completed that last contract he signed. He was forced into retirement due to injury after a second season in Philadelphia and stepped away from the game at 34 with 518 goals and 1,409 points in 1,188 games over 16 seasons. Today, 18 years after retiring, Hawerchuk wants to set the record straight: the game did not, in fact, come easy to him. On the contrary, he rarely felt comfortable on the ice, and he worked for everything he got right back to his youth hockey days in Oshawa, Ont. “People think because you are in the Hall of Fame it must have been easy for you, but that was not the case with me,” Hawerchuk said. “I could get results, but I wasn’t the greatest skater. I had to find a way to score.”
As a kid, Hawerchuk, along with future NHLers Dale DeGray and Peter Sidorkiewicz, won five consecutive OMHA titles, including the Loblaws Cup as a bantam in 1978. That team will be inducted into the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame this year. This is a big deal to Hawerchuk, who fondly recalls his roots in Oshawa. He was born in Toronto, but his family moved to Oshawa when he was two after his father took a job at General Motors.
Bobby Orr, Hawerchuk’s idol when he was growing up, played for the Generals, and Hawerchuk dreamed of following in Orr’s footsteps. Everything he did was with one goal in mind: making the NHL. “That was my dream,” Hawerchuk said. “It was all I ever thought about. Everything I did was geared toward, ‘how will this help my hockey?’ ” Hawerchuk knew if he wanted to make the NHL, he had to stand out from the others. Nipigon Park in Oshawa had two outdoor rinks – one on the baseball diamond and another beside the ball diamond. “The one in the diamond was all the best players,” he said. “I would try to show them all my good stuff outside the diamond so if a guy didn’t show up they would call me in. Once I got in, I had to show them I belonged. You are always trying to prove yourself.” Hawerchuk’s awkward, albeit effective, skating didn’t hold him back. He played Jr. B for the Oshawa Legionnaires at 15 under coach Keenan, who would keep Hawerchuk on the ice after practice to try to teach him to skate better. “He gave up after three sessions,” Hawerchuk said. At 16, Hawerchuk’s career hit a fork in the road. It was his junior draft year and he made his way to Skyline Hotel in Toronto to see where he’d be playing the following season. He noticed among the OHL teams represented at the draft there was also a table for the Cornwall Royals. The Cornwall Royals? “I wondered if they were a new team in the OHL,” Hawerchuk said. “I knew nothing about them.” He soon would. Their GM, Gord Woods, went up to the microphone and said, “The Cornwall Royals select, from the Oshawa Legionnaires, Dale Hor-achuk.” Mispronunciation of his surname aside, Hawerchuk and his family were shocked. He had been drafted by a team in the Quebec League, which annually selected its players from Ontario, because Cornwall is in Ontario. “My dad was trying to quit smoking at the time, and that certainly didn’t help him,” Hawerchuk said. Turned out to be a lucky break, though. Horachuk, er, Hawerchuk played two seasons with the Royals and won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1979-80 and 1980-81. His junior career got off to an ominous start, however. His first game with the Royals was in Sherbrooke, and the teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl. In his second game, in Shawinigan, fans tried to get at the Royals on their bench, and the team needed a police escort out of town. “I wondered if I made the right choice, but two years later I walked out of Cornwall with two Memorial Cups,” Hawerchuk said. As a 16-year-old, Hawerchuk was second in Royals scoring with 37 goals and 103 points in 72 games. The next season he led the team with 81 goals and 183 points in 72 games. Fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour grew up in Kingston, Ont., and was well acquainted with Hawerchuk when he joined the Royals in 1980-81. They had gone head-to-head many times as kids. “He was one of Oshawa’s top players,” Gilmour said. “I was a defenseman then and chased him quite a bit.” Hawerchuk was in the spotlight in Cornwall’s second straight Memorial Cup championship year. “All the pressure was on him,” Gilmour said. “It would be like (Connor) McDavid now or (Sidney) Crosby in his junior years. Dale came through with flying colors.” So it was no surprise when the Winnipeg Jets made him the No. 1 pick in the 1981 NHL draft. Once again the location of his team might have been an issue – long, cold winters and all – but it was not. “I loved it,” Hawerchuk said. “When you’re that age you’re not thinking weather. You’re thinking hockey and hockey atmosphere. I was thinking, ‘They are in last place. I’ve got a shot to go in and play a lot right away.’ ” Hawerchuk was an immediate NHL star, claiming the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie with 45 goals and 103 points in 80 games. He enjoyed nine seasons in Winnipeg, but when Mike Smith replaced John Ferguson as GM, things changed, and Hawerchuk wound up traded to Buffalo. He played five seasons with the Sabres, and then, after the lockout-shortened 1994-95, he chose to sign with the Blues as the first marquee free agent of the modern era. The Blues beat out the Jets, Flyers and Canucks in a bidding war for a player who was being slowed by what he thought was a nagging groin injury. Turned out to be a hip issue, though, and it was the beginning of the end of his career. Hawerchuk played 66 games with the Blues and was traded to the Flyers, with whom he played 67 games over two seasons.
At 34, he hung up the blades. A four-time top-10 scorer in the NHL, Hawerchuk never won the Stanley Cup, but he was a key member of two Canadian Canada Cup winners. “The battle to just get out of bed was getting to be too much,” he said. Hawerchuk, now 52, raised show jumping horses north of Toronto upon retirement and then bought into a Tier II junior team in Orangeville, eventually taking over as coach before being named bench of the OHL’s Barrie Colts. He has enjoyed success in Barrie, disproving the theory superstar athletes don’t make good coaches. He said he’d probably like to coach in the NHL, but for now he’s happy in helming the Colts. He’s still trying to prove himself every day, because that’s what Dale Hawerchuk does. He makes it look easy – thanks to hard work.
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.