Dale Hawerchuk, arguably the greatest player in Winnipeg Jets history, was the centrepiece of the National Hockey League team throughout the 1980s. He reconnected with fans after the new Jets relocated to town in 2011 and the relationship grew stronger in the ensuing years. There was an outpouring of support for him after he announced last fall that he was battling cancer and there were high hopes for his future when a picture circulated of him in April ringing the bell to signify he had completed his last chemotherapy treatment. But the disease returned in July and he lost his battle in August. Author Geoff Kirbyson spoke at length with Hawerchuk two years ago about his time with the Jets and, in this excerpt, about his crucial role in the 1987 Canada Cup. Broken Ribs & Popcorn is dedicated to him.
Whenever the phone rang at Dale Hawerchuk’s house in the summer of 1987, he picked it up on the first ring.
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Like a few dozen other Canadian hockey players, he was hoping for one of the much-coveted invitations to Team Canada’s training camp that August.
Finally, the call came. Before the question was even out of coach Mike Keenan’s mouth, Hawerchuk answered, “yes!”
“I really wanted to make that team. In ’84, I didn’t even get invited to training camp. Going to training camp in ’87 was really important to me,” Hawerchuk said.
With Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux written in stone at centre, expectations weren’t terribly high for the Winnipeg Jets centre but he had a good start to camp and raised a few eyebrows among those making the final selections.
“I remember Pat Burns coming up to me and saying, ‘we didn’t have you pencilled in here but if you keep going like this, we can’t keep you off the team.’ That was an important step for me. I wanted to be around those guys to see what made them all tick,” he said.
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Team Canada assistant coach Tom Watt, his first head coach in the pros with the Jets in 1981-82, was in his corner. Watt was quick to acknowledge that with so much skill down the middle, it was going to be tough to make the team as a centre.
“Somebody had to play on the wing,” Watt said.
When the final roster was announced, Hawerchuk’s name was there. So was Doug Gilmour’s of the St. Louis Blues. Detroit’s Steve Yzerman’s was not.
“I think it was really amazing for Hawerchuk and Gilmour to make the team as wingers. We had so many great centres. Yzerman was very critical of Keenan because he got cut from the team. I was there. He was tried on the wing and didn’t adjust,” Watt said.
As the tournament wore on, Hawerchuk’s ice time increased steadily.
With time winding down in the deciding Game 3 of the final against the Soviet Union, he was sent out with Gretzky, Lemieux, Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey for a face-off to Grant Fuhr’s left. The game was tied 5-5.
Hawerchuk, who had a goal and assist thus far on the evening, expected one of the other two centres to take the draw. After all, that’s where they made the team, right?
If you keep going like this, we can’t keep you off the team
Gretzky looked at him and said, “nope, I’m not taking it.”
Lemieux begged off saying as a right-handed shot, this was his weaker side. It was Hawerchuk’s face-off.
“I told Mario, I’m tying him up,” he said.
Across from him was Vyacheslav Bykov, a strong face-off man and a mainstay on the Red Army team back home. He was also one of the Soviets’ leading scorers with two goals and nine assists in the tournament.
The linesman dropped the puck and Hawerchuk got his stick underneath Bykov’s and nudged the puck towards Lemieux, who was cutting across to the left boards. He then reached out with his left hand to poke it past the pinching Igor Kravchuk.
Lemieux quickly passed the puck up to Gretzky, who was darting down the left side. Murphy joined the rush on the right side, creating a three-on-one. Gretzky dropped the puck to Lemieux who glided in and ripped a wrist shot — true to the scouting report — high to the glove side of Sergei Mylnikov, who was off balance after the puck went past him and had to catch himself on his crossbar.
Hawerchuk was the first to join Gretzky and Lemieux in the celebration, leaving his feet to jump on the two of them behind the Soviet net.
Bykov was perhaps the one Soviet who could have gotten back to break it up but Hawerchuk took care of that near centre, giving him a little tug at the left hip with his stick. Bykov went down theatrically like he’d been shot by a sniper in the stands.
“It was kind of normal stuff at the time. You could always hook a guy and break his stride,” Hawerchuk said. “When I watch the video, he just tried to dive at the end in the hopes of getting a penalty. By the time he dove, I was like 15 feet away from him.”
Fuhr (mostly) agrees.
“It was a little more than a tug. You could do that back then,” he said.
Indeed, Hawerchuk said the entire series was “vicious” with the amount of hooking and slashing that took place.
“You always had to turn your body to protect yourself. There was way worse stuff going on. I wasn’t even thinking about a penalty at all. It was just a little tug and then he gave it a goofy dive afterwards.”
Watt said Hawerchuk tugged Bykov just enough that he couldn’t get back in the play.
“It was pretty quick. It wasn’t flagrant but it was enough to spin him around. It wasn’t like he knocked him down or tripped him. It was a pretty quick little move and it worked. A little larceny goes a long way,” he said.
Indeed, Hawerchuk was named the game’s most valuable player.