Cancer grounds greatest Jet

Earlier this month, cancer proved once again it does not act with discrimination.
It will attack you and weaken you and, in far too many cases, take your life and not care who you are or what you accomplished.
Cancer will pick on the poor as much as the rich, the unknown as much as the famous.
Its diabolical nature doesn’t differentiate one potential victim from the other and doesn’t care how much good you have done for others in this world – and it most certainly makes no exception based on your last name.
Such was the case for the man accepted in many circles as the best player to ever don the jersey of the Winnipeg Jets.
Dale Hawerchuk was just 57 years old when stomach cancer ended his stay in this world in Barrie on August 18.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick in 1981 was anticipated to have a special career when he joined the NHL and he not only met those expectations, but surpassed them.
With his terrific speed, pinpoint passing and surefire shot, the centre announced his arrival emphatically by winning the Calder Trophy in 1982 as the league’s top rookie.
Hawerchuk won over Jets fans with not only his on-ice talents, but his off-ice persona which was never anything but humble and hard-working.
The five-time All-Star will forever be remembered by Canadian hockey supporters as winning the biggest face-off in the country’s international hockey history late in the decisive Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup final against Russia in Hamilton.
With 1:33 left in the third period and the score tied 5-5, Hawerchuk – on the ice with arguably the two best forwards to ever play the game in Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux – wound up taking the draw against Vyacheslav Bykov and pushed the puck ahead to Lemieux.
Mario the Magnificent broke out with The Great One and defenceman Larry Murphy on a 3-on-1 – undeniably aided by Hawerchuk’s subtle, well-timed and unnoticed (uncalled?) hook on Bykov behind the play, leaving the fallen Russian unable to get back in time to help.
Gretzky wound up dropping the puck to Lemieux, who buried a top-shelf rocket for the game and tournament-winning goal that has been replayed thousands of times in what was the climax of what is widely regarded as the greatest hockey series of all time.
But none of it would have happened if Hawerchuk hadn’t won that face-off.
By the time he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in 1990, Hawerchuk was the all-time leading scorer in Jets franchise history.
He would win another Canada Cup in 1991 and wind up retiring in 1997 after stints with the Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers.
His 1,409 points have him positioned at No. 20 among the league’s all-time scoring leaders.
But my most compelling memory of Hawerchuk won’t be from those Canada Cups or all the times I saw that No. 10 jersey blow past my beloved Edmonton Oilers for yet another highlight-reel goal during their Smythe Division battles of the 1980s.
It was when he visited Fort Frances in October of 2014 as a member of provincial Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown’s campaign entourage.
Hawerchuk spoke eloquently to the assembled masses at Boston Pizza and then followed up by giving this former sports reporter all the time I required and then some to interview him for an article for the Times.
He never came across for one second as some former NHL big shot in our talk together. Hawerchuk was more interested in talking about Brown or the OHL’s Barrie Colts, for whom he was head coach at the time, than about himself.
It’s one of the stories I treasure writing because I consider it a privilege that I got the chance to talk to not only such a legendary player, but a proud Canadian and all-around good person.
Hawerchuk fought off the cancer well enough in their first tussle to check himself out of the hospital in Barrie after completing chemotherapy treatments in April.
But the illness wanted to drop the gloves a second time in late July and, this time, Hawerchuk didn’t have enough left to fend off its crushing assault.
His life, which included aligning himself with numerous charitable causes, and his death are proof that cancer doesn’t play favourites.
Hawerchuk’s memory will live in the hearts of hockey fans everywhere and his priority to help others should, as well.
Just five days left in my Step Forward fundraiser. Please, if you haven’t already, help if you can – for Dale and for all the rest that cancer took from us far too soon.

Steps taken this week: 118,746
Steps taken overall: 1,394,039
Money raised this week: $155
Money raised for Riverside Foundation for Health Care – Chemotherapy Unit: $625
Money raised for Rainy River Victim District Services: $700
Money raised for the UNFC Food Bank: $1,500
Money raised overall: $2,825
Please go to my Facebook page entitled “Joey Payeur” and look for the Step Forward fundraiser post to donate. Thanks for all your support.