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Barrie Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk has died

Longtime Colts coach and Hockey Hall of Famer died today after cancer battle

Ken Hornick has no doubt the influence his friend Dale Hawerchuk had on him.

"He inspired me to be a better person," Hornick said of the Hockey Hall of Famer and Barrie Colts head coach, who sadly passed away today at the age of 57 with his parents Ed and Eleanor, wife Crystal, and children Eric, Alexis and Ben beside him after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.

Eric Hawerchuk announced his father's passing on Twitter around 2:30 p.m., Tuesday. 

"My family is so proud of him and the way he fought," he said. 

After some personal issues led to the break up of his marriage, Hornick, who was then coaching Tier II Junior 'A' hockey in Orangeville with Hawerchuk, turned to his friend and the Hawerchuk family. He would live with them for three years. 

"Him and his family were there for me," said the London Knights director of under-18 scouting, who first met Hawerchuk 15 years ago through a friend, Andrew Jackson, at a golf tournament. "They took me in and helped me out. I became a better person because of Dale Hawerchuk. I wouldn't be where I am today without him and that's 100 per cent the truth."

Hawerchuk finished four rounds of chemotherapy treatments in mid-April and hoped his battle with cancer was done, but three months later Eric announced on Twitter his dad "is back in his fight against cancer due to a resurgence of this terrible disease."

Longtime assistant coach Todd Miller, who spent all 10 years alongside Hawerchuk on the Colts bench, was devastated for the Hawerchuk family and for the loss of someone he called his "best friend."

"I'm blessed that I had the chance to work with one of the best hockey players in the world and to get the knowledge that I have gotten over this course in time," said Miller, who spent the last few days at the family home in King City lying alongside the hockey legend and sharing stories.

"Not only that, he's one of my best friends on the entire planet," Hornick told BarrieToday. "And to be around someone that special, and for something like this to happen to someone like that, it breaks my heart. The city of Barrie was really lucky to have a man like that here."

A star from an early age, Hawerchuk got his first skates at the age of two and was soon lighting up minor hockey tournaments before being selected sixth overall by the Cornwall Royals in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in 1980.

He would score 37 goals and record 103 points en route to being named the QMJHL rookie of the year, leading the Royals to the 1981 Memorial Cup. He would explode for 81 goals and 183 points the next season and carried Cornwall to its second straight Memorial Cup title, earning Memorial Cup most valuable player and Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year honours.

"He was a competitive person," Hornick said. "He loved to win."

The Winnipeg Jets selected him first overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft and Hawerchuk turned around a struggling franchise and thus begin a love affair with the Manitoba city that lasted throughout his life. He was introduced to the city at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street by general manager John Ferguson, who brought Hawerchuk there in a Brinks truck.

Hawerchuk posted an impressive 45 goals and 103 points to earn Calder Memorial Trophy as top rookie while leading the Jets to a 48-point turnaround from the previous season. After a 91-point season the following year, he would record five-straight 100-point seasons.

Nicknamed 'Ducky', the talented centre would go on to play nine of his 16 seasons in the NHL with Winnipeg, before spending five seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, one with the St. Louis Blues and his final two years with the Philadelphia Flyers.

But it was in Winnipeg where Hawerchuk said "he grew up." The Hall of Famer held a charity golf tournament in the western city every year before he became sick and was recognized everywhere he went to this day.

Miller found that out quick enough. He and Hawerchuk flew to Winnipeg to see former Colt standout Mark Scheifele, who was in first season with the Jets.

In a limo heading to the game, Hawerchuk asked the driver not to park in front of the arena.

"I thought, 'Oh Dale, come on. Like you're not that big,'" Miller recalled. 

Neither had a ticket in their hand and they got out of the limo.

"We walked right in and he got swarmed," Miller said with a laugh. "I couldn't believe it. This was when Mark Scheifele just broke in with them and to see the jerseys in that arena with Dale Hawerchuk's name and number on the back of them, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe he got swarmed."

They were brought right into arena and headed up the stairs with no questions asked.

"I went to myself, 'Oh my God, I can't believe what Dale Hawerchuk has done to the city of Winnipeg and how much these people love him,'" added Miller. "I was amazed. I knew how good he was, but I didn't really realize it until I went to Winnipeg with him and did that."

After his lone appearance in the Stanley Cup final in 1997 with the Flyers, a bad hip would force Hawerchuk's retirement at the age of 34. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 and, while his list of on-ice achievements are lengthy, Hornick believes it's Hawerchuk's performance with Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup that topped the list.

"He went into that camp and they didn't think he was going to make the team," Hornick explained. "I think that was something he was really proud of."

While Hawerchuk seldom boasted of his Hall of Fame career, he enjoyed talking about being on the ice for the game-winning goal in a 6-5 win in the decisive third game of the final against the Soviet Union.

Hawerchuk had a goal and two assists that game and won the key faceoff in his own end leading to Mario Lemieux's game winner on a pass from Wayne Gretzky.  

"He hooked the guy (trying to get to Lemieux) all the way down the ice," Hornick said with a chuckle. "The old days you could do that. He was a star in the NHL and he loved Winnipeg, but I think making that team was one of his prouder moments of his career. He never came out and said, but I could tell about the way he talked about it sometimes."

Hawerchuk was hired by the Colts in 2010, replacing head coach Marty Williamson who had left for the Niagara IceDogs. He took over a young, rebuilding club and won 15 games to finish last overall in the OHL.

Just two seasons later, he guided the team to the OHL final where they lost a heart-breaking seven-game series to London, with the winning goal coming in the last second of the game.

Previous to getting the job with Barrie, Hawerchuk was familiar with Scheifele having wanted him to play in a tournament for him in Sweden. While that didn't work out, the two would soon join forces.

"I remember Dale got the Barrie job and he said 'let's get that Scheifele kid,'" Hornick said. "He just had a special feeling about this kid and he was right. The kid came and worked his butt off and respected Dale and Dale respected him.

"The two stars we had were him and (Aaron) Ekblad and Dale always told me at the time 'These kids are going to make it, because they want it, they work at it," he added. "They loved the game.'"

Miller spent a lot of the weekend with Hawerchuk. He said all they talked of was the good times, like hugging him after making the playoffs for the first time in 2012 and celebrating his first playoff series win over Mississauga that same year.

"All I want to do is remember as much as I can and hopefully I'm back in Barrie and I can do something for Dale and make it for him," Miller said. "I know my players have contacted me about doing it for him and have a big special year for one of the best guys I've met in my life."

One of Hawerchuk's biggest joys in Barrie was getting the opportunity to coach his son Ben.

"It was unreal to see that," Miller said. "The whole family wanted to see that."

"I think he was really proud of Ben," Hornick said. "I think it was a proud moment, too, for Dale's mom and dad to see Ben make it."

During his fight with cancer, Hawerchuk stopped by the Barrie arena to see his team, including one night before Christmas when the club, celebrating its 25th anniversary season, was honouring overage players, including Ben.

Seeing their coach back and drop the puck at centre ice was a huge lift for everyone in the dressing room.

"It kind of made us feel he was invincible," said head equipment manager Clayton Johns. "You just felt it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to beat this and be back with us for the season."

Colts general manager Jason Ford admits it's hard to describe in words just how impactful Hawerchuk was on his career and the knowledge he passed on to him through their 10 years together in Barrie.

"I had a really good feeling about working with him because I knew him from Orangeville Junior 'A' and thought that if I could impress him early then he was the type of guy who would be there for you," Ford told BarrieToday. "I have always been very passionate about working in management in the OHL, and figured if I could show him that I was willing to do whatever I could to help the team win a championship, then the more you could learn from working with him and the tighter our management team was.

"He (was) an extremely optimistic person, and the best natural born leader I’ve ever worked with," Ford added. "His positivity always rubbed off on those around him and I think helped him become a tremendous hockey coach."

The 293rd pick overall by the Colts and selected just seven players before the end of the 2014 OHL Priority Selection, one would think playing major junior was a pipe dream for Lucas Chiodo. Hawerchuk was quick to point out to the Churchill native that he got his invite and that's what counted.

"After I got drafted in the 15th round, he called me and said it doesn't matter what round you go in; you're in the system and that's all that matters," said Chiodo, who visited Hawerchuk on the weekend. "He believed in me right from the first camp. You just get confidence when your coach believes in you."

Chiodo would become a key forward and go on to play into a fifth season with Barrie before being moved to Ottawa at the trade deadline. He posted an impressive 72 goals and 192 points in 227 games with the Colts.

"He was the first coach to ever really give me a chance," the five-foot-six, 168-pound winger said of Hawerchuk. "That really meant a lot to me. He believed in me. I felt he really cared about me and my process in getting better each day. He was just a great coach in general. He really cared about his players.

"I'm just so thankful I got to cross paths with him," Chiodo added. "I'm just so thankful for him and all the time he put into me and believing in me, it just really meant a lot. I wouldn't be the player and person I am today."

Over his years with Hawerchuk in Orangeville and Barrie, Hornick always made sure he was on time.

"He always had a saying, 'It's better to be 10 minutes early than one minute late,'" Hornick said. "That was his favourite saying."

Hornick also said Hawerchuk loved to say: "Let's make hay when the sun shines."

"He always came to the house and beeped the horn, and I was ready," said Hornick, who was there when Hawerchuk got his first OHL win in Belleville and when he got a hole-in-one on the No. 9 par-four hole at Hockley Valley. "When he came to get me, I wanted to be ready. That was the one thing I learned from him. I tell the kids that every day."

This past season, Miller talked to Hawerchuk after every game.

"He was watching every second of the game," Miller said. "He loved the game of hockey."

Growing up in Oshawa, Hawerchuk was determined to fulfill his dream of one day playing in the NHL and worked hard to make sure he did. It's a story Miller often passes on the players.

"That is why Dale Hawerchuk is so special. He wasn't the flash-and-dash guy; he was the hardest working guy who put up points and always found a way for everything he did in life," Miller said. "That's why this is so hard. The guy I know that everyone in our organization and the NHL and everyone knows what a hardworking guy and the respect he deserves.

"For me, I feel so special that I got to sit in a chair with him for 10 years and listen to Dale Hawerchuk. It's the most amazing thing that will ever be 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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