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'He really embraced us'

Executive Chairman Mark Chipman speaks about Hawerchuk's role in connecting two Jets eras

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

In the years leading up to Winnipeg's return to the NHL in 2011, Dale Hawerchuk was among many of the hopeful hockey fans that a franchise would return to the Manitoba capital.

Whenever Mark Chipman ran into the former Jets captain - whether it was at multiple Hockey Canada events or otherwise - the question was always asked.

"He had a keen interest in the possibility of the NHL returning to Winnipeg," said Chipman, the Executive Chairman of the Jets. "I didn't appreciate this at the time, but his son explained this to me just in the last couple weeks. The reason it was so important to him was because I think he felt disconnected. After he retired he felt, clearly, close to all the teams he played for - but he had a deep affinity for his time here."

So perhaps it wasn't a surprise that Hawerchuk reached out to Chipman shortly after the announcement on May 31, 2011.

"He made it known to me right from the get go that he was here for us in any way, shape, or form we felt appropriate. He didn't impose himself on us," said Chipman. "It was really gratifying to know that he really embraced us."

The next step was to sort out how to bridge the gap between the alumni of the World Hockey Association and early NHL days, to the current version of the Jets.

That opportunity came in 2016 as part of the Heritage Classic festivities - and Hawerchuk would be at the forefront of that movement.

"It was through that process that the relationship really tightened and the friendship really grew," Chipman said. "It was really our intention to build that event around Dale. He was sort of the cornerstone, in my opinion, of the first NHL chapter of the Winnipeg Jets."

While the relationship between Hawerchuk and Chipman grew as the years went on, this new era of Jets hockey was just another chapter in the friendship between Hawerchuk and Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger.

"They're very close, dear friends. That goes way back," said Chipman. "That friendship was never interrupted by the hiatus the NHL took. That friendship just grew and grew. He felt as much an affinity toward 'Zinger to what it is we were trying to do."

Heisinger officially started his time with the Jets as the equipment manager in 1988, seven years after Hawerchuk arrived on the scene as the first overall pick in the 1981 NHL Draft.

But through Heisinger's work with the Western Hockey League's Winnipeg Warriors, he was around the Jets dressing room frequently. In fact, the two teams practiced immediately after the other, and Heisinger recalls seeing Hawerchuk and teammate (and later, Manitoba Moose left-winger) Scott Arniel watching Warriors games.

The two kept in touch over the 15 years with no NHL hockey in Winnipeg, as Heisinger became the general manager of the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose.

"When the Jets left in 1996 and the Moose came, we tried our best to keep the Jets Alumni, Moose Alumni and Friends alive as best we could," said Heisinger, who admitted even he underestimated how powerful the Heritage weekend would be in bridging the gap between the 1.0 and 2.0 eras of the Jets.

"The alumni game was funny. It probably took us 15 years to beat the Oilers finally in the third period of a game that counted, but we did it in that game," Heisinger recalled with a grin. "When the game was over, I remember Dale standing there high-giving guys like it was a meaningful game. Maybe it was."

It was meaningful for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff as well. He played his junior hockey in Brandon during Hawerchuk's time with the Jets. Cheveldayoff didn't get to many Jets games, simply because of the conflicting schedules in the WHL and NHL, but he remembered the Winnipeg Arena back then being just as raucous as Bell MTS Place these days.

"I'm a big believer in alumni with an organization. The players now should understand how important they are to the community, to themselves, and to each other," said Cheveldayoff. "Dale, the legacy he left in this organization and will continue to leave is something that is going to be special. Every single player that puts on a Jets jersey will know that they'll be remembered as part of the alumni."

One year after the Heritage weekend, the Jets inducted Hawerchuk into their Hall of Fame. This came one year after the inaugural class, which included the WHA 'Hot Line' of Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, and Bobby Hull.

"He was the first guy from the NHL chapter," Chipman said, adding he remembers the day he called Hawerchuk to tell him he was going in.

"For a guy who was already long ago inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was a modest response - but it wasn't," said Chipman. "He was overwhelmed, as he was often. He was touched by it."

As the franchise comes up on 10 years in Winnipeg, the relationship with the alumni is as strong as ever, thanks in large part to Hawerchuk's selflessness with his time. 

"He was constantly saying 'what else can I do?' He did a lot of things for us, some of them public, some very quietly with some of our sponsors," said Chipman. "He was always available to us."

Perhaps that's why it was so important to Chipman and Heisinger to make sure Hawerchuk knew something else before he passed on August 18, 2020.

Plans were in the works to build a statue in his honour. 

"When you see a statue, and when you see something that is immortalized forever, I think that truly shows how important this organization, these people, these players - and certainly a player like Dale - is and always will be to the city of Winnipeg," said Cheveldayoff. "I don't know if there's a better honour that an organization can bestow."

The difficult part was finding a time to tell Hawerchuk, without imposing on the many who wanted to get in touch with him and his family.

While talking with Chipman one day, Heisinger said he owed Hawerchuk a phone call - the two had been chatting every other day at this point - so they called him up.

"We explained to him that we thought he was very deserving of the honour and likened it to Gretzky's statue outside of the building in Edmonton, Orr in Boston," said Chipman. "He got quite emotional. We all got quite emotional."

That's when Heisinger stepped in to deliver one of the quick one-liners that always seems to draw a laugh - both from their side of things and Hawerchuk's.

"Dale was there with some other people. Wendel Clark was there, Ben and Eric were there, not sure if Crystal was there, Andrew Jackson was there - a guy he did a lot of business with on the promotional side," said Heisinger. 

"I said 'Dale I give you my absolute promise that if there's any sort of red line where that statue is, you'll be on the offensive side'… That gave the situation a little bit of levity."

There is no timeline just yet for when the statue will be ready, but a quick look at the outpouring of support from inside (and outside) the hockey world is an indication of just how revered Hawerchuk was - no matter what the era.

"I think it's really valuable and important that those who just loved him as a hockey player and had a sense of how good a person he was," said Chipman. "Whenever you talk to Dale, you might not remember exactly what the conversation was, but you can remember how he made you feel. You can't fake that. That's a gift that he had."

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