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'He was the one who taught me the love of the game.'

How a one-hour conversation with Dale Hawerchuk changed Mark Scheifele's career path

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

A young, 17-year-old Mark Scheifele had his hockey career path set in his mind. 

He was going to spend his 2010-11 with the Huntsville Otters of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, then join Cornell University the following season.

Scheifele was on his way to play in the Cottage Cup - a preseason tournament - with the Otters prior to the 2010 season, but he didn't know that someone else was also on the way: Dale Hawerchuk.

Hawerchuk was on the verge of his first season as head coach of the Barrie Colts, who had acquired Scheifele's junior rights about three weeks earlier.

"He and the assistant GM came up to watch me play," said Scheifele. "They talked to my mom and on the way back, we stopped in at the Barrie Molson Centre."

One hour of conversation later, Scheifele's whole plan changed.

"I talked to Dale and something clicked. I was like 'Mom, I want to go play in Barrie. This is the guy I want to play for," said Scheifele. "There is no one else I'd rather play for than this guy.' That was from talking to him for an hour."

That was the beginning of a long relationship between Scheifele and Hawerchuk, two players forever linked in the history of the Winnipeg Jets.

It's a relationship Scheifele says shaped him into the player he is today - and wants to become in the future.

"He's one of those guys that had such an impact on my life and my hockey career," said Scheifele. "For him to have played in Winnipeg, for him to be such a legend in Winnipeg, it motivates me to be a better hockey player, to be at my best. It's almost like I want all his hard work on me to not go unnoticed."

The hard work Scheifele referenced began with the young centre's first season with the Colts in the Ontario Hockey League.

That 2010-11 campaign was Scheifele's draft year. Just 20 years earlier, at the 1981 NHL Draft, Hawerchuk was selected first overall by the Jets - so he knew the pressure Scheifele might be feeling.

The ability to relate to what his players were going through - whether it was draft expectations or minute details in the offensive zone - was what made Hawerchuk such an impactful coach.

"I think the biggest thing was he related to all of us players really well," said Scheifele. "There is no guy that I've talked to that wasn't like 'this is the best coach I've ever had.' He was an unbelievable guy. He just related to all of us. He knew how to understand us all. He knew how to connect with us not only on a hockey level but on a personal level."

Scheifele finished that season with 22 goals and 75 points - his 53 assists led all OHL rookies that season - and played in the CHL Top Prospects Game.

As fate would have it, it would be the Jets that would call Scheifele's name at the 2011 NHL Draft that summer. General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff knew the decision to send Scheifele back to Barrie after tasting the NHL game in 2011 would be difficult.

"It was probably some of the best decisions we made," said Cheveldayoff. "It certainly has helped Mark's career in getting grounded, and getting an opportunity to have a few more years of tutelage with Dale, teaching Mark to be that go-to guy and what that means - I think it meant a lot."

Scheifele was a go-to guy in Barrie for the next two seasons before sticking with the Jets full-time at the start of the 2013-14 season. Despite the 142 points he'd accumulate in 92 games over those two years with the Colts, he wasn't exempt from the high standards Hawerchuk had for him.

"We had that connection where if he screamed and yelled at me for 20 minutes straight - which happened after one game - I knew he didn't hate me. I knew it wasn't a personal thing," said Scheifele. "I knew he did that because he cared about me and wanted the best for me. That's a true friendship."

And that's how Scheifele considered the relationship between the two of them - a friendship.

"When you don't worry if you yell at someone, if you call someone out for their flaws or what they did wrong, I didn't look at it as a personal attack. I looked at it as 'he's trying to make me better, he's trying to make me a better person, a better hockey player,'" said Scheifele. "That's the most loving thing that anyone can do for you. That's what I remember about him most."

Instagram from @mscheif: Reflecting of my time spent with Dale. He was an outstanding coach and mentor who helped my career take off. I am saddened that kids in junior will no longer have that same opportunity to learn under his guidance. Dale was an absolutely amazing person, and I am privileged to have spent time with him. God Bless Dale and his family.

In the weeks that have followed since Hawerchuk's passing at the age of 57, Scheifele - like many others - has had the chance to reflect on his many memories.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice has done the same and sees a lot of Hawerchuk in Scheifele.

"That relationship shaped Mark. I'm going to say this because the number of conversations I've had with him just about hockey, we'd eventually get to a point where he's explaining how Dale had explained it to him," said Maurice. "The impact, even in the last week in talking to Mark about the impact Dale had on him, it was immense and it will be life-long in terms of his career on and off the ice in Winnipeg."

On the ice, it's easy to see the similarities between the two - both are top line centres, both first round picks, both averaging over a point-per-game, and both are prolific playmakers that can change the game.

Off the ice, one particular lesson from Hawerchuk stays with Scheifele: 

Playing in the NHL is an education.

"If you only pick up one thing every game you watch, you watch 100 games in 100 days, you're going to pick up 100 things," said Scheifele. "I didn't fall in love with the game of hockey until I played for Dale. I really realized how much fun this game was, how enjoyable it is to go to the rink every day and learn to be a better hockey player, learn a new skill, work on a new drill - whatever it was, he was the one who taught me the love of the game."

Going forward, Hawerchuk's memory and teachings will stay with Scheifele as he continues to carve his own path in the NHL.

Where that path leads is up to Scheifele, but his goal is simple.

"I want to be looked at in the hockey world the way he was looked at. That pushes me even more," he said.

"I'm going to keep working to be the best player I can be. He's going to be my guardian angel. He's been that ever since I met him when I was 17-years-old, and he's going to be there for the rest of my career and the rest of my life. I believe that whole-heartedly."

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