Dale Hawerchuk is already a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame but he’ll accept yet another honor for his illustrious playing career when he is inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame on Tuesday.
“I was in Buffalo for five years and I really enjoyed my time there,” Hawerchuk said. “It’s quite an honor. When people tell you they’re going to put you in the Hall of Fame, you’re speechless.”
Hawerchuk and Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret will be inducted in a pre-game ceremony before the Sabres face-off against the Winnipeg Jets at the First Niagara Center. Now this isn’t the same Jets franchise that Hawerchuk played nine seasons for in the 1980s (these Jets are the former Atlanta Thrashers), but he knows how important having an NHL team is to that city.
“Both teams are pretty close to my heart. It’s very exciting that the Jets are back and Winnipeg’s back,” Hawerchuk, now 48 years old, said. “I know everybody in Winnipeg is really excited. It’s a tough ticket to get.”
Drafted first overall by the Jets in 1981, Hawerchuk went on to score 103 points as an 18-year-old rookie and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie at the end of the season. He became the youngest player to reach the 100-point plateau and tallied 1,409 points over a 16-season career. Hawerchuk is currently 18th on the NHL’s all-time points list. He was 10th at the time of his retirement in 1997.
It doesn’t matter what size you are. The puck doesn’t know who’s bigger; it’s a matter of who wants it more. I always played the game with that kind of edge. I wanted the puck more than my opponent. - Dale Hawerchuk
“My game was pretty, I’d say, tenacious on the puck. I always tried to play hungry,” the 5-foot-11 Hawerchuk said. “I think it was just an aggressive game I had in the sense of puck pursuit. It doesn’t matter what size you are. The puck doesn’t know who’s bigger; it’s a matter of who wants it more. I always played the game with that kind of edge. I wanted the puck more than my opponent.”
The Jets traded Hawerchuk and Brad May to Buffalo during the 1990 NHL Entry Draft for Phil Housley, Jeff Parker, Scott Arniel and Buffalo’s first round draft pick, which turned out to be Keith Tkachuk.
“I think the only down part of the whole thing was they sent Scott Arniel back in the trade. Scott and I are pretty close. We played in junior together and we played a lot of years in Winnipeg together,” Hawerchuk said. “It was kind of bittersweet that way. I really looked forward to the opportunity [to come to Buffalo]. I liked the hockey club they had, and I was looking forward to being a part of the Sabres.”
In 342 games as a Sabre, Hawerchuk scored 110 goals and 385 points. His 275 assists in a Buffalo uniform rank him eighth on the franchise’s all-time assists list. He led the Sabres in scoring three times – 1990-91, 1991-92 and 1993-94. He was also the team’s overall leader in goals (35), assists (51) and points (86) in the 1993-94 season.
The Buffalo teams Hawerchuk played for were quite successful, making the playoffs in each of his five seasons. In fact, he missed the playoffs only once in his career – in 1989 with the Jets.
What Hawerchuk really remembers about those Sabres teams from the early ’90s, however, was their inability to stay healthy.
“In the playoffs, we’d always have key injuries. When you have key guys going down, it’s always a challenge, especially in the playoffs,” he explains. “A big part of [becoming] Stanley Cup champions at the end of the day [is that] they stay healthy and they have enough depth. For us, I always felt like we had key guys going down just about every year.”
The 1993 Buffalo Sabres became the first incarnation of the team to advance out of the first round of the playoffs since 1983. Having lost to the Boston Bruins in three of their previous five playoff series, the ’93 Sabres finally got over the hump and won the series in a four-game sweep.
Three of the games went into overtime. Hawerchuk assisted on Yuri Khmylev’s overtime goal in Game Three, and the series ended on Brad May’s iconic “May Day” overtime goal in Game Four.
“It’s funny because going into that series, we had lost I don’t know how many in a row at the end of the year and everybody was counting us out,” Hawerchuk said. The Sabres had in fact lost seven straight games at the end of the regular season. “And then we walked into the Boston series and swept them. We were playing really well. Really well.”
As Hawerchuk remembers, however, the team quickly became “pretty decimated” by injuries to some of their key players like captain Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Doug Bodger. The Montreal Canadiens swept the next series, winning each of the four games by a score of 4-3 and then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
During that 1992-93 season, Hawerchuk and LaFontaine set franchise records for assists in a season. LaFontaine assisted on 95 goals while Hawerchuk recorded 80 helpers. Hawerchuk attributes most of that success to a potent special teams unit.
“We had a wicked power play,” he said. “I think teams did not want to take penalties against us. As soon as we got on the powerplay, our whole building started jumping because they knew there were going to be some chances and good chances.”
Playing the point on that power play, Hawerchuk said was able to distribute the puck to talented players like LaFontaine and Mogilny.
“We were pretty unselfish with the puck,” Hawerchuk said. “We let the puck do the work. Nobody can skate as fast as you can move the puck.”
He left Buffalo in 1995 for St. Louis as a free agent, and retired as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers organization following the 1996-97 season. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. Hawerchuk had his number retired by the Phoenix Coyotes organization in 2007 but the banner raised into the rafters bore the old Jets colors and logo. Hawerchuk is currently in his second season as the head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts.
“I’m looking forward to the day [of the ceremony],” Hawerchuk said. “I keep thinking about something like this and it may be an honor to be recognized individually as a player, but it’s really a team – a family – award. I wouldn’t have had the success I had without my coaches and players and trainers and then the support of my family from my parents to my wife and kids. They’ve always been 100 per cent behind me.”