“Playing in the shadow of” belongs in the sports cliché pantheon. It’s a term as tired as a beat-up pair of leather goalie pads, used to describe a great player who toiled in obscurity because some other stars, be they teammates or contemporary opponents, shone their brightest at the same time.
But few athletes in pro sports history embody the expression better than Dale Hawerchuk. His best years perfectly coincided with the rise of the two greatest pure scoring forwards of all-time: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Hawerchuk, like Lemieux, was a first-overall pick, perceived as a franchise-altering phenom when the Winnipeg Jets drafted him in 1981. He was on NHL teams' radars from his early teens. Legendary coach Mike Keenan, speaking Wednesday reminiscing about Hawerchuk, coached him in Jr. B when he was just 15. Keenan remembers Hawerchuk as the best player on the team, playing against young men as old as 21 and still dominating. He and Keenan later became opponents in major junior, and Hawerchuk's Cornwall Royals beat Keenan's Peterborough Petes in the 1980 Memorial Cup, one of two straight championships for Cornwall in which Hawerchuk starred.
Hawerchuk wasn’t an imposing physical presence at 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds, but the puck followed him like a magnet. He ripped off 103 points in 80 games as an 18-year-old, setting a rookie record at the time. He became the youngest player in league history to record a 100-point season, a mark that stood until Sidney Crosby broke it in 2006. Hawerchuk hit the 100-point mark in six of his first seven NHL seasons.
Given what he accomplished offensively, one might assume his trophy case overflowed with Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies. But Hawerchuk was an MVP finalist just once. He was never a first-team all-star and was a second-team all-star just once. He had more than 1,400 career points yet cracked the top three in league scoring just once. During his prime with the Jets from 1981-82 to 1989-90, they won two playoff series, escaped the first round twice and never advanced past the second round.
So why highlight what Hawerchuk “didn’t” accomplish right now, in the hours following his tragic passing at 57 after a battle with stomach cancer? Because Hawerchuk was so much more than his numbers suggested. His career overlapped with the end of the New York Islanders dynasty, the entirety of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty and even the mini Pittsburgh Penguins dynasty. Gretzky and Lemieux won every scoring title between 1980-81 and 1993-94. And yet, during that 14-season stretch, Hawerchuk racked up more points than every player in the league other than Gretzky. Hawerchuk, a center like Wayne and Mario, couldn’t find a speck of spotlight for himself. He also wasn’t one to seek it out. He was known as a relatively shy and modest personality throughout his career, and he moved to a ranch on the outskirts of Winnipeg when he played there. Even when he joined the legendary 1987 Canada Cup team, coached by Keenan, Hawerchuk showed no ego.
"Here’s a superstar who would accept a lesser role and was pleased just to be part of the '87 team," Keenan said. "He said, 'Mike, I don’t care how you play me and what I have to play.' I think I played him at every forward position you could imagine, in every situation. He said, 'I’m just delighted to be here amongst this group.' He was just a real humble guy."
Hawerchuk never craved attention. Perhaps that’s why, despite his eye-popping numbers, he didn’t crack The Hockey News’ Top 100 Players of All-Time in 1997, nor the NHL’s Top 100 Players of All-time in 2017.
It’s a shame, because Hawerchuk deserves more recognition as one of the greatest scoring wizards the game has ever seen. He’s one of 15 players ever to hit the 100-point mark six times. Even if we factor in that his prime arrived in the high-octane 1980s, when the league gushed goals, only five players all-time have more 100-point seasons. Hawerchuk is one of 12 players to notch five 100-point seasons in a row. He’s 20th all-time in points and 14 in points per game. The day he retired, he was top 10 all-time in points.
Sometimes, the best judges of a player's talent are those who competed against that player – such as members of the ultra-competitive Smythe Division of the 1980s, which boasted not just the Oilers, but also the perennially dominant Calgary Flames and the rising L.A. Kings.
"He was very difficult to defend," said Hall of Fame defenseman Kevin Lowe, who played on all five Oilers Stanley Cup teams. "He had sneaky quickness, great deception in his stickhandling and moves, and he had decent size as well as a quick release. He also was sneaky gritty. He didn't take crap too often. "
"As far back as I can remember, Dale Hawerchuk was a special player and person that I looked up to," said Hall of Fame left winger Luc Robitaille, who, as a longtime Los Angeles King, competed against Hawerchuk a ton. "I will never forget seeing him play for the first time when he was in junior hockey with Cornwall. He was mesmerizing."
Robitaille, now the Kings' president, also said it was "the thrill of a lifetime" to play with Hawerchuk on the 1991 Canada Cup squad. "I speak for my family and the entire L.A. Kings organization in wishing his family our sincere condolences, Robitaille said.
Those who played against Hawerchuk revere him as an all-time great. He never received the mainstream recognition he deserved, however. Perhaps, after his heartbreaking death, his accomplishments can be celebrated and he can properly be acknowledged as one of the best players ever.
The quintessential moment of Hawerchuk's hockey life arguably came in the deciding game of the '87 Canada Cup. Keenan sent him out with Gretzky and Lemieux, sure enough, for a defensive zone faceoff. Hawerchuk won it. Wayne and Mario ended up connecting for the winning goal. They're the ones remembered most for the iconic play. But Hawerchuk was there, too, just like he was for his whole career.
Keenan stayed close to Hawerchuk over the years. He comforted Keenan when he battled prostate cancer in 2018. Keenan was there for Hawerchuk in his later days, too.
"A few days ago, I said to him, 'You have one more big faceoff to win,' " Keenan said. "Unfortunately, he was too sick to win that faceoff.”