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“It Really Felt Like A Death Sentence”: Hawerchuk Reflects on Cancer Journey

Photo by Bruce Fedyck

“It Really Felt Like A Death Sentence”: Hawerchuk Reflects on Cancer Journey

Winnipeg Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk is known as many things to many people. By some accounts he is ‘the greatest player to ever wear the Jets logo’. For others he is ‘Coach Dale’. Some recall Hawerchuk being a Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year with Winnipeg in 1981-82 following an absurd 45-goal, 103-point campaign. Others simply know him as ‘Ducky’.

But now, Dale Hawerchuk can be known as a cancer survivor.

The 57-year-old product of Toronto, ON. continues to recover from stomach cancer treatments that he has endured since being diagnosed last August. Now three weeks since his final chemotherapy treatments, Hawerchuk sustains progress in a battle that has become “the fight of his life”.

“From eight months ago when I was first diagnosed, it really felt like a death sentence, but then you learn a lot more about cancer, talk to a lot of people and do a lot of research,” Hawerchuk said from his family farm in King City, ON. during another virtual running of Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘After Hours’ program on a video call with hosts Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk Saturday evening.

“My surgeon was pretty blunt with me. He basically said, ‘you’re going to have to go through some serious chemo, we’re going to have to remove your stomach and then more serious chemo’. Here I am at the end of it. It’s been a battle but I feel pretty good.”

The Hockey Hall of Fame member first publicly cited “health issues” as his reason for stepping away from the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts at the beginning of the 2019-20 OHL season. Much speculation led to a family announcement that the 16-year NHL veteran had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Hawerchuk said that he first started showing signs of heavy acid reflux for the very first time in his life. This prompted the decision to undergo a scope – a decision that he claims may have saved his life.

“I went in and did the scope,” Hawerchuk recalled. “When I woke up the doctors at the end of the bed said, ‘Sorry, but I’ve got bad news. You got cancer.’ You just think you’re in a bad dream. You want to wake up but that was the reality. Within a few hours, I was meeting with the surgeon.”

The immediate shock of Hawerchuk’s diagnosis was felt throughout both the communities of Winnipeg – where Hawerchuk suited up for the Jets for nine seasons – and Barrie – his current home, as a ninth-year OHL head coach – as reports tending to the seriousness of the situation grew in nature, seemingly overnight.

“The support I received from Winnipeg was large,” Hawerchuk said. “I have a lot of gratitude for that for sure; it really helped pull me through. Some people were relentless, you know, in my emails or texts or through friends. But just knowing that support was there… I love Winnipeg, but I love Manitoba too. I have heard from so many different people. It was the perfect place for me to play and I enjoyed it thoroughly.”

Hawerchuk’s support system extended from his deep hockey connections all the way back to his family at home. His wife Crystal – whom he met back in Winnipeg – has served as his personal nurse, while his children Eric, Alexis and Ben provided support in “nearly every other thing”. Ben even returned to Ontario from his professional hockey team in Slovakia to be with his father during the process.

“It’s a family battle, and their support was incredible,” Hawerchuk shared between tears. “There were some tough days. I cannot imagine going though this by yourself, it would be so difficult. They helped immensely. Not only my family, but even the support I got from the hockey world. It was incredible.”

“It wasn’t fun going through it at the time, but you always seem to feel better when it was over and you were healthier or you were more fit,” Hawerchuk continued, comparing his chemotherapy to hockey bag skates (punishments). “I take it one day at a time and try to enjoy every moment of the day. I’m up early now and I really enjoy watching that sun come up over the hills. It’s the kind of thing where it’s unknown territory, but you got to listen to your doctors and got to have a great attitude; you got to feel like you’re going to do it.”

There was a time just a few months ago in which Hawerchuk thought that the end was near. He was eating through feeding tubes for nearly a 12-week lead-up to the beginning of his chemotherapy treatments. Following his last session on April 13, hospital staff encouraged the two-time Memorial Cup champion to follow suit and ‘ring the bell’ indicative of chemotherapy completion – something Hawerchuk was hesitant to do considering the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“The nurses really wanted me to ring that bell,” he said. “But it felt really good walking out of there after ringing the bell and saying, ‘Man, it’s been a long journey, but this was the goal, in the end, to get to this point’. What people don’t know is that I couldn’t even eat. At one time I honestly couldn’t eat. I lived off a feeding tube which I just had removed the other day… The chemo knocked down the tumor enough that I can start eating again. I thought I would never even like food again, that’s how bad it was. Now, I really enjoy it again, so I’m happy to be here now with an appetite.”

For Hawerchuk, the cancer came on very quick, with hardly any indication. Now serving as somewhat of a spokesperson for the cause, he did provide a message of support/instruction for a certain demographic of the general population in his ‘After Hours’ appearance:

“The one thing you find out with cancer, and even talking to other people who have had cancer, is the symptoms don’t hit until it’s further along than you’d want,” Hawerchuk said. “If you can get it in stage one, you’re way ahead of the game and a lot of the times the symptoms don’t show up until stage three or four. I think just the way things are in the world now, whether it’s the food we’re eating, you should do these scopes earlier than when we used to recommend.”

Although his return to the bench in Barrie will not be imminent, Hawerchuk does miss the game of hockey and is hoping to get back to his favourite pastime, when physically able.

“Yeah I really miss it,” Hawerchuk said on coaching the Colts. “After I do the scans at the end of May and see where I’m at, I’ll meet with my doctors in early June and see where I’m at at that time, and go over everything. But I can tell you, I miss working with the kids, I got a chance when I felt good at certain times to get up there and see the boys and the coaches. I miss going up there; I enjoy it so much. We will see how things shake out in a month from now, but first and foremost, I’ve got to be healthy to do it, that’s for sure, but I miss it.”

Carter Brooks - Associate Editor of Game On Magazine - is a news writer and sports columnist situated in Winnipeg, MB. On top of reading and writing, his favourite pastimes include camping, car-modification projects and coaching hockey. Carter can be reached at carterbrooks1994@gmail.com.

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