The Winnipeg Jets have a history like no other. They were dominant in the WHA, struggled to make the jump to the NHL and as soon as they began to pick up steam – POOF! they were gone. As fans, we are only privy to certain aspects of team chemistry. We may occasionally hear rumours about players’ behaviours in locker rooms, hotels, team busses and on the bench, but, for the most part, fans are silent observers. 2020 has forced us all into a state of reflection, remembering how things were and how they got to where they are now. That’s why it felt important to look at which players impacted the Jets franchise, for the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Good – Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk
What do Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk have in common? They were all able to deliver playoffs to fan bases that had forgotten the post-season even existed. The Jets’ landed ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk with the #1 pick in the 1981 draft and he impacted the franchise for 10 years on-the-ice and impacted the ‘Peg for the next 40 years off-the-ice. If the Jets’ issued fans a census that asked about their ‘Favorite Jet of All-Time’ and ‘Worst Coach of All-Time,’ the oddsmakers would likely put ‘Ducky’ and Bob Murdoch as the heavy favorites, respectively. The irony is that, had Bob Murdoch never been hired, there’s a chance that ‘Ducky’ would have retired a Jet. But Murdoch was hired, ‘Ducky’ was traded and the impact is still felt in Winnipeg today.
The 80s were really something special in Winnipeg, but the first two years the Jets were in the NHL were painful and tough to watch. The decade started with a 9-57-14 record, which included 35 straight games without a win… but sometimes bad things have to happen before good things can. The good came in the form of an 18-year-old kid from Toronto who had just won consecutive Memorial Cup championships and was determined to shed the ‘Lose-ipeg’ moniker. As soon as ‘Ducky’ stepped on the ice at the Winnipeg Arena his impact was felt. Dallas Stars coach, Rick Bowness – “The year we drafted him, back in ’81, I was just a journeyman hockey player. But when he stepped on the ice with us prior to the [season], during those scrimmages during training camp, he was 18 and I said, ‘Wow, this kid is the real deal, and he’s going to turn that franchise around.’” Is Bowness clairvoyant? Maybe, but the rest of us got to see what he saw in training camp during a special rookie season. 45 goals and 58 assists made him the youngest player at the time to reach the 100-point plateau, which wasn’t overtaken until 2006 by Sydney Crosby. To put ‘Ducky’s’ impact in perspective, he tallied 296 points before he was old enough to have a drink in Vegas. The sharp-shooter would go on to rack up 1409 points in an amazing 17-year career.
The constant what ifs plague the Winnipeg Jets organization. What if Bob Murdoch wasn’t hired to coach the 1989-90 season? Murdoch was cutting Hawerchuk’s minutes because he felt ‘Ducky’s’ play was deteriorating, but ‘Ducky’ disagreed, and he was right. As the true, consummate professional he was, Hawerchuk quietly asked for a trade because he felt he should be on-the-ice and not the bench. ‘Ducky’ posted 80+ points in 4 consecutive seasons for the Buffalo Sabres. This output impacted Jets fans forever because they were all left wondering, ‘Why isn’t he doing that here?’ What ifs exist for every organization but, in Winnipeg, they hit home harder when it comes to Hawerchuk because he loved the city and they loved him back. 2020 has been a tough year for many reasons and the passing of Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk on August 20th this year made it even tougher. ‘Ducky’ coached the Barrie Colts in the OHL since 2010, until he was diagnosed with stomach cancer this past year. The outpour of kind words and adoration was not surprising to see. Hawerchuk impacted Winnipeg in the best way he knew how: being great on-the-ice and even better off it. Teammates, coaches and even rivals expressed what a kind person Dale Hawerchuk was. The impact a player has on a team depends on what he does on-the-ice. The impact a player has on a city depends on that man’s values. ‘Ducky’ gave us both. 57 was too early for the world to lose him but one thing we can all say for sure is that Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk made sure that – in the years he was with us – he impacted us all for the good.