NHL Hall of Famer saddles up and takes hold of the reins of the Barrie Colts, saying his door will remain open to his players
by Glenn Wilkins
He’s part of Canadian hockey folklore.
Dale Hawerchuk is the man who won the draw in the dying minutes of the 1987 Canada Cup final to send Gretzky and Lemieux away on a rush that produced the winning goal against the Soviets. He’s the scorer of 518 goals around whom the Winnipeg Jets built their franchise. He’s the epitome of dependability and consistency over a 16-year NHL career. He’s a back-to-back Memorial Cup champion. He’s a Hall of Famer. And, he’s a legend.
Now, Hawerchuk is in Barrie as coach of the Colts, and he’s brought his star, his legend, with him.
Sitting in an office at the Barrie Molson Centre, only days away from the Colts’ season opener (Saturday) in Plymouth, Michigan, against the Whalers, Hawerchuk told City Scene Barrie it’s not that much of a transition from coaching the Junior “A” Orangeville Crushers to the Ontario Hockey League.
“The adjustment comes in the day-to-day operations of the OHL. In Tier 2 junior, some guys work, so the team has to practice late. Obviously, there’s lots more travel in OHL, and the preparation and PR involved, it’s a different ball of wax.”
What’s more, with the hockey universe as exposed as it is, what with TV sports networks broadcasting even pre-season games, teams owning their own digital channel beaming out all over the world, there’s precious little that comes as a surprise, so it’s “hard to change what has been so closely watched,” says Hawerchuk.
However, hearkening to his coaching experience back in Orangeville, “I know what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of the day, execution is what wins it.”
What made Barrie a winner for Dale, as a place to start his OHL coaching career?
“I didn’t have to move, I still live in Orangeville, this side of Hockley Valley. Barrie is a great town, with a great rink, great ownership. I also knew, though, it was going to be a big challenge, knowing the club was decimated after its playoff run.”
Players won’t have to worry about this NHL legend being aloof and unapproachable.
“My door is always open. I want to make sure that when the game starts, the players get everything behind them,” in terms of issues. “If they have concerns about tickets, or other personal problems, (I say), deal with them before you get to the rink, so that you can give the game your full attention.”
Whenever the players look at their coach, “they get somebody who’s been there. There’s no guesswork involved. After a while, they get to know me pretty good.”
Colts’ publicist Andrew Wells says Dale will make sure these young guys bring their lunch buckets, hard hats and work boots every night. Given that the Colts don’t possess intimidating size – and may lose the odd skirmish for loose pucks as a result – “he wants the Colts to be the hardest-working team in the league; guys who compete their hearts out.”
Wells is also looking forward to Hawerchuk taking the Colts out on the road, adding his “overall presence” will put fannies in the stands throughout the OHL, much as Doug Gilmour has done for the Kingston Frontenacs.
If Hawerchuk is fazed at all by the size issue, he’s doing his level best not to let it show.
“Sure, we’d like to be bigger, but people don’t realize the price we had to pay to get the bigger players that we got. It’s not an overnight process.”
Among the more diminutive guys on the roster, he’s particularly impressed by Crushers’ transplant Norm Ezekiel, a 5′ 8″, 180 lbs defenceman.
“He’s been unbelievable. He skates hard, he comes to play. He showed up at camp in the best shape of his life. Being 19, he realized that this was a great opportunity to play Major Junior, and he’s an Innisfil boy.”
Kyler Nixon, 5’ 10″, 163 lbs, another rearguard, from Everett, and only 17, also comes in for some praise.
“He’s been a steady Eddie, he’s made good plays, and he’s been playing every other shift (during the pre-season).”
To comfort Colts’ fans, defenceman Dalton Prout, 6’ 3”, 220 lbs, is expected back from Columbus in a matter of days, someone who could stand tall on the blue line and offer some leadership. Wells ventured he might be the captain this year. Also due back – after serving a five-game suspension for running Windsor’s goalie in the last game of the Barrie’s playoff run – is 6’ 3” forward Darren Archibald.
Talented sniper Alexander Burmistrov was drafted by Atlanta and may stick with the Thrashers; forward Kyle Clifford could return, but is reportedly having a great camp in Los Angeles and Alex Hutchings is in the Tampa Bay Lightning fold, and may get sent to the East Coast League rather than being shuttled back to junior.
Peter Di Salvo will likely retain his status as number-one goaltender this year – “we’re going to depend on Pete a lot. He’s been drafted by St. Louis, and this is his overage year, so he can raise his stock,” with the Blues.
With the size issue, and with the graduation of fan favourites Stefan Della Rovere and Alex Pietrangelo, among others, fans should not expect a repeat of the 22-game win streak they were treated to last year. Indeed, this pre-season passed without even one win, and some have suggested the Colts will struggle a bit this year; they’re ranked 20th in the OHL, a bit of a comedown after being ranked number-one in the nation for much of last season.
As fans who follow the Colts can attest, last spring’s OHL finals sweep at the hands of the Spitfires resulted in some bad blood on both sides, what with Archibald’s transgressions and the refusal afterwards of then-Windsor coach Bob Boughner to shake hands with then-Barrie pilot Marty Williamson.
Now, it’s a wholly different set of circumstances, with Boughner jumping ship to be an assistant in Columbus and Williamson defecting to grab the reins with the Niagara Ice Dogs. Plus, the signing of Kerby Rychel (son of Spitfires’ GM Warren Rychel), which started the whole flap in the first place, is now a distant memory; he has been shipped off to St. Mike’s.
To top the whole thing off, reports were flying that the Spits were saving their Memorial Cup banner-raising ceremony for the afternoon game this Sunday, when the Colts come to town, rather than their opening night the previous Thursday (against Plymouth, in which Windsor rallied from a 4-1 deficit for a 5-4 win).
Where does Dale Hawerchuk stand on all of this?
“No question, the banner-raising will be a great motivator, and I’ll have the guys on the bench watching it.
“But they shouldn’t need something like that to get them motivated. I want hungry hockey players all the time, because anybody can get beat any given night. For the fans (in Windsor) to get caught up in it, that’s all right, but when the players do, that’s something you can’t control.”
Hawerchuk and the Colts begin their home season Thursday night against the Brampton Battalion. Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Barrie Molson Centre.