Hawerchuk happy with return

Hawerchuk signing at Portage & Mainat right John Ferguson.

Hawerchuk signing at Portage & Mainat right John Ferguson.

Kirk Penton, Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 4:18 AM ET

 He is one of the most famous players to ever suit up for the Winnipeg Jets, and he couldn't be happier the NHL has returned to his old stomping grounds.

"It's great for Manitobans, great for Winnipeg," Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk said. "It's going to be great for the league, and it's a good story.

"I'm happy Winnipeg's there. I kind of grew up in Winnipeg."

John Ferguson drafted Hawerchuk, a star with the QMJHL's Cornwall Royals, first overall in the 1981 draft. Despite being just 18 years old, Hawerchuk helped the Jets go from 32 points the season before he was drafted to 80 in his inaugural year.

He scored 45 goals and added 58 assists in his first season and was named the NHL's rookie of the year. He became the new face of the Winnipeg Jets.

Now it will be somebody else's turn to capture the hearts and minds of Manitobans, although it wasn't always rosy for Ducky, who had to deal with two very different general managers during his time in River City.

"In my era there were two Winnipegs," Hawerchuk said. "There was the John Ferguson era, which was positive, upbeat, a really community-driven team. And then the Mike Smith era, which was negative and pessimistic. That ran through the media."

Smith traded Hawerchuk to the Buffalo Sabres in June 1990, bringing to an end nine spectacular individual seasons but only two playoff series triumphs. Even though he was no longer with the Jets, Hawerchuk still returned to Manitoba in the summer. It was due to the sense of community he developed while playing for the Jets, and it's one he hopes to see in the city again.

"Mike Smith did a good job bringing in some talent, but I don't think the same community spirit was there," said Hawerchuk, a five-time all-star who spent seven more seasons in the NHL after leaving Winnipeg. "A lot of those guys would just go back to Europe or wherever they were from. Early on, when I played there there were probably a dozen of us who lived there year round.

"I thought I'd be a Winnipeg Jet forever, but at the end Mike pretty much made it impossible for me to really push forward with my career there."

Hawerchuk, who just completed his rookie season as head coach and director of hockey operations of the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, believes the NHL can succeed in Winnipeg this time around, but he cautioned it will take some effort.

"It's not automatic, that's for sure, but the structure's there to make it a very good go this time," the former Jets captain said. "You've got a good building, you're right downtown. It's 15,000 (capacity), but that's not a bad thing. That creates a demand on the ticket. There's only 15,000 every night. All of a sudden Crosby's in town or Ovechkin's in town, if you want to get those tickets you might think about you better start thinking about getting season tickets.

"Hire the right people to market that team, and I don't think you're going to have a problem. I think it's going to create a great buzz, and it's going to be exciting for the people of Manitoba again."

But what about the most important question of fall? Should the team be called the Jets?

"It would be great, but if it doesn't happen, big deal," he said. "At least hockey's back there, and the game is so strong in Canada now."


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