'True leader': Saginaw GM Dave Drinkill pays tribute to ex-NHLer Dale Hawerchuk
For five years, Dave Drinkill learned life lessons and how to build an Ontario Hockey League team from Dale Hawerchuk, the Hockey Hall of Famer and longtime Barrie Colts coach who died on Tuesday of stomach cancer at the age of 57.
In Barrie from 2010-15, Hawerchuk encouraged Drinkill to "climb the ladder" to assistant general manager from video coach and analyst as the Colts advanced to four straight Eastern Conference semifinals, including one OHL final in 2013.
Now after five years as GM of the OHL team in Saginaw, the Spirit posted the best playoff season in the franchise's 18-year history last year and were tied for the second-best record in the Western Conference before COVID-19 shut down the 2019-20 season.
"Dale was a true leader," Drinkill said. "He was firm but fair, a player's coach. He was honest and the door in his office was always open. The guys loved playing for him and followed him into battle. I'm sure it was the exact same way in the NHL."
Hawerchuk's NHL career featured 518 goals and 1,409 points in 16 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers.
In his last season in 1996-97, he faced the Detroit Red Wings in the final with either Hawerchuk or Steve Yzerman winning the Stanley Cup for the first time. The Red Wings swept the Flyers in four games.
In the OHL, Hawerchuk led the Colts to seven playoff berths in nine years, four division crowns and an overall record of 305-269-39.
"He had forgotten more about hockey than I will ever know but he treated everyone with respect," Drinkill said. "I remember sitting in the coach's office with him for the first time. He was so humble and genuine. He was a Hall of Famer who saw the game from a different level but he was very interested in my background and how I saw the game.
"He put his neck on the line for people he believed in and I'm forever grateful he believed in me after my work in scouting. He always wanted me to keep pushing forward. The biggest thing he taught me about managing a junior franchise is checking your ego at the door. You're not bigger than the game. Be fair, be honest, be yourself."
Drinkill also remembers the way Hawerchuk "conducted himself" with humility, how players "gravitated towards him," and how he "developed a ton of talent," including Winnipeg Jets captain Mark Schiefele, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Carolina Hurricanes forward Alexei Svechnikov, the younger brother of Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov.
Off the ice and in the community, Drinkill said Hawerchuk was generous with his time and he wasn't surprised to see a nonprofit initiative launched when Hawerchuk was fighting cancer to raise money for charities close to him and his family.
"If you look at his NHL career, he was one of the best players of all-time but you would hardly know it," Drinkill said. "He never wanted to be in the limelight. Same thing with charities. He did so much for other people. He just went about his business."
The 37-year-old Drinkill, who is preparing for the 2020-21 OHL season tentatively scheduled to start on Dec. 1, said he had a "chance to say goodbye" on Monday to his friend and mentor "who taught me so much about life."
"It was a tough call and very humbling to hear from Dale," he said. "He said he was proud of me and glad our paths had crossed. He said he saw potential in me right from the start and was happy to see the success we've had in Saginaw. He told me to keep it going and he'll be watching from above."