LAS VEGAS — As a former Winnipeg Jet who had a hand in a current Jet’s success, Dale Hawerchuk is doubly interested in this year’s NHL Western Conference final.
Hawerchuk, a Jets centre from 1981 to 1990, coached current Jets centreman Mark Scheifele for three seasons when he played for the Barrie Colts from 2010 to 2013.
Hawerchuk played for Jets 1.0 before that franchise moved to Arizona in 1996. Scheifele was the first player Jets 2.0 drafted in 2011 after the Atlanta Thrashers’ relocation to Winnipeg.
Scheifele’s shot, skating, work ethic and leadership that helped Winnipeg advance to this year’s conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights emerged during his Colt years, Hawerchuk said.
“Mark was one of those guys who was so determined to do anything extra on the ice or off the ice,” Hawerchuk said Wednesday. “He would challenge players saying ‘if I don’t do this, or you don’t do this, we’re not making the show.’
“They’d be in there doing chin-ups on the chin-up bar and he would say ‘if you don’t do five more, you’re not making the show.”’
Scheifele’s quick release on a lethal shot, which generated a playoff-leading dozen goals in 14 games, is a product of summers spent in a makeshift backyard shooting gallery constructed out of tarps hung on trees and plexiglass.
“He must have shot millions of pucks all summer long in his back yard,” Hawerchuk said.
Skating was a question mark in Scheifele’s game as a teenager, so he put in extra work on that too.
Hawerchuk believes Scheifele’s performance on the larger international ice surface at the 2011 world under-18 championships in Germany — where Hawerchuk was an assistant coach for Canada — answered questions about his skating.
The Jets made Scheifele the seventh overall pick in the draft that year.
“A lot of people were concerned about his skating,” Hawerchuk said. “He just pushed the pace in practice all the time and became a better skater. He did the work off the ice as well to build the legs.
“Really, you could argue he’s one of the fastest guys in the league now.”
Scheifele’s final season as a Colt was pivotal because he figured out how to be a dominant goalscorer in the face of pressure from opposing team’s top checkers, Hawerchuk said.
Winnipeg’s six-foot-three, 207-pound centre is doing that again in this NHL post-season.
“It’s important for guys to be able to do that in junior if you want them to do that at the pro level,” Hawerchuk explained.
“He gets challenged after almost every whistle or when he carries the puck. They’re looking to break him down. That comes with the territory. He got to understand that in junior.”
Hawerchuk retired in 1997 after reaching the Stanley Cup final with the Philadelphia Flyers with a career 518 goals and 891 assists in 16 NHL seasons.
Scheifele, from Kitchener, Ont., felt lucky to have a Hockey Hall of Famer as his major junior coach.
“He’s just a wealth of knowledge,” Scheifele said. “He went through so many experiences in his career and was able to pass on a lot of knowledge to me.
“Every day there was some learning point I was taught by him, whether it was in practice or whether it was doing video, whether it was during a game. He was a big mentor of mine.”
While the two men played for two different Jets franchises, “when you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way” as the “West Side Story” lyric goes.
So Hawerchuk, 55, is pleased for both Scheifele and the city where Hawerchuk spent much of his NHL career.
“Anybody that’s played for the Jets in the past, they just hope for nothing but good things for the team, the fans out there,” Hawerchuk said.
“I don’t know too many guys that played out there that really didn’t enjoy it because it was such a tight-knit group and the community is really so supportive of the club.”