Jonathan Toews returns to his hockey roots

CHICAGO -- Jonathan Toews calls two cities home.

Winnipeg is one home. It’s where he’s from. It’s where his family lives. It’s where he grew up watching the Winnipeg Jets and fell in love with hockey. It’s where he went to school and became a part of Manitoba’s French Canadian community. It’s where he’s returned twice with the Stanley Cup.

Chicago is his other home. It’s where he was drafted. It’s where he was made a captain at 20 years old. It’s where he’s developed as a person, player and leader. It’s where he’s become involved in the community and been embraced by the city’s fans. It’s where he lives. It’s where he’s won two Stanley Cups. It’s where he plans to retire as a player.

Toews will unite his two homes Saturday when the Chicago Blackhawks play the Jets in Winnipeg for the first time in his career.

“It’s going to be exciting,” said Toews, who is allowing his mother to handle ticket requests. “To take a moment to think about it, it brings back a lot of memories obviously. I think whenever anyone asked me why I wanted to be a hockey player, that’s where it all started, watching the Winnipeg Jets play as a young kid.

“Never really thought throughout those years that there was no team in Winnipeg that I’d get a chance to go back there. Pretty amazing the success their team had and how crazy their fans are and how much people love hockey in Winnipeg. Definitely looking forward to going home.”

The people of Winnipeg are also highly anticipating his return. As one of Toews’ youth coaches Bob Saelens explained, Winnipeg is a city which is crazy about hockey and very proud that one of the game’s premier players calls Winnipeg home.

“Not that Winnipeg struggles to draw people, but you’d be hard pressed to get tickets for this game,” said Saelens, who was invited by Toews’ parents to the game. “Nobody’s throwing these up unless you’re trying to make a pile of money. Being his first game back, it’s special to everybody.”

There aren’t many places where a 25-year-old would already have a community center and a lake named after him. But that’s what Toews had done for him. The Dakota Community Centre, which is where Toews grew up playing hockey, was renamed the Jonathan Toews Community Centre, and a lake was named Toews Lake in his honor.

“There’s a long hockey history here,” said Winnipeg’s St. Vital councilman Brian Mayes, whose ward includes the community center. “If you go to the north end of Winnipeg, there’s Billy Mosienko Lanes, a bowling alley. Billy Mosienko still holds the fastest individual hat trick in NHL history. We’re trying to honor Andy Bathgate, a Hall of Famer who played for the New York Rangers. There’s 60-70 years of history of people honored for achievements in the NHL.

“It is quite an achievement. It does say something about him. He’s not a violent player. He’s played for his country. He’s won Stanley Cups. People recognized that. He’s a skilled played, and he was on Team Canada.”

It also helps that Toews hasn’t forgotten his roots. He shared his Stanley Cup day with the people of Winnipeg in 2010 and again this past summer. In 2010, Toews was honored with a key to the city by the mayor and held a parade through the city that began where he went to school and ended at the community center. In July of this year, he appeared at a Canadian Tire department store, visited a children’s hospital and had a meet-and-greet at the community center.

Toews found both Stanley Cup days to be memorable.

“To be able to bring the Cup home for the first time, you never really know what to expect,” Toews said. “All the people that come out and show their support and their pride for your accomplishments, I think it really reminds you that without people you don’t ever to get to live that dream. To play in the NHL is one thing, but to win the Stanley Cup and come back and share it with everyone is another thing.

“To do that again last summer was amazing. I maybe expected it to be a little bit different considering the Jets were back this time, and it really wasn’t. It was awesome. This might be another one of those special moments I’ll try to enjoy, but at the same time we’re playing better as a team and the focus is definitely going to be on continuing our little streak.”

Focusing on what’s important has never been difficult for Toews. Saelens isn’t surprised Toews has become known as Captain Serious. Saelens saw that quality in Toews when Toews was only a six-year-old.

“He grew up in the old Jets era,” Saelens said. “When he was watching hockey like that, he was so interested. Others kids were interested in everything else around the arena. He actually watched the game and what was going on the ice. You couldn’t get a smile out of him.”

Toews got a taste of playing back home when the Blackhawks scheduled an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Winnipeg in September of 2010. While Toews enjoyed that experience, he anticipated this weekend’s trip to be boosted to another level with this game being against the hometown Jets.

Jets fans have a reputation of getting after the opposition’s star players and coming up with creative chants to taunt them with. Toews would likely be a target if he wasn’t from Winnipeg.

“I think he’ll get as much cheer as any of the Jets,” Saelens said. “We’re a passionate city. We love our Jets, but we also love our hometown hero.”

Anthony Knapp, who is the program manager at Jonathan Toews Community Centre, expected Toews to be honored like the Jets once did with former Jets forward Teemu Selanne. Knapp didn’t think Patrick Kane would be so lucky, though.

“They gave [Selanne] a little ceremony at the faceoff, a standing ovation,” Knapp said. “Every time he touched the puck they kind of cheered him and booed the rest of the team. With Jonathan, there won’t be any booing. Kane will be picked on big time. Kane won’t escape it.”

Toews liked the idea of Kane hearing it from the Jets fans.

“If it’s Kaner, it’d be funny probably,” Toews said. “Either way, I don’t think not only myself but the guys in the room, we’re excited to go there, not just because it’s another game, but because there is that excitement in the building and people still have that excitement from having their team back and that appreciation is there. It should be a really fun game to be a part of Saturday.”

Toews explained his love for Winnipeg shouldn’t be misinterpreted. The one question he often receives when he goes home to Winnipeg is whether he could see himself someday returning there for good and playing for the Jets.

“I think people want to talk to you about it all the time, especially when you’re back there, so it does run through your mind a little bit,” Toews said. “But I always kind of squash that question as soon as you can ask me it. I love Chicago. Chicago is my home.

“You know these fans here have given me everything I could ask for as a player in six great years, let alone an entire career. I think when you think about that you definitely owe something back to those people.”

Toews gives of himself and receives from others in both Chicago and Winnipeg. It’s why they’re both home to him.