August 1, 2014
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Some 430 miles northwest of Winnipeg, in a part of Manitoba near the Saskatchewan border so remote that even Google Maps can’t figure out a way to get you there, is a small lake — roughly 1.5 square miles in area — one of more than 100,000 such bodies of water the province claims. Its name?
Yes, Jonathan Toews is kind of a big deal around here.
Toews is one of three Blackhawks who’ll be playing their hometown Winnipeg Jets — revived two years ago when the Atlanta Thrashers moved north — for the first time Saturday. But Patrick Sharp left for Ontario when he was 2, and Duncan Keith moved to British Columbia when he was young. Toews, meanwhile, was born and raised in Winnipeg, his parents still live in Winnipeg, his name is on a community center in Winnipeg and he has brought the Stanley Cup to Winnipeg twice.
And there’s that lake named in his honor by the premier of Manitoba in 2010.
“Somehow, I think the reaction for Jonny’s going to be a little bit bigger than for Duncs and I,” Sharp said. “He does a lot for the city of Winnipeg, he’s huge in the community, he’s huge in the country of Canada.”
Toews lost track of how many ticket requests he had from friends and family trying to squeeze into the 15,000-seat MTS Centre for the matinee Saturday — his mother, Andree Gilbert, is handling that — but even the stoic Toews, known for his serious demeanor, is bracing for what could be an overwhelming emotional experience.
“It’s going to be exciting,” he said. “When anyone asks me why I wanted to be a hockey player, that’s where it all started, watching the Winnipeg Jets play as a young kid.”
Toews and the Hawks played a preseason game in Winnipeg in 2010, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But this is different. Now that the Jets are back after leaving town for Phoenix in 1996, the entire city of Winnipeg is different, according to Toews.
“For sure,” he said. “You see there’s more restaurants, more bars, more of a social life — especially during the winter when people tend to stay indoors. I think that pride of just being back on the map is back for Winnipeg Jets fans, and I think people are die-hard hockey fans there. They deserve a hockey team just as much, if not more, than anybody. There’s definitely a pride factor there for Winnipeggers.”
There’s also a pride factor in Toews’ success. Toews’ deep roots in the community — the city has a large French-speaking population, and Toews, who went to French schools through 10th grade and whose mom is from Quebec, regularly does interviews in French for the media back home — make his homecoming a much bigger deal than the typical hometown hero’s return.
“I’m sure it’s probably even bigger than me going back to Buffalo,” Patrick Kane said. “He’s obviously a very popular player, especially in Canada and his hometown. I’m sure there’s a lot of excitement. I’m sure he’s excited, too. And it’ll be fun to see the crowd and the reaction for him coming back.”
Jets fans have developed a reputation in two-plus seasons for creating one of the more raucous environments in the NHL. They have a particular knack for being hard on the visiting teams’ star players.
Don’t expect that for Toews, however.
“I’m sure Kaner’s going to have a long night,” Sharp said. “Because I can’t see them booing Tazer.”
Toews’ ties to the greater Winnipeg community always raise the same question — will he someday leave Chicago to play for the team that inspired him to become an NHL player? Toews understands the allure and even entertains the idea every now and then when asked.
But he’s now a hero to two cities, a favorite son constantly showered with love and affection. And while Winnipeg always will be his hometown, Toews insists Chicago is his home now.
“It does run through your mind a little bit,” he said. “But I always kind of squash that question as quick as you can ask me it. I love Chicago. Chicago is my home. And these fans here have given me everything I could ask for.”
Except maybe for a lake.