If you want to know how many of Jonathan Toews' family and friends are coming to see the Chicago Blackhawks captain make his hometown NHL debut this afternoon, don’t ask the star centre – with only a few hours left before puck drop, he still didn’t know for sure.
Nope, you gotta ask his mom. "She’ll tell you," Toews said, speaking to a sea of media before his team takes on the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre today: point is, there will be a lot, and with that comes just a hint of extra pressure. "Maybe a little bit, but that’s the fun part. You want to play well, and you want to make the most of your first game back."
For Toews, now in his seventh season in the NHL, it felt a little strange to come home on the road, as it were. He went out for dinner with family and friends on Friday night, just like he does in his off-season life in Winnipeg.
"It was kind of weird being back here during the season," he said. "It took long enough, three seasons into the Jets being back to have a chance to come back here, but soon enough it will be kind of a normal thing… Just to be back here, and kind of think about where I grew up, and all the rinks I grew up playing hockey at… to be playing at this level in my hometown is a pretty special thing."
Though Toews doesn’t keep up with the Jets too closely, he said he had heard about Jets fans’ tendency to razz star players of the opposing team. Maybe he’ll get a hometown boy discount on the booing.
"Hopefully, it’s at least a mixed bag at worst," Toews said. "We’ll see. I’m not too sure what to expect there. If it’s me, or another player on the team, it’ll be pretty exciting to see anyways."
Today’s game marks the first time the Blackhawks have played an NHL game in Winnipeg since 1996. The reigning Stanley Cup champions are also tearing up their start at 8-2-3, and Toews has been played at a point-per-game clip to lead his team in scoring.
Game time is 2 p.m.
Toews will start the game, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville indicated a couple of hours before puck drop. Though he said he hadn’t talked to his captain specifically about the homecoming, the coach sounded pleased. "I’m sure it will be a very proud moment, taking that first face-off and playing these guys," Quenneville said.
Quenneville, though, is focused on other things. Despite being one of the hottest teams in the league, the Blackhawks also have the NHL’s worst penalty kill – which is simmering at just 72.5 per cent – a fact not helped by the trade of Michael Frolik to the Jets during the off-season. The Blackhawks have struggled to find the right player to fill that spot he left behind. "I think we’ve been improving the kill, but the stats don’t reflect it," Quenneville said.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks coach said that now that the Jets are cosied up in the Central Division, he expects the two teams to get to know each other a lot better – and dislike each other. "I just think over time we expect this rivalry to become one of the key ones with Chicago," he said. "Having three former Blackhawks could certainly help with that appetite going into games."