Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let's put the great lake debate to bed

No reason to throw local hero Toews under the bus

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Gotta admit, I've never felt sorry for Jonathan Toews.

But that was before opening the op-ed page in Wednesday's Free Press to read several open letters, many harshly critical of the home-grown Stanley Cup champion getting a remote lake in Northern Manitoba named after him.

This week, callers on open line shows have been weighing in, too, arguing that the 22-year-old Chicago Blackhawks captain is not deserving of what -- and my apologies, I was unaware -- is considered such a prestigious honour.

Many of the arguments start off with, "No offence, but....", or "It's not Toew's fault, but....."

Not fair. There is no "But."

At least, not when it comes to Toews, who I can guarantee would -- in retrospect, had he been fully aware that naming a lake after him might have been seen as a slap in the face to the families of dead Canadian soldiers or Winnipeg firemen -- have rather taken a puck in the yap than innocently accept such recognition thrust upon him.

Hurtful words like "demeaning" and "disgusting" were being thrown around.

Are you serious? I thought that kind of vitriolic reaction was reserved for teenage car thieves skating on vehicular homicide charges. Geezus, people, get a grip.

Then there's the sanctimonious cranks who want to insist that Toews -- who at his tender age has won five gold medals in international competition -- is not a hero. Or how Toews is too young to have lakes or community clubs in his name.

Read my lips: Toews never said he was a hero. Ever. Others have, but not him.

And neither did he expect to be so honoured.

How unfortunate. One minute you're getting cheered by thousands of your fellow citizens lining the parade route, letting little tykes put your gold medal around their necks, and the next you can't turn on the radio or pick up a paper without hearing how undeserving you are of honours you never asked for in the first place.

All this while Toews was busy attending a charity golf tournament -- also named after him, by the way -- that raised $100,000 for a children's hospital rehab centre. (Not the first or last time Toews has either been the centre of local charity fundraisers or outright donating thousands of dollars himself.)

But, of course, he's no hero, right? He's just another hockey player, right?

Wrong. This young man is a superstar in one of America's largest cities. I was there.

The great Michael Jordan, an icon in Chicago, was wearing a Toews jersey at playoff games -- not to mention the thousands of Hawks fans in the crowd at the United Center.

Further, Toews is the most unassuming multi-millionaire you'll ever meet. An Olympic gold medallist. A world champion.

Meanwhile, no other hockey player in history has won Olympic gold, a Stanley Cup and playoff MVP trophy in the same season.

No one. Not Gretzky. Not Lemieux. Not Crosby.

Yet if you passed Toews on the street, you'd think he was just another 22-year-old a college student hanging out with his buddies in St. Vital.

That's the cruelest irony of this debacle, that of all the players in the NHL, Toews may be the most oblivious to and unaffected by his own fame.

Look, I don't pretend to know Jonathan Toews personally, although I have interviewed him dozens of times over the last five years. A couple World Juniors. The Vancouver Olympics. The recent Stanley Cup final.

Yet I'd venture this much: The over-the-top negative reactions and ignorant, uninformed opinions expressed by fellow Winnipeggers would leave Toews and his family -- father Bryan and mother Andree and younger brother David -- with a sickening feeling in the pits of their stomachs.

Really, what did they do to deserve this crap?

Criticize

Hey, if you want to slam politicians and their operatives for using Toews as a PR photo op, fine. If you want to criticize Mayor Sam Katz or Premier Greg Sellinger for their priorities when it comes to doling out names for lakes and community centres, that's fair ball, too.

But don't throw Toews under the same city bus that carted him around last weekend just because he was being accommodating, trying to share his unprecedented athletic accomplishments with his hometown supporters.

Because that's disgusting. That's embarrassing.

It makes us all look like petty, ungrateful, self-righteous bumpkins.

After all, they sent a reporter up from Chicago named Philip Hersh (who, coincidentally, your humble agent sat beside at the Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver where Toews scored Team Canada's first goal, before being named the tournament's top forward) who described last weekend's celebration thusly:

"There was a little boy looking at the stage outside the rink where the politicians and the trophies and Toews all stood," Hersh wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "'Thanks for everything, Jonathan,'" Nicholas Johnson yelled, as loud as an indomitable FIVE-year-old can yell.

"And the way he said it, unabashedly and respectfully, summed up the way Winnipeggers looked at their local hero as Toews brought the Cup and the playoff MVP trophy for them all to see on a bright, sun-drenched day.

"This was a city of some 633,000 people, the seventh-largest municipality in Canada, welcoming Toews back with a small town's warmth."

I ask you, isn't that how we'd want others to see us? Isn't that what Jonathan Toews really represents to his hometown?

Hopefully, Mr. Hersh left Winnipeg on Monday.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2010 C2

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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