JONATHAN Toews is looking forward to making a few more visits home next hockey season.
Sure, the proud Winnipegger will take some time to visit with family and friends, but he's mainly planning to lead the Chicago Blackhawks into battle against a reborn National Hockey League franchise at the MTS Centre.
"People here are starving for an NHL team," Toews said Saturday morning during a break from signing autographs at the Canadian Tire at Kenaston and McGillivray boulevards. "They would treat the players really well. Not everyone knows a lot about Winnipeg. The cold weather makes (players) nervous. They don't realize it now, but they'll enjoy it when they're here."
Toews said he is constantly being asked by friends and others if he wants to play for his hometown team.
"I love Chicago. The fans are great there," said the team's captain.
Toews was in town in support of Jumpstart, a national charity sponsored by Canadian Tire. It helps financially disadvantaged kids participate in sports and recreational activities through 310 chapters across the country, such as YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, Big Brothers Big Sisters and community centres. Since its inception in 2005, it has spent more than $1 million in Manitoba helping more than 10,000 kids.
Glenn McLean, Jumpstart's regional manager for Western Canada, said registration fees, equipment and transportation costs are the most common barriers keeping kids from the field of play.
He said its chapters typically know of families in need but people can also apply to the program on their own through Canadian Tire stores. They'll be evaluated and, if they qualify for assistance, be matched up with a local chapter.
The annual Jumpstart budget for the entire country is more than $10 million. McLean said every dollar raised in a local market stays in the local market.
Every autograph seeker on Saturday made a $10 donation to Jumpstart.
Toews said he wanted to be more involved than merely endorsing a charity or being the face on a brochure.
"I had the chance to play sports growing up; not every kid is as lucky as I was. You have to give them the chance to have fun and pursue their dreams," he said.
Overseeing the whole meet-and-greet scene were his parents.
"We like to support the cause. We believe Jumpstart is doing such great things in the community. Jonathan is so lucky to get where he is in his life," said his mother, Andree Gilbert. His dad, Bryan Toews, concurred.
"We're proud that he looks at (Jumpstart) as important," he said.
The elder Toews admitted he is "pretty pumped" at the prospects of the NHL returning to Winnipeg. (An announcement could come as early as Tuesday, according to various sources.) "We have the fans here. It's such a positive vibe. I plan on buying a mini-pack to support the team," he said before adding with a smile, "Obviously, we won't be cheering for them when the Blackhawks are here."
He said he has vivid memories of accompanying a young Jonathan down to a Save The Jets rally at The Forks where the eight-year-old emptied out his piggy bank in hopes of keeping the team here.
"We were all pretty upset to see them go. We still have a sticker from the rally on one of the kids' doors," he said.
Jonathan Toews said he has taken some time off since the Blackhawks were knocked out of the playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks last month.
Considering in the last 15 months he has led Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics and the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last spring, it's hard to argue it's not well-deserved. He said he has just begun training for next season.
"I'm trying to feel like an athlete again," he said.