Jonathan TOEWS epitomizes the phrase all-business, as the nickname Captain Serious attests, but even he admits this working trip is a little different.
Toews has become Winnipeg's favourite homegrown hockey product, picking up where Mike Keane left off. Today will be the first regular-season game Toews will play against the Jets in Winnipeg.
The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, who grew up idolizing his hometown Jets, will be playing in a game today he once believed would never happen. Toews spoke to the Free Press on the phone on Friday before he boarded the Hawks' flight to Winnipeg.
"It means a lot," Toews said. "I was just telling a few people about Winnipeg and how I grew up loving the Winnipeg Jets and going to games with my brother and my dad was our favourite thing. It's where the dream of playing in the NHL was born inside me. For a long time it didn't look like this game would be realistic and that we would ever see the Jets back in Winnipeg. Now I'm coming home to play the Jets and it's a pretty cool thing. It's pretty hard to believe."
This trip was to include a dinner with family and friends on Friday night and then a game that Toews admits could be emotional.
He grew up playing hockey on Winnipeg's indoor and outdoor rinks before heading down the road to the University of North Dakota for college hockey. Drafted in the first round, third overall, by the Blackhawks in 2006, Toews has become one of the best players in the world and already has an Olympic gold medal and two Stanley Cups at the age of 25.
"There are a lot of guys that have his skill, but his drive and his competitiveness is what make him a cut above everyone else," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who won a Stanley Cup with Toews in Chicago in 2010. "He wants to win every little battle and the best at everything. That's what's pushed him to where he is. He has the drive that separates him from the good players. That's what makes him great."
Toews, who has 174 goals and 385 points in 421 career NHL games, is frequently mentioned in the list of the game's best two-way players.
"He's got the shot and the skills to put up bigger numbers," said Ladd. "But he gives up opportunities. You look at (Ilya) Kovalchuk when he was in our league or (Alex) Ovechkin, they take chances. They get a lot of opportunities and they score goals, but they also give up some stuff the other way. The trade-off is, maybe you're willing to take the chance to get the goal and have it go in your net too, every once in a while. That's why Chicago is such a successful team, because their top guys play the right way."
Ladd knows Toews will want to win today and that will make Ladd's goal of spoiling the homecoming all the sweeter.
"That's one of the most fun things about playing your friends in the NHL. Beating them and getting the upper hand," said Ladd. "Especially knowing how competitive (Toews) is and how badly it will piss him off to beat him in this building. It should be a lot of fun."
Jets winger Michael Frolik was with the Blackhawks last spring when they won the Stanley Cup and said from the moment he got to Chicago he knew who was the leader.
"I walked in there and (Toews) shook my hand and welcomed me, and as time moved on he made me understand the way they did things in Chicago," said Frolik. "He's still a young guy, but he's a great captain. It's not about yelling all the time, and he will yell if he has to, but more about presence. The guys in that room demand a lot from one another and it starts with him."
Toews and the Hawks were young when they won their first Cup in 2010 and the following season was a disappointment. Experience has prepared them better for this bid to repeat says Toews, who has seven goals and six assists through 13 games this season.
"Our experience is helping us now and I think it will help us down the road," he said. "Our leadership knows what it takes day in and day out to be a solid team and once we get away from that even a little, we get on each other, knowing it's not acceptable. Winning and playing good team hockey is the most important thing to our group and we know what that can lead to."
No doubt there will be a rousing ovation for Toews at some point today, but as much as he's a local hero he's also the enemy. Toews is unsure how he would feel about being the target of the MTS Centre's boo birds.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but if I'm the guy on my team that they decide to boo, I'll just try to stay on my game," he said laughing. "The people in Winnipeg have been amazing whenever I bring home the Stanley Cup. All these people that you don't really know but have been following your career since you were a kid... I'm looking forward to playing in front of the people of Winnipeg."
Toews says his summer visits to Winnipeg are always pretty similar.
"I like to see my family. Have a beer with my buddies at the Earls in St. Vital and play golf at Pine Ridge or Niakwa," he said.
And this one?
"I don't know what to expect in terms of how I feel, but I do know that I'll get comfortable and focused pretty quick. In the end, this will be about getting two points," he said.
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