Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith all were born in Winnipeg, but only one of them will get a hero’s welcome when he returns on Saturday with the Blackhawks.
That would be Toews.
The Hawks’ captain is Winnipeg’s favorite son.
“Somehow I think the reaction for Johnny’s going to be a little bit bigger than for Duncs and I,” Sharp said. “I know he does a lot for the city of Winnipeg. He’s huge in the community and he’s huge in the country of Canada.”
It’s going to be the biggest homecoming for a Hawks player since Patrick Kane returned to Buffalo for the first time.
“It’s probably even bigger than me going back to Buffalo,” Kane said. “He’s obviously a very popular player, especially in Canada and his hometown.
“I think you’re more anxious than anything. My first time back I thought it was awesome. It was a dream come true, especially for me growing up in that rink and watching a lot of games there.”
Toews already has a community center named for him, a lake in his name, and is heavily involved in the area’s French Canadian community.
“It’s my heritage,” said Toews, who also is fluent in French. “It’s kind of how I grew up. I went to a French school from (kindergarten) to grade 10 and my mom is a French Canadian from eastern Quebec.
“There’s still a very strong French-speaking community in Manitoba, and to be part of that everyone kind of knows each other and it’s like a big family. People maybe don’t know it right away with my last name not being French, I guess, but people from Manitoba are definitely proud to be part of that community.”
This will be Toews’ first regular-season game in his hometown since the Jets got back into the NHL three seasons ago. The Hawks played an exhibition game there against Tampa Bay in 2010, but now the Jets are Central Division rivals.
Toews grew up a big Jets fan back when Teemu Selanne and Thomas Steen played there.
“It brings back a lot of memories, obviously,” Toews said. “When anyone ever 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.
“I never really thought during those years (after the city lost its team to Phoenix) that there was no team that would ever go back there. It’s pretty amazing the success of their team and how crazy the fans are and how much the people of Winnipeg love hockey.”
Toews’ mother is handling all the ticket requests he has received, and it’s a lot.
“Thank God, or I would be going crazy,” he said.
Toews is coming off his best game of the season Tuesday against Ottawa when his natural hat trick led the Hawks back from a 4-2 deficit to claim a 6-5 victory.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a special night for him, and he’s coming off a real special game,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He handles a lot of big situations extremely well, and his focus is always in the right place. I’m sure it will be a very proud moment for him.”
Toews has taken the Stanley Cup to Winnipeg twice now and called it a memorable experience.
“To be able to bring the Cup home for the first time, you never really know what to expect, but the turnout was amazing,” he said. “All the people that turned out and showed their support and pride in your accomplishment really reminds you that you are lucky to get to live that dream.
“Playing in the NHL is one thing, but to win the Stanley Cup and come back and share it with everyone is another thing. Maybe I expected it to be a little bit different when I did it again last summer considering the Jets were back this time, and it really wasn’t. It was awesome. They’re very passionate about hockey and deserve to have a team just as much, if not more, than anybody.”
Toews admits it has crossed his mind what it would be like to actually play in Winnipeg, but he’s more than happy in Chicago and sounds like a guy who wants to be a Hawk his whole career.
“People want to talk to you about that all the time when you’re back there, and it does run through your mind, but I always try to squash that question as soon as it’s asked,” Toews said. “I love Chicago. It’s my home. These fans here have given me everything I could ask for as a player. It’s been six great years. When you think about that, you definitely owe something back to those people.”
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