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Toews ready for NHL debut

Wednesday, 10.10.2007 / 12:48 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Rookie center Jonathan Toews has a chance to make an immediate impact in Chicago.
He’s noticeably not nervous, but you can tell that the broken finger that kept him out of the Chicago Blackhawks lineup for the first two games of the 2007-08 season is making him feel a little like a caged lion.

Tonight (8:30 p.m. ET) Toews will make his NHL debut against the San Jose Sharks.

There’s a fiercely competitive twinkle in the very-focused eyes of 19-year-old Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews as he watches a late September preseason game from the press box in St. Louis, only a couple hundred feet from the ice where the crowd is in a frenzy as the puck is buzzing around the net.

I’m quizzing the third player selected overall in the 2006 Entry Draft, and somehow between taking notes and asking questions, I lost track of the play that led to a goal by Blues center Doug Weight. But Toews was sharp enough to offer a very detailed description -- all while he was answering my questions.

Amazing.

Nearly a thousand miles away in Winnipeg, Bryan Toews, Jonathan’s dad, says that anecdote came as no surprise to him.

"I remember taking Jonathan to his first NHL game when he was 4-years-old. You know how kids are at that age, they lose their attention span after a few minutes and want to do something else. But Jonathan didn’t even want a treat when I offered to buy him a pop or hot dog. He said; ‘Dad, all I want to do is watch the game,’” Bryan Toews said proudly. "When it comes to hockey, he’s always been driven and determined and very, very smart. He gets that from his mom."

We all want to anoint the next great one. But honestly, how often does the next natural like Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby come along?

While Toews assimilates all of what the NHL means to a teenager, it’s obvious that there’s a passionate air about this ultra-skilled center who has the speed to score goals and set up teammates, as well as the will to do whatever it takes defensively to help his team win.

"I’ve dreamed of this day, this opportunity to play in the NHL, for a long time," Jonathan said.

His coach already sees big things ahead.

"He’s special," said Blackhawks coach Denis Savard, who knows from personal experience what a pretty good center can do for a team. "In our prospect camp, you could quickly see that whatever superlatives that were being said about Jonathan were all true. He has the ability to make everyone around him, man or boy, a better player. He just makes things happen and ... "

The Hall-of-Fame center then smiled widely as he paused to consider what kind of impact this man-child can have on the Blackhawks.

"He’s 19-years-old," Savard said. "But don’t let that fool you. There’s no big step from the University of North Dakota to the NHL for this kid. He’s 19, but he already displays all of the cool and experience of a 30-year-old veteran. He’s definitely captain material."

"Me, personally, I'd make him captain right now," said veteran right wing Martin Lapointe, the Hawks’ captain for this season. "It's not that I don't want the ‘C’. But Jonathan's the kind of guy who wants to be a leader. He's not just a skill guy who can score goals. With him, you get the whole package.

"You know something? Jonathan reminds me of a young Steve Yzerman when I started out in Detroit. He’s scary good."

Former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button compares Toews with another great NHL leader.

"He’s a lot like Rod Brind’Amour," Button said. "There's no part of the game he can't compete in. He just does everything well. But what makes him so special to me is that I have never seen him give up on a single play ... and, believe me, that kind of attitude rubs off on everyone around him."

 

"He’s one of those rare players," added Blackhawks assistant GM Rick Dudley, "the kind of guy you see out there busting his butt play after play. If you’re a teammate, you have to say; ‘I’d better get my (butt) in gear.’"

Hearing such plaudits even before Jonathan plays his first NHL game, there’s little doubt about the type of family he comes from, right?

Bryan Toews is from farming stock in rural Manitoba and now works as an electrician for the University of Manitoba. Jonathan’s mom, Andree-Gilbert, is from Quebec, where she studied to become the managing director and finance expert for a large credit union in the Winnipeg region. She’s smart and she is particularly proud of the work she has done in French relations in the Manitoba area for the bank.

These hard-working parents wouldn’t miss making the 12-hour drive from Winnipeg to see Jonathan’s first NHL game in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday. They also plan to travel on to Chicago for the big divisional matchup against Detroit Saturday. During the trip to St. Paul, Bryan and Andree plan to stop in Fairibault, Minn., to spend some time with their other son, David, 17, a center at Shattuck St. Mary’s. He is following in the large skates of older brother Jonathan, who went from the famed prep school to the University of North Dakota.

You might think that a kid who grew up watching the Winnipeg Jets when he was little would idolize former captain Dale Hawerchuk, but Jonathan thought the game started and ended with Wayne Gretzky.

Quite a quantum leap from getting his first stick when he was 2-years-old and stickhandling a tin of petroleum jelly around the house without a misstep. He got his first pair of skates when he was 3 and was an instant whiz on the ice.

"Jonathan could see things you’d show him and then go right out there and do them better than I’d describe them," Bryan laughed. "I remember I had him on the lake when he was four. He had such a natural stride. I remember several parents coming up to me and asking, ‘How old is that kid?’"

Jonathan maintains that he wasn’t so natural.

"I never was one of the biggest kids, but I kind of found myself thinking of ways in my mind to beat them," he said. "I’d use my skating, my stickhandling, my wits to visualize ways to win."

Jonathan Toews was a key contributor on Team Canada's gold medal-winning World Junior teams the past two years.

If Toews sounds too good to be true, it’s simply because you’ve got a throwback kid with all the values and discipline you could ever want. No ego trips here.

"The best advice I ever got was from Tom Ward, my coach at Shattuck St. Mary’s, when he told me; ‘You’re not going to play the game forever, so it’s more important to be a good person,’” he said.

Level-headed. Smart. Driven. Determined. With a will to win as big as Winnipeg.

"I was like any kid in Canada growing up," he said. "My dad built a rink in our backyard, and David and I would play until it got so cold we couldn’t feel our fingers. I’d dream that I was Gretzky ... in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final ... scoring the winning goal."

Now that he can taste his first game in the NHL, his short-term dreams aren’t scoring his first NHL goal on a spectacular end-to-end rush.

"Just the other night I pictured myself scoring a garbage goal, something around the net that maybe just hits me and goes in," he said.

Toews had 22 goals and 17 assists at the University of North Dakota in 2005-06. Last season, he had 18 goals and 28 assists and was a first-team All American. He was also a key player on Canada’s gold medal-winning World Junior teams the last two years, scoring three times in a shootout to help Canada beat the United States, 2-1, last January.

"This is a big jump," Jonathan said. "College hockey was just as fast as the NHL, but because we played just on weekends, you could empty your tank for each game. Here, the bodies are bigger and the puck moves faster. The first step was Shattuck St. Mary’s, then North Dakota, now Chicago. But I know I can do this."

If you’ve never seen Toews play, think of a Brind’Amour directing traffic down low or busting his rear end to get to a loose puck, an Yzerman handling the puck waiting and waiting for an opening to shoot or pass. You can also think of a leader like Ryan Smyth being hacked and whacked at as he barges his way in front of the net to create havoc in the other team’s end.

In Blackhawks parlance, it might be a more apt picture if you mentioned names like Denis Savard, Stan Mikita and Jeremy Roenick.

"It’s a little embarrassing to hear people compare you to great players like that when I haven’t even played my first NHL game," Toews said. "All I want to do is be the best Jonathan Toews I can."

Quote of the Day

My job was to get that puck and put it on net, and his job was not letting me do it. I got the best of that, but that game's over and to be honest I already forgot about it.

— Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk on his late game-tying goal in Montreal's 2-1 OT win
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