WINNIPEG -- Jonathan Toews was hailed as a conquering hero three years ago when he brought the Stanley Cup home to Winnipeg after leading the Chicago Blackhawks to their first championship in 49 years. After the Blackhawks won again this spring, Winnipeg's favorite son didn’t hesitate when it came time to decide where to spend his time with the Cup.
"It's my hometown. I grew up playing hockey here. It's where all my friends and family are. They deserve to take in this moment too," Toews said Friday at the conclusion of a long day of activities throughout Winnipeg. "For me, it's special that other people are genuinely happy to see the success of our hockey team. It's definitely cool to see. I'm appreciative of that."
That appreciation was evident from the moment hockey's biggest prize arrived at Winnipeg International Airport on Friday morning. After hoisting the Cup in the middle of the terminal, Toews was determined to share his big day with the community.
The day started with an appearance at a Canadian Tire department store, where Toews handed out gifts to local children while answering questions from fans. From there, he went straight to a children's hospital, where he brightened the days of a number of kids and their families. His last public event was a two-hour meet-and-greet with hundreds of fans at the community center that now bears his name.
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Formerly known as the Dakota Community Center, the building was renamed in Toews' honor the first time he brought the Cup home. Longtime Winnipeg Jets star and city councilor Thomas Steen introduced Toews to the swarms of fans on hand, and the Blackhawks captain spent two hours posing for photographs. It was a gesture the locals did not take for granted.
"I think it's unbelievable. You look around and see how many people are here. He doesn't have to bring it here, he can go anywhere. But he chooses to come back and spend some of his time giving back to the community that supported him for so many years," said Bob Saelens, one of Toews' first youth hockey coaches. "It's not only the two hours he spends here. It's the children's hospital. He wants to give back to the people that supported him."
Saelens saw the development and maturation of Toews firsthand. When his hockey team started having trouble with a couple of players, it was Toews who pulled one aside to discuss the importance of teamwork. He was 9 years old at the time. Saelens knew then the city of Winnipeg had something special.
"The way he worked at it -- I always said if this kid doesn't make it, I don't know what it takes to make it," Saelens said. "And he made it."
With two Stanley Cup championships, an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship and two World Junior Championships by age 25, Toews has compressed several lifetimes worth of success into a career that should last another decade or more.
Encouraged by a father who grew up on a Southern Manitoba farm and a Quebecois mom who moved west to "learn to speak English," Toews won at everything. By age 9, he was on the verge of earning a black belt in Taekwondo. When his mom enrolled him in a summer diving camp, the coach phoned the Toews household to see if Jonathan was interested in diving competitively.
"I was just competitive as a kid. From the age of 8 until 14, my team, whether it was AA or AAA, won the city championship every single year," Toews told NHL.com. "I don't think we ever lost. It may have come from that."
To hear his parents tell it, their son's awesome drive came long before then. While most parents were encouraging their children to succeed, Bryan Toews and Andree Gilbert (the couple have been married for 28 years but she never took his name) occasionally had to rein in Jonathan and remind him there was more to life than winning.
"If he lost a game or something didn't go right, I would make an excuse. He would look at me like I was crazy," Bryan Toews told NHL.com. "In his mind at a young age, there was no excuse."
It's that drive that has helped Toews become an NHL star who may have actually developed a greater appreciation for the people who helped him along the way. That maturation was molded in part by his first trip to Winnipeg with the Cup three years ago.
"I think the first time we won [the Stanley Cup], we kind of just cruised. We weren't too aware of how special our accomplishments were," Toews said. "Definitely taking it a little bit slower [this time]. Not traveling as much this summer. Just spending time with family and friends and just enjoying it. No use in trying to do too much. I did that the first time and wore myself out."
Toews relaxed with his family following his appearance at the community center; roughly 20 members of the Toews clan converged on a fancy restaurant in town for a pleasant family dinner.
Then the party started.
As the long day with the Stanley Cup came to a close, Toews hosted about 300 friends and family on a rooftop terrace standing under the shadow of the MTS Centre. It was the perfect ending to the first of Toews' two days with the Cup. For the friends and family enjoying their second Cup celebration, the novelty still hasn't worn off.
"We're hoping the team will keep winning so we can have these fun gatherings with our friends," Gilbert said. "Every time we see them, we're so excited. We say we'll get together more often. Then we have to wait until Jonathan wins the Cup for us to get together again."