By Alan Fuehring | AHL On The Beat
Most young players would be flattered to share their namesake with Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the more exciting players in today’s game.
But, for Sound Tigers defenseman Devon Toews, not so much.
“It seems like every penalty box I go in, I get that question right away,” Toews joked. “Especially when I’m new somewhere. It’s happened so many times and I’m usually quick to point out there’s no relation.”
And while having that association to one of the top players in the NHL isn’t a bad thing, the Abbotsford, British Columbia native says his inspiration stems from another popular Blackhawk, defenseman Duncan Keith.
“I watched him a lot growing up because Vancouver and Chicago were such big rivals, so he was always one of the guys I was fascinated by. He’s probably the biggest motivation on my hockey career.”
And it’s an inspiration that has certainly had a big impact on how the 22-year-old plays the game.
“He’s a smaller defenseman, like me, so I feel like I can relate to a lot of the things he does,” Toews said. “He’s an exceptional skater, he sees the game really well and is usually the first one off the bench when the team needs a key stop against the opponent’s top line.
I’d say he has more of an accelerated start, Toews continued. “He’s a little different skater than I am, but I think we play similar games.”
Both Blackhawks stars grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, nearly a full day’s drive from the part of Western Canada that Toews called home. But, in Canada, no matter which part you’re from, it’s standard for every young boy, and even most girls, to go to a local rink for public skating lessons. It was no different for Toews.
“I pretty much knew I was going to play, in one way or another, ever since I first stepped onto the ice,” said Toews with a smile on his face. “When I was 3 years old, my mom took me to the local rink and after about four or five minutes of holding her hand, I told her to let go. I shook her hand away and started ripping around on my own.”
“It came so natural to me.”
Since then, Toews has spent countless days on the ice honing his skill. He began playing organized hockey at 5 years old and worked his way up to the Abbotsford Hawks, his hometown team, in eighth grade. The next year, Toews was playing in the major-midget ranks with the Fraser Valley Bruins. It was there he encountered one of the scariest moments of his young career. A bus accident, on December 11, 2009, that could have cost him everything.
“We had to go play Prince George for the weekend, which was probably a 10-hour drive,” Toews described. “We were watching Slap Shot 2 on the bus, relaxing, and everyone was in their comfy clothes. That’s when we hit some black ice and fishtailed into the other lane, and then back across into an embankment. It seemed like time stood still as it all happened.”
When the bus finally came to a rest, everyone hurried to check on one another and exit the carnage at the side of the road.
“Thankfully I made it out ok,” Toews said. “Some bumps and bruises, but nothing severe. One of my best friends got the worst of it though, which shook me up pretty good.”
That friend was current New York Rangers goaltending prospect Mackenzie Skapski.
“(Skapski) had a broken nose, broken orbital bone, and excessive bleeding in the back of his head, which required emergency surgery in Vancouver (to relieve a blood clot near his brain),” Toews remembered. “He had to be flown there immediately and the air pressure from the helicopter nearly flooded his brain with blood.”
Fortunately, Skapski made a full recovery and was back to skating within a year. In fact, he’s played 46 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack the last three seasons and was the backup goaltender when Toews and the Sound Tigers faced Hartford on November 4th.
That accident also helped Toews refocus on his own career, and how he was going to take the next steps to playing professional hockey. As a smaller defenseman, Toews was passed up in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft and knew he needed more time to develop. That’s exactly what brought him to Connecticut at just 18 years of age.
“I definitely needed more time to get bigger and stronger,” Toews pointed out. “College gave me that perfect chance. During my first visit to Quinnipiac, I fell in love with the campus and the hockey program. It was the perfect fit for me, my family, and those were some of the best three years of my life.”
Located nearly 30 minutes north of Bridgeport in Hamden, Connecticut, the 9,000-student university provided the perfect opportunity for Toews to develop his game and draw much-needed attention from scouts. He improved each season, finishing with a career-best seven goals, 23 assists and 30 points in 40 games as a junior and helping the Bobcats reach the 2016 Frozen Four National Championship game.
“Travis and I are really close,” Toews said. “We do a lot of things together, whether it’s sharing a row on the bus, going out to lunch, or rooming together on the road. We have a lot in common, not only going to school together but we’re both from Western Canada too.”
Also at Quinnipiac, Toews had the chance to learn from older teammates, like senior, Connor Jones, an alternate captain for the Bobcats and Toews’ road roommate as a freshman. “Watching Connor and Kellen my first year was a big eye-opener to how hard people have to work in order to progress in the world of hockey. I think just seeing how they went about things really helped my game.”
It was after Toews’ freshman season at Quinnipiac he was selected by the New York Islanders in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. This past September, he attended Islanders’ rookie camp and training camp in East Meadow, N.Y., continuing to evolve his game by watching fellow blue-liners like Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.
“It was one of the most beneficial things for me,” Toews said. “I soaked in as much as I could, practicing with those guys and seeing what they do every day and how they hold themselves accountable. Johnny Boychuk was very helpful and I got to know him pretty well on the ice. I picked his brain as much as I could.”
It’s all invaluable experience that has helped Toews to a successful start in his own professional career. The rookie currently leads all Bridgeport defenseman with eight points (two goals, six points) through his first 16 games, and is fifth on the team overall in scoring.
And while the 6-foot-1, 188-pound defenseman continues to hone his craft in the American Hockey League, his opportunity to share the ice with guys like Boychuk, Keith, and that other Toews guy, may be sooner than we realize.