Jonathan Toews and Israel Idonije are not just athletes, they’re among the most well-known and most important athletes in the second largest sports market in the United States. And they both got there from here.
TAMPA, Fla. – Standing in front of his locker without his hockey sweater on, Jonathan Toews, looks like your average 21-year-old.
Just a young, sweaty hockey player who had a great night at the rink.
However, in this case, the young man standing in front of us is the captain of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and while he played superbly himself, his team still lost, a 4-3 shootout to the highly-skilled Tampa Bay Lightning. This being a Winnipegger named Jonathan Toews, however, he was expected to face the media’s probing with skill, style, intelligence and aplomb.
“I thought we played pretty well against a very good team and we just couldn’t get the job done in the shootout,” he said firmly. “It was a game we all thought we could have won, we just couldn’t beat Rolly (goalie Dwayne Roloson) in the third period and Tampa held on and did a great job in the shootout. Give them credit for that.”
Toews seems much older than his years. He’s been a leader for so many teams, for so long and at so many different levels that it’s hard to imagine he’d still be a college junior if he’d stayed at the University of North Dakota.
Instead, he’s the captain of the defending Stanley Cup champions and an Olympic gold medalist and he accomplished both those feats in a span of just five months.
And now, he owns Chicago. Just take it from baseball player Tony Cogan.
Cogan pitched for the Kansas City Royals in 2001 and then bounced around baseball’s minor leagues until he landed near his hometown last season.
The former ace of the Northern League’s Gary SouthShore RailCats’ pitching staff, Cogan still lives in his old neighborhood near Chicago and that gives him an opportunity to live his real passion.
Although he was a pro baseball player, he’s a hockey fan at heart– more precisely, a Blackhawks fan – and these days he’s become an even bigger fan of his beloved team’s young captain.
“Oh yeah, my dad and I are Blackhawks season ticket holders,” the 31-year-old Cogan said as he sat in the dugout before a Gary-Winnipeg game last season. “Say, do you guys know Jonathan Toews? He’s from Winnipeg. Does he, like come to these games sometimes? If he did, he could sit in our dugout. A lot of our guys are Hawks fans and Toews, well, he’s just awesome.
“Everything about him is awesome. He’ll be as big as Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita some day. He might be that big right now.”
Chicago fans just adore Toews. He skates hard, he plays tough, he scores goals and more importantly, he’s the captain and team leader of a club that won the city’s first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years in 2010.
But amazingly, he’s not the only Winnipegger who is a huge hit with sports fans in the Windy City.
University of Manitoba graduate Israel Idonije, who still spends much of the off-season at his home in Winnipeg, plays on the defensive line of the Chicago Bears, a team long known as the Monsters of the Midway.
In most defensive sets, Bears head coach Lovie Smith will have Idonije play tackle, coming up out of the three-point stance. On others the big Manitoban will be placed outside as a stand-up rush end. On almost every special teams play, Idonije is the first tackler downfield. At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, he’s not only huge, he’s fast.
For doing this, for violently chasing down quarterbacks, tailbacks and punt and kick returners, the 29-year-old, originally from Brandon, Man., is paid handsomely. He signed a contract extension last year that keeps him on the Bears roster through 2011. He will make $2.5 million per season, this year and next, and he also pocketed a $2 million bonus for signing the extension last season.
But like Toews and the $6.5 million he’ll make this year, nobody in Chicago begrudges them a dime. That’s because they work hard, play hard and represent themselves and their adopted city and teams with class.
“I want to be known as a man of good character and I think, or hope, that that’s how I’m perceived,” said the extremely spiritual Idonije. “Every day, I walk the walk I don’t waiver from my foundation.”
And that could be both “foundation,” and “Foundation.”
In 2006, he founded the Israel Idonije Foundation to serve families and individuals in disadvantaged communities on both a local and global scale. The Foundation consists of three programs: Street Love, C.A.R.E. Africa and IZZYz KIDz. IZZYz KIDz has been incorporated into the curriculum of five grade schools in Chicago and Winnipeg and strives to provide lessons in leadership, taking initiative and working hard on the fundamentals of good scholarship and good sportsmanship. He’s built homes in Africa, visited schools all over North America, and provided underprivileged kids with the tools to succeed.
“I’m not just a football player,” Idonije said. “I have to give back to my community. I have been blessed and I will not ignore those who have not been blessed. I will give back. That’s how I was taught.”
As Idonije improves as a player – he was very nearly an all-pro defensive end this past season – his reputation also grows as one of the finest young men playing in the league.
Meanwhile, Toews does his talking on the ice where he has been so good in recent weeks, he’s now being talked about as an NHL MVP candidate.
“He has been dominating on the ice,” said Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville. “He might think this kind of talk is far-fetched, but he certainly deserves some consideration as the league’s MVP.”
It is amazing when one young athlete comes out of Winnipeg and performs the way Toews and Idonije have performed, but to have two playing in one city who are stars, both as athletes and young men, it speaks volumes about the quality of young people Winnipeg sends out into the world every day.