Learning experience

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

He chose college hockey over a shot at the NHL. Grand Forks, N.D., over Chicago. Night classes and exams over a potential six-figure salary.

Four months after making that decision, Winnipegger Jonathan Toews insists he has no regrets.

"There were certain experiences this year I wanted to go through," Toews was saying, after finishing a test at the University of North Dakota last night. "It's not going to be just a smooth ride, easy success. There's been some ups and downs this year and I'm becoming a better player because of that. I'm still learning. I'm happy I came back."

The ups and downs Toews refers to include a couple of injuries that have forced him to miss three games. That's contributed to his slow start: four goals, eight assists in 11 games.

Coming on the heels of a 22-goal freshman season, that might seem a little sluggish to some.

After all, with a year under his belt, the 18-year-old product of St. Vital was expected to take charge of the Fighting Sioux this season.

That was the whole reason for him passing up the chance to crack the lineup of the Chicago Blackhawks, who drafted him third overall last summer.

In an all-too-rare display of thinking long-term, Toews saw a chance to become a leader on his team. The NHL cash grab could wait another year.

Of course, when he saw the Blackhawks get off to a horrid start, he couldn't help but wonder if he might have made the team.

Especially when another Winnipegger and UND product, Travis Zajac, made the same leap, from UND to the New Jersey Devils. Then there's Drew Stafford, a teammate a year ago, a sometime member of the Buffalo Sabres today.

"Obviously I think about it," Toews said. "But this is my team. These are my buddies, my teammates. We live together, we travel together. That's my main focus."

Actually, Toews has one not-so-minor distraction going this week.

To nobody's surprise, he was chosen to try out for Canada's national junior team again, one of 11 returning players from last year's gold-medal-winning team at the Vancouver World Junior Championship.

A second shot at the WJHC -- selection camp is in Calgary next week -- was one of the carrots that brought Toews back to school. Specifically, a chance to do the same thing he hoped to do at UND: try on a bigger role, one that includes the heavy cloak of leadership.

"I'm kind of in the same situation," Toews agreed. "I'm relied upon a little more for leadership and game-in, game-out, to produce offence. It's the same way for the world juniors -- I mean, that's assuming I'll make the world junior team."

That's not much of a stretch.

Neither is this: given the increased role he'll likely be handed, and the pressure Canada will be under to win a third straight gold medal, the post-Christmas tournament in Sweden will likely create the most pressure Toews has ever been under.

"I guess it could be," he said. "Last year ... nobody really expected us to go that far. And I was the young guy. Personally, there wasn't too much pressure on me.

"But when I think back to the gold medal game, it's such a celebrated rivalry, Canada against Russia, and I felt the pressure that night, going to bed the night before that game. I really thought I've never been part of a game that's any bigger than that. That experience will definitely help me this year."

The way Toews sees it, if Team Canada can avoid getting squashed by the hype machine and stick to business, it'll be all right.

Again, it's all about learning.

What better way, than to go back to school?


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