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A wild ride to the Stanley Cup for Delano’s A.J. Toews
Oct. 19, 2018

Matt Kane
Sports Editor

DELANO — Along with pride and prestige, winning a championship in a professional sport also awards a lot of bling for those fortunate enough to accomplish such a feat.

The most recognizable trophy in professional sports is the Stanley Cup, the 34.5-pound, 35.25-inch silver icon that is passed on from team to team at the end of each season to the new champion of the NHL.

The Stanley Cup, which is the oldest existing trophy awarded to a professional team, is currently in the hands of the Washington Capitals, who defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in five games for their first championship.

The Cup, itself, gets all the attention as it makes its trip around the globe with each player, coach, executive and team employee, and for good reason. But, sometimes lost in the glare when it comes to hockey is the sparkling bling wrapped around the fingers of those men and women who are hosting their day with the Cup. Like champions of the World Series, Super Bowl and NBA Finals, Stanley Cup winners also get a customized championship ring.

The state of Minnesota has been paid numerous visits by the Stanley Cup, and it has seen plenty of its native sons walk around with championship rings. Now, thanks to that Capitals victory, the small town of Delano has its NHL champion.

The ring belongs to Delano resident A.J. Toews, who is in his 10th season as an amateur scout with the Capitals.

“They were really generous with the rings, and they got all of our wives pendants that look like the top of the ring,” said Toews.

Toews received his ring with the other team scouts at a banquet in Washington, DC Oct. 2, one day after the players and coaches received theirs, and one day before he watched the Capitals raise their championship banner to the rafters at Capital One Arena and open the 2018-19 season with a 7-0 win over Boston.

“We had a cool dinner and they had the rings in an acrylic box with LED lights shining on it,” Toews said.

The significance of the ceremony left the room silent.

“We are a pretty loud group with a lot of type-A guys who like to talk a lot. It was deftly silent in the room,” Toews said. “It was the same feeling I had when I looked at the Cup — ‘Gosh, I am part of a team that won this thing.’ I looked at it to make sure my name was on the side of this thing.”

And, like many others, Toews said he repeatedly closed and then opened the box again to assure himself he wasn’t dreaming.

It was an emotional evening.

“We stared at it awhile, and some guys got up and talked about their journey,” Toews said. “We have guys on staff who have been there over 20 years. They have gone through the highs of getting to the Stanley Cup finals and losing to Detroit. Then to blowing up the team and selling off everything and being terrible for awhile, to drafting and building through the draft up until now.”

Drafting players is the direct link connecting Toews and his fellow scouts to the Stanley Cup win.

“We always say, ‘On a Stanley Cup championship team, where does he play?’ It seems far off, but this year it happened. We saw a Stanley Cup championship team,” Toews said of how he views prospective draft picks when scouting players.

As one might expect, the championship ring, which is made by Minnesota’s own Jostens, is impressive, in both its size and makeup.

Brace yourself: The 14-karat white and yellow gold ring features 230 round diamonds and 22 princess cut diamonds. The red ring around the Capitals logo on the ring top is made of 28 custom taper-cut rubies and seven custom-cut star-shaped rubies. The inside band of the ring is engraved with the Capitals logo and the scores from each playoff series win — over Columbus, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and, finally, Las Vegas. The total weight of the ring is 10.2 carats.

The wives’ pendants match the face of the ring.

“The pendant was a very nice acknowledgement by the team of the women standing behind the men,” said Crystal Toews. “Behind every great man. . . Right?”

So, where does one keep such a piece of jewelry?

“That is a good question. Do you keep it in a safe, do you keep it in a safety deposit box, do you hide it in a sock nobody would think to look, do you hide it in a dirt hole in the backyard? We don’t know. We have to figure that out,” Toews said with a laugh.

One person Toews can ask when it comes to what to do with a championship ring is his own father, Loren Toews.

Loren Toews has had to figure out that answer for himself four times, thanks to the four Super Bowls he won as a linebacker on the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“One of the guys on our staff, the next day, said ‘A.J., you might be the first father son combo to have a Stanley Cup ring and a Super Bowl ring,” Toews said. “It has to be a pretty rare feat to have a father and son in two different sports have championship rings. It’s unique.”

Those Steelers’ Super Bowl rings are a fraction of the size of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup ring, but the younger Toews knows they hold as much, if not more, significance.

“He played, and I think there is a significant difference between playing and being on a staff and doing it,” he said.

Toews said he didn’t see his dad’s rings much, as the older Toews didn’t flaunt his accomplishments as a football player.

“He never wore his stuff around. Maybe at a wedding or at a special work event,” said Toews. “We didn’t have a lot of football pictures around the house. If you walked through my parents’ house, you may not know he even played football. My dad doesn’t talk a lot about it. He had that life then, and he has a different life now. He’s not playing football forever.”

Growing up, Toews never looked at his dad as a Super Bowl champion.

“As a kid, he is just your dad. I don’t think I knew the magnitude of what goes into it as a kid,” he explained. “When I was older in my teens, I realized that not only did they win one, they won four in a six-year period. That’s unbelievable.”

Like his father did four times, the Younger Toews now knows the feeling of entering a season as the defending champion.

“There is some satisfaction knowing that you won. That quickly gets replaced by the hunger to do it again,” he said. “Do I have hopes we can do it and do I think we can? Yeah. Why not? It’s hard. Things have to go your way, and you have to play a certain way for a long time.

“It would be fun to win again.”

The road to the Cup at the end of last season proved how tough it is to win.

The Capitals came back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Columbus in six games just to survive the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Washington needed six games to knock off rival Pittsburgh in the second round. And, after taking a 2-0 led over Tampa Bay, the Capitals needed seven games to knock off the Lightning and advance to the finals.

The win over Pittsburgh was the indicator that told Crystal Toews the Cup was a real possibility for the Capitals.

“We had a bottle of Dom Perignan champagne we had been saving since our wedding, for a reason to celebrate. Eleven years of marriage, four babies and one adoption later, I put it in the fridge after we won our third game against Pittsburgh. I had a feeling, and said if we finally beat Pittsburgh we were drinking it,” she explained. “We celebrated big that night. It felt like a mental breakthrough for the guys. Once we beat Pittsburgh, I thought we would take it all the way.”

She was correct.

Washington had an easier time with Vegas in the finals, winning the fifth game 4-3 to claim the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The entire Capitals staff, including A.J. and Crystal, were at T-Mobile Arena that night to witness the victory.

“It was fun for us to celebrate as a group, hockey operations. It was fun to watch the players. A lot of different emotions,” said Toews. “It’s hard to win. We’ve realized that in the past, and even this year when we were going through it — we were down 0-2 to Columbus. There was a collective sigh.”

The sense of relief came over the Capitals’ family section, as well.

“Apart from being heckled by a couple Vegas fans, I felt pretty good through most of the game, but in the last two minutes it really hit me,” said Crystal Toews. “I was sitting between two wives whose husbands have worked for the team for 20 and 21 years. The magnitude of what was possibly about to happen for the first time was overwhelming.”

The Stanley Cup was earned by the families, as much as it was by the men on and off the ice.

“As wives we give up a lot from September to May so that our husbands can do something they love and for the teams they work for, and this is the pinnacle. This is the goal, and they were finally about to achieve it,” said Crystal Toews.

After falling short despite having one of the best teams in the NHL for so many seasons, the feeling of victory carried with it relief.

“For us, there was some expectations after some disappointment, but now it has happened. During the process, many of us were thinking, ‘This might happen,’” Toews said. It was great watching our guys do what they did.”

The constant vibration in his pocket was also a strong indicator that it might happen.

“During Game 5, when there was about 5 minutes left, my phone started vibrating. I kept my phone in my pocket because I just wanted to take it all in. It was a once in a lifetime thing, potentially, and I wanted to take it all in,” Toews said of the text messages received from family members, friends and his neighbors in the Fox Meadow neighborhood. “When I finally picked up my phone, I had 123 text messages from friends. Congratulations and pictures of people watching from different spots. That was neat. A lot of friends were pulling for me.”

Especially when the Wild were eliminated.

“A lot of my friends in the neighborhood and the people I go to church with are Wild fans and are not shy about it. As things moved along in the playoffs, they wanted us to win. I got a lot of supportive text messages,” Toews said. “Those were the same guys who would call to say ‘Sorry, man’ in previous years.”

Toews and the rest of the scouting department did spend some time with the Stanley Cup immediately following the Game 5 win June 7 in Vegas, but he, personally, did not actually touch it until five days later, at the celebration parade in Washington DC.

“My kids touched the Cup before I did. The night we won, I didn’t touch it that night. I saw it and was around it, but I didn’t touch it,” he explained.

Toews said he was off changing clothes at the hotel room when he started receiving text messages.

“The kids saw T.J. Oshie and other players and got some pictures with them, and they also sent pictures with the Cup,” he said.

The five Toews children stayed home in Delano with grandma during the Game 5 win. Parade day allowed them to finally meet their Capital family.

“Being there for the win was definitely the highlight. Second would be packing up our kids and making the trek to DC the day after we got home from Vegas, so that they could enjoy the celebration, too,” said Crystal Toews. “Our kids give up a lot, also, so it was important for us to give them the opportunity to be a part of Capsland during this monumental time in the franchise’s history. We always enjoy spending time with our Caps family; they are people who live the same unique family life as us all over the world and we don’t get to see them often enough. Our kids meeting the kids they hear about and receive Christmas cards from was their highlight of the trip to DC for the parade and rally. The Cup was cool but finally meeting all the other Caps kids was their favorite part.”

As for touching the Stanley Cup, Toews finally did so on parade day.

“It’s a humbling thing. You feel weird that you are in a group that won one,” he said. “It’s a special experience, the first time you get to put your hands on it. I get why guys don’t want to touch it (before they win it).”

Watching her husband finally hold the Stanley Cup told Crystal the long road taken to win with the Capitals was worth it.

“The trophy and ring are not what every hockey wife dreams of, but the symbolism and significance to our husbands is. When we left California and our family and friends for a state I had never even been to, let alone knew anyone in, with a 2-year old and a baby on the way, for a job that would take my previously working-from-home husband on the road five days a week, this was the goal,” she explained. “The cup and ring were the dream. Being able to see him realize this dream is very special to hockey wives/widows’ hearts.”

The history of the Stanley Cup impresses Toews.

“It is so neat, the Cup, in how it moves from team to team. Nobody keeps it,” he explained. “They just took the top band off to make room for our band. We are the first team on the new band. Rocket Richard was on (that top band), and all of those Canadian teams.”

The names of players, coaches, management and staff are engraved on bands that are stacked five high to form the broad base of the cup. When a band fills up, as was the case when the 2017 champion Pittsburgh Penguins were added, the oldest band on the cup is removed to make room for a new band and the names of the new champions.

Doing this means the teams and names on those bands are also removed from the Stanley Cup. Adding the band that now hosts the Capitals championship team means the names of hockey greats Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Maurice “Rocket” Richard and many others are no longer on the Cup.

Toews has seen those names on the Stanley Cup. As a 17-year-old playing hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Toews and his team visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. He also attended a Stanley Cup party hosted by a friend, who is a scout for the rival Penguins.

“There is so much history. It is such a unique trophy,” Toews said.

Toews has had several more run-ins with the Stanley Cup since the parade. He spent time with it in late June at the NHL Draft in Dallas, and later this summer, when it made one of its, so far, four trips to Minnesota, at a party hosted by Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan.

Each time, Toews and the other members of the Capitals organization have had to convince each other of reality.

“When we’ve gone to things, someone will still say, ‘We are Stanley Cup champions. We won the Stanley Cup,’” he said. “It’s weird that it is finally here. It should start to sink in, as we have the proof.”

“It is one of those things that is hard to grasp.”

The others to host the cup in Minnesota are players Oshie and Matt Niskanan, and Head Athletic Trainer Jason Serbus.

A fifth visit to Minnesota is happening.

As mentioned earlier, each player, coach, executive and team employee gets his or her day with the Stanley Cup. Yes, that includes Toews. And, yes, that includes Delano.

“My goal is that I want friends and family and people I know to be able to see it up close and touch it and take pictures,” Toews said.

The Toews family is using its time with the Stanley Cup to give back.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to have a day with the cup and support The Reel Hope Project, a charity close to our hearts as foster and adoptive parents,” said Crystal Toews. “The parties and celebrations are wonderful and well-deserved, but the opportunity to use it to help Minnesota children who need forever families is the best part of this opportunity.”

Toews’ time with the Stanley Cup will span from Sunday afternoon through Monday morning. Eating cereal out of the silver and nickel alloy bowl before school is on the list of things to do with it. As for where and when the Cup will make public stops in Delano, the schedule has not been made public. Toews does warn that it will show up at places unannounced.

“Most of the guys have said that the coolest things have been the non-planned things,” Toews said. “Like going to breakfast and bringing it in when nobody knows it is coming. They show up and these old dudes sipping coffee are like ‘What’s that? Is that the Stanley Cup?’”

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