Blackhawks’ Drake Caggiula, Jonathan Toews united by North Dakota college hockey roots

Caggiula decided on the University of North Dakota as his dream school as a 12-year-old, watching 18-year-old Toews. Now, the Blackhawks linemates bond daily over their UND memories.

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Drake Caggiula was a four-year star and eventual national champion at the University of North Dakota, his dream school since watching Jonathan Toews play there years earlier.

North Dakota Athletics

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hidden away somewhere in Blackhawks wingerDrake Caggiula’s belongings is a signed photo of Jonathan Toews — a Christmas gift from Caggiula’s aunt during his freshman year at the University of North Dakota.

No, not Hawks legend Jonathan Toews — North Dakota legend Jonathan Toews.

“It says, ‘Good luck at UND and nice number,’ or something like that,” Caggiula said Monday. “I’ve got it in my room, still got it at home, but I don’t even know if he remembers doing it.”

On Tuesday, he got his answer: No, Toews doesn’t remember signing that particular photo. But the Hawks captain certainly is aware of his alma mater connection with his current linemate.

“[We talk about] what coaches were like, what the program was like then at North Dakota,” Toews said. “We shared a lot of similar experiences, so it’s fun to have a guy like that around. Obviously, that place meant a lot to us in our hockey upbringing.”

North Dakota’s hockey program, one of the best in the country, has produced an enormous number of NHL standouts. From 2005 to 2007, Toews played alongside future NHL stars T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford — and was coached by Dave Hakstol — on two teams that made it to the NCAA Frozen Four.

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Jonathan Toews played two years for North Dakota before leaving for the Blackhawks.

North Dakota Athletics

Toews also joined Team Canada during those years’ World Championships, on a roster otherwise composed almost exclusively of Canadian junior players. That caught the attention of 12-year-old Caggiula, watching at home in the Toronto suburbs.

“For the most part, everyone played in the [Canadian Hockey League], and I knew that,” Caggiula said. “I was like, ‘Who’s this college kid, and what is this school all about?’ I looked it up and just said, ‘One day, if I could play in college, I’d like to play there and follow in his footsteps.’ ”

Six years later, that dream came true: The kid from Ontario was headed to an American university.

He chose to wear No. 9, the same number Toews had worn and a part of both of their Hawks numbers today (19 for Toews, 91 for Caggiula). During his freshman year — a relatively challenging one, production-wise — he received that Toews gift, which he has kept ever since.

His career took off. In his senior season in 2015-16, Caggiula had 51 points in 39 games, won a national championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament, despite playing on the same line as Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz. He still ranks third in school history in game-winning goals.

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Drake Caggiula was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2016 Frozen Four after winning the title.

North Dakota Athletics

Caggiula’s breakout launched a bidding war among 10 NHL teams for his professional services. The Hawks were one of the 10 and sure enough, Toews was enlisted to call and recruit Caggiula.

Toews doesn’t remember the signed photo, but he does remember that phone call — especially because Caggiula eventually signed with the Oilers instead.

The scrappy, versatile wing was traded to the Hawks last season, walked into the locker room and found his stall right next to Toews’ — where it remains today. It was the first thing the new teammates bonded over.

“Right away, he just took me under his wing and started helping me out,” Caggiula said. “I didn’t really tell him he was my favorite player growing up until later on, but I think he knows that now, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Caggiula keeps in touch with the North Dakota program through social media and his old coaches and passes along updates to Toews. Those updates have been pretty exciting lately, as UND’s 2019-20 team is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation — ahead of Ian Mitchell’s seventh-ranked University of Denver team and Evan Barratt’s ninth-ranked Penn State team.

Caggiula and Toews also frequently swap stories from their college days, which, despite the near-decade separating them, are often quite similar.

“We talk about different bars that we went to,” Caggiula said. “There’s this restaurant that’s called the Red Pepper that is a big staple in North Dakota. We talk about the locker room and the arena, different cities that we’d play in and all that sort of stuff.”

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Caggiula (far right) has helped fuel the Blackhawks’ recent success, and his production has all come alongside Toews (left).

AP Photos

Reminders pop up regularly on the NHL circuit, too. In Arizona, they noticed several fans in green UND sweaters walking around their hotel and the arena.

And for Tuesday night’s game in St. Paul, a manageable five-hour drive from campus, they anticipated a sizable turnout of UND fans, based on previous experience.

Those fans saw Toews and Caggiula not only on the same team but on the same red-hot first line, driven by Dominik Kubalik’s recent explosion and also by Toews and Caggiula’s undeniable chemistry. For example, since joining the Hawks, Caggiula has outscored opponents 22-16 when playing with Toews. He has been outscored 14-7 when not alongside him.

Caggiula’s former idolization of Toews has evolved into mutual respect — although Toews did throw some light-hearted jabs when he realized Tuesday how Caggiula had admired him.

Once the joking ended, though, he made it clear the story meant a lot to him — just as his development at UND did.

“You don’t think of yourself as having an influence on young players like that,” Toews said. “But no doubt, when I was in high school, [I was] looking up to guys like Zach Parise and Drew Stafford. You look up to those guys and put them on a pedestal. It’s cool to think that you’re in that position sometimes, too.”

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