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Toews is wise beyond his years

Wednesday, 12.10.2008 / 2:43 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

"I had the chance to go to Moscow with Team Canada and to win a gold medal with all of those guys. For me that was an eye-opener. Spending time with guys like Shane Doan and even getting to talk to a guy like Steve Yzerman, that was awesome."
-- Jonathan Toews

Jonathan Toews' is no ordinary 20-year-old. And as a result, this fresh-faced, prodigy has been seamlessly accepted as the new captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Little to no protest was lodged when Blackhawk management this summer decided to make Toews -- coming into just his second pro season -- the team's captain for this season.

At 20 years and 79 days, Toews is the third-youngest captain in NHL history. In that short time, Toews already has proven to be the right man for the job.

His on-the-job training began before he even reported to Chicago. The Winnipeg native was learning all about winning -- and leading -- while playing for the University of North Dakota and representing Canada in various international tournaments.

In 2005, he won his first gold medal with Team Canada in the World U-17 Challenge, a tournament in which he earned the MVP award. The next season, as a college freshman, he scored 39 points in 42 games and led the UND to the NCAA Frozen Four.

Earlier in his freshman year he was the youngest player on Team Canada's U-20 squad, which copped gold in Vancouver at the World Junior Championships.

The next winter, he won another World Junior gold, carrying Canada on his back all the way. In the semifinal, he scored three-straight, pressure-packed shootout goals against Team USA to almost singlehandedly send Canada to the gold-medal game.

To close the season, Toews joined Canada's World Championship team. Again, he was the youngest man in the room, playing with players 15 to 20 years his senior. Yet things ended the way they always seem to when Toews is around -- the Canadians returned home with gold draped over their necks.

Those gold medals are a tangible indication that Toews possesses the skills to lead any team – including an Original Six franchise fighting its way back to respectability.

There also are the intangibles. One of those is his willingness to listen, and absorb knowledge. Take the 2007 World Championship as an example, an experience that certainly helped lay the foundation for Toews' captaincy in Chicago. There, Toews spent a lot of time with Shane Doan, the captain of the Phoenix Coyotes. He even got a little face time with Steve Yzerman, Team Canada's GM. Yzerman was captain of the Detroit Red Wings at 21 and held that post until he retired 20 years later.

"I was only 19-years-old," Toews said. "I hadn't played a pro hockey game yet. I had the chance to go to Moscow with Team Canada and to win a gold medal with all of those guys. For me that was an eye-opener. Spending time with guys like Shane Doan and even getting to talk to a guy like Steve Yzerman, that was awesome.

"They didn't tell me what to do as a captain or anything like that. I don't think anyone saw this coming.  But Shane really helped me in preparing for my rookie season. He really let me know what to expect and how I should kind of go about my business on and off the ice. I think that was awesome for me. I came ready in training camp and I was excited."

That excitement was evident to everyone, and when it was backed up by heady and productive play, the Hawks believed that their hand was being forced. Hence the announcement this summer that Toews would wear the "C."

At the time of the announcement, Chicago General Manager Dale Tallon never mentioned the fact that Toews was younger than virtually every other player on the Blackhawks roster. In his mind, there was no need.

"Jonathan deserves this honor," Tallon said. "He is a tremendous individual and a wonderful leader on and off the ice. He has experience in captaining teams from his World Junior appearances and guys follow his lead in our locker room."

That's because people follow winners -- it is human nature at its most base. Toews already has proven to all that he is a winner.

But he also has shown the Blackhawks that he is the best kind of leader, a humble sort that leads by example and not through rah-rah speeches.

While Doan and others may have shown Toews the hockey ropes, Toews credits his parents for the foundation that has allowed him to be a leader of men at such a young age.

"I think they were both two very strong people that they were the type of people, when they see something's wrong, they're going to stand up for what's right," he said. "I think a lot of being a leader is just being an influential person and not kind of hiding in the corner. When things have to be said, you stand up and say them and kind of express yourself for what you think is right.
"Jonathan deserves this honor. He is a tremendous individual and a wonderful leader on and off the ice. He has experience in captaining teams from his World Junior appearances and guys follow his lead in our locker room." -- Dale Tallon
"So, I think a lot of things I learned were from my parents early on. They showed me how to work hard. When you just be yourself, it rubs off on other people. I think that's probably one of the biggest ways I came to this position."

Toews is certainly rubbing off on the Blackhawks, who are one of the best stories of the 2008-09 season as they continue their amazing renaissance.

Joel Quenneville took over as the Chicago coach four games into this season, replacing Denis Savard. He has had a front-row seat as Toews has tried to find his way as the team's voice. Chicago is Quenneville's third head NHL coaching post after stops in St. Louis and Colorado. He has the institutional memory to speak about captains and he sees Toews as being cast in the mold of Joe Sakic, who has captained the Avalanche franchise since 1992.

"I was around Joe (Sakic) and Joe was very quiet in his own right when he was young and is more vocal now," Quenneville said. "At the same time, Johnny, I think he's respectful for the veteran guys and we all want to assume some of the leadership -- be it coaches, veterans and young players, which we have a lot of.

"We don't want Johnny to be worrying about it too much. We want him to be himself and play hockey and the other stuff will sort itself out. That's our mindset and approach and Johnny understands that. He became a captain by being himself, so we want him to be himself."

Toews knows that he can only be an effective leader by being who he is. He won't win any converts by putting on false fronts. So, he marches along doing the best he can, but, make no mistake, he is always listening to others and evaluating what he takes in as he tries to make himself a better person, a better player and a better leader.

"I just look at it as a 'C' on my sweater for now," Toews said. "Obviously, I've got a lot of things to learn. Like I said, I'm not the only leader in that dressing room. So there's going to be guys pulling the weight. Everyone's going to be grabbing the rope and pulling together.

"But all in all, I look at it as a pretty good challenge, to become a better player and just learn from everyone that I can. I think in our locker room, obviously it seems to me, because we're a young team and I think we're going to have a close team. We had a close team last year. But now we're young. We're fresh. I think we're going to have an exciting team."