It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the Blackhawks were feeling like targets in a turkey shoot. They were coming off a 1-0 defeat in San Jose, which followed serial slapdowns in Calgary and Edmonton. Then, for a Friday matinee before a packed Honda Center in Anaheim, the visitors trailed 2-0 quicker than that young lady would sing the national anthem the next night in Los Angeles.
Simply put, the Blackhawks were well on their way to a fourth consecutive Circus Trip defeat. The situation was grim — but not hopeless. And now, we take you to their leader.
“Our team needed a spark,” recalls Jonathan Toews. “You try in that situation to have an effect on what’s happening, to unleash a train of events.”
What the superstar captain did as chief engineer of a remarkable comeback is as follows: He assisted on a first period goal, then scored twice in the third and assisted on two other goals. Five points later — an individual career high — the Blackhawks prevailed 6-5. One got the notion that this was a game Toews would not allow his team to lose. One would broach the idea with him, however, and stand corrected.
“Just trying to unleash a train of events,” Toews repeated, in case it had been missed the first time. “Sharpie had a hat trick, right? Didn’t Patrick get three that afternoon? Think so.”
Vintage Toews, who construes self-absorption as a felony. When conversation turns toward him, he doesn’t end it. He just reroutes it. On this matter, as with virtually every other matter pertaining to his existence, Captain Serious is Captain Consistent. The game face belongs on Mount Rushmore, the pattern of speech in public is unremarkable, and the big-money era during which he performs contrasts with the throwback mentality.
THEY SAID IT...
"When you have what Jonathan has, age doesn’t matter. It’s the person, not the birth certificate."
-- Senior Advisor, Hockey Opearions Scotty Bowman
“He’s got it, and he gets it,” says Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks senior advisor of hockey operations whose next Stanley Cup will be his 13th. “And when you have what Jonathan has, age doesn’t matter. It’s the person, not the birth certificate.”
Toews, 23, is a leader. You don’t teach that or learn it or plan on making it a New Year’s resolution. You are born with it. Most of us are followers. We think we’re taking the dog for a walk, but it’s actually the dog taking us for a walk. That isn’t wrong; that’s just reality. And then there are the chosen few such as Toews. He’s done it all, except for what he has to do tomorrow.
He says he “absolutely” enjoys being captain of the Blackhawks, which is obvious. He says there is “never a simple day” in his side job, which is understandable. He says there are “added responsibilities” to wearing the ‘C’, which is endemic to the role. But when you dig deeper with Toews, you are on your own.
“They call you a leader, I guess, because you have a ‘C’ on your chest,” says Toews.
Actually, it’s the other way around. You have a ‘C’ on your chest because you’re a leader. When Ted Williams became a manager and was asked how to hit a curve ball, he said, well, you just hit it. When Ben Hogan was asked how to draw a golf ball, he said, well, you just draw it from right to left. So it is that Toews, when probed about his presence, says that he would operate no differently if he hadn’t been the second youngest captain in National Hockey League history to lift a Stanley Cup.
Which is probably true. Which is why he is who he is and where he is. How Toews developed his work ethic is no mystery, at least not to him. Father Bryan and mother Andrée, retired now, sacrificed endlessly when Jonathan and brother David took to skates as kids in Winnipeg. His parents didn’t so much monitor goals and assists as they studied effort.
“Particularly mom,” says Jonathan.
If he wasn’t working hard enough, he heard about it. Perhaps his perpetual drive was generated by a concern of spreading disappointment. Perhaps.
But on the Blackhawks, he adds stridently, it’s different. Teammates do not bust into corners where angels fear to tread because they are reluctant to let him down.
“No,” he says. “It’s not that at all. We’re all for each other here. Nobody wants to let anybody else down. Not with this group. That has nothing to do with me.”
Maybe, maybe not. For sure, the captain’s mantle is unique to hockey. The Boston Red Sox had a captain when they won two World Series in the last decade, but can you name him? In hockey, it’s an honor to wear the ‘C’, in part because hockey is the ultimate team game. Michael Jordan didn’t need the ‘C’ or much rest. Just the ball.
In Anaheim on that day after Thanksgiving, Toews rearranged the scoreboard by logging 18 minutes, 57 seconds — a fair amount for a forward, but less than a third of the clock. Amazing what can happen when you never mail it in, never take a shift off, never cease to obey your calling card of reliability.
Captains come in all shapes and sizes. The Blackhawks have a list of proud predecessors, including Ed Litzenberger, Pierre Pilote, Keith Magnuson, Darryl Sutter, Dirk Graham and Chris Chelios. Pilote was a Hall of Famer. Magnuson, despite not being abundantly skilled, never played a minor league game because of his indomitable spirit. Graham was strong and silent, but when he had something to say, you listened. Chelios always had one last bullet. If necessary, he could take you in the next room and grab you by the throat.
Beyond Chicago, Toews reminds one of modern day captains such as Bryan Trottier, Steve Yzerman and Bobby Clarke, who was 24 when he led the Philadelphia Flyers to a Stanley Cup in 1974. He was a genial gentleman who resolutely refused to discuss personal accomplishments — sound familiar? — but by force of will clearly became his team’s most important player.
It’s nice when you’re captain is your best player, but not necessary. Nor does it hurt when your best player isn’t your captain. Toews was voted top forward at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and when his name is mentioned to the coach of Team Canada’s gold medal winners, Mike Babcock breaks into a broad smile. He runs the Detroit Red Wings, a fierce rival of the Blackhawks, but he’ll make an exception in Toews’ case.
“And now, on top of everything, Jonathan is blossoming into a great player,’’ says Bowman. “He scores, he defends, he makes plays, he wins faceoffs, he likes contact. But he’s still got that one ingredient: Work ethic.
“Plus, there’s more pressure than you think in being a captain. You have to be sort of a liaison between the players and the coaches or management. If there’s something going on in the locker room that needs to be addressed above, you have to be the man in between. You can’t be shilling for either side, if you know what I mean. But that role doesn’t seem to bother Jonathan at all. And as far as effort, all the players respect him.”
Toews’ persona was identified early and often in his rookie year. As a roommate with Brent Seabrook, Jonathan posed a question one morning that went over like a lead balloon. Seabrook snapped and immediately tagged him as “Mr. Serious.” When Toews became captain, he had nowhere to hide. And he still doesn’t. It is what it is.
Toews scores, he defends, he makes plays, he wins faceoffs, he likes contact. But he’s still got that one ingredient: Work ethic - Stan Bowman
“That keeps coming back to haunt me,” says Toews, chuckling slightly. “I mean, if that’s what I’m going to be called, it’s not a bad thing I suppose. I am very serious about hockey. But I can relax and get away from it. If you just obsess over your job all the time, that’s not real healthy. So, yes, I can get away from hockey for at least a few hours a day.
“I have a social life. I have friends outside hockey in Chicago, which is good, and I have a lot of friends back home who will bring me down if they think I’m acting too cool. And I get that in the dressing room, too, on occasion. Every once in a while I’ll hear that I’m still just a kid from Winnipeg. Especially from Duncan Keith.”
He was also born in Winnipeg.
Jonathan Toews exemplifies why the Blackhawks have been resuscitated in Chicago. They are not only very good, they are very likeable. When the Stanley Cup came here in June of 2010, Toews predictably became the point man in sharing it with fans. That silver jug went everywhere, and so did he. It’s part of hockey’s culture completely separate from a player’s ego, age or salary. Always has been — always will be — one would hope.
“He’s got all of the attributes that you want in a leader,” says VP/General Manager Stan Bowman. “That’s why he’s our captain and that’s why he’s been such a dominant player at a young age.”
“When I came here in 2007, we were starting to turn it around,” Toews says. “But I heard all the horror stories. Now we’re a model franchise, and the fans are a huge part of it. In the United Center or in a restaurant. Incredibly loyal and respectful.
“The Blackhawks are not obscure anymore, and if you can’t have fun with that… We just have to keep it going, keep getting better, keep winning.”
And keep unleashing that train of events.