This story appeared in the 2010 playoff edition of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. You can get your copy of the playoff edition by calling the Blackhawks Store at 1-800-GO-HAWKS.
It’s been a long time since the NHL’s horizon has been so inviting.
The league is more and more populated by baby-faced superstars, players just old enough to legally crack a post-game beer (or in some cases, not quite yet). And such newbies are everywhere, dotting the hockey landscape from coast-to-coast and throughout North America.
There’s Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, at 20 the youngest medalist in the 2010 Olympics. There’s Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning wunderkind who just turned 20 and already has lapped his class while streaking toward 150 career points. Jordan Staal of the Pittsburgh Penguins, at 21, has already tucked close to 175 career points in his back pocket and wears a Stanley Cup ring on his finger. There’s Erik Johnson with the St. Louis Blues, Luke Schenn of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sam Gagne with the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Mueller with the Colorado Avalanche, and even Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets…
And oh yeah, there’s these two fellas in Chicago. You may have heard something about them, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Toews, if the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, is the fella with more nicknames than facial expressions, all of them somehow relating to his position as team captain. Kane, a smaller and more electrifying playmaker, could well be Toews’ alter-ego: mischievous, frank, funny.
Toews is climbing rapidly toward 200 career points and a plus-50 career rating, while Kane is approaching a point per game for his career (rising toward 250) and took dramatic steps forward defensively in 2009-10. And the duo, along with Stamkos, were the only players to begin the season younger than 22 who finished among the league’s top 50 scorers. In short, either Chicagoan could be considered the best of the NHL’s underclassmen.
But with all apologies to the handy offense-defense combination of Doughty and Wayne Simmonds in Los Angeles, no team in the league boasts a one-two punch of young superstardom like the Blackhawks’ dynamic duo.
“There’s nothing like those two,” says Kings coach Terry Murray. “You look around the league and there’s a lot of young talent, including some guys on our team here. But there’s no pair like Toews and Kane.”
“No doubt about it, that’s a pairing any team would like to have on a top line,” adds Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who piloted Toews to a gold medal for Team Canada in February by defeating a U.S. team headlined by Kane. “They’ve come together quickly at a young age. You’re looking at two remarkably talented players on the same line for a long, long time. It’s scary.”
Judging by nearly any measure, Murray and Babcock speak for the whole of the NHL on the subject of the Blackhawks’ young superstars. The pair leads career NHL scoring among their birth-year peers — a 1988 group that includes Staal, Mueller and Kyle Okposo (Islanders), among others — by a considerable amount, which is no small feat for players to accomplish in just three seasons.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the very first shot Toews took in the NHL, back on October 10, 2007 was a goal — assisted by Kane, as the only score in a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks.
“Yeah, I gave him his first,” Kane says, with a smile. “But something tells me that over time I’m going to get more [assists] from him.”
“No doubt, Kaner got me over the [scoring] hump right away,” Toews says within earshot of his dressing-room neighbor. “He’s such a dynamic player, he makes playing fun, and when he’s on, he makes scoring easy.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville sometimes still pinches himself over the lottery he won by being selected to be the man to lead the duo when he was named the team’s head coach in October 2008.
“You don’t often see talent like theirs in the league at their young ages,” Quenneville says. “To have two such players on the same team, sometimes on the same line, that’s a testament to the men upstairs who lined up such phenomenal talent.”
Having drafted Toews third overall in 2006 and Kane the next year after lucking into the first overall pick in the draft, it could be argued that picking the future superstar core of the Blackhawks was a no-brainer. But no prospect is a sure thing, and no draft board is littered only with hits. Look no further than the Kings in those same two drafts, tapping goalie Jonathan Bernier 11th (five NHL games) in 2006 and Thomas Hickey, who’s yet to see NHL ice, at fourth in 2007.
|"He's got such a presence," Kane says of Toews. |
There’s also a matter of sensing whether two great players can succeed together. Teams comprised of sheer superstars may look good on paper, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to Cups in the NHL.
“There’s no number or term you can use to qualify how good a teammate a player is, really,” says Denis Savard, a Hall of Famer and Blackhawks Ambassador, who was the team’s head coach when Toews and Kane made their debuts in the league. “But certainly you can see right away their more intangible qualities as players: decision-making, selflessness, willingness to exert on both ends of the rink, hustle, desire.
“We say it a lot in hockey and in all of sports, but a lot of those qualities you can’t teach. You have them or you don’t. And you’d have to have been blind not to have seen that both [Toews and Kane] had all of them.”
Both players made a dash to the top of the organizational depth chart (Kane broke camp with the big club straight out of Junior, while Toews played his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota after being drafted), but such a bond developed between Savard as head coach and Kane as eventual Calder Trophy winner that the two remain close, exchanging messages regularly.
Toews, as stoic and driven as Kane is playful and creative, needed little mentoring upon his arrival in the NHL. He began his Blackhawks career with points in 10 straight games, which is the second-longest streak to start a career in NHL history, and was named an alternate captain by his third month in the league.
So while it may have created some slight shockwaves around the league when the Blackhawks decided to make the 20 year-old Toews the 34th captain in Blackhawks history and the third-youngest in NHL history, no one close to the red-and-white felt that way.
“It’s been a foregone conclusion from the minute he stepped in [the dressing room] that he’d be our captain,” Kane says. “He’s got such a presence. We’re all good teammates in here and think team-first, but Jonathan is just on a different level entirely.”
Never was that more evident than in October of this season, when the Blackhawks — particularly their goaltending — had gotten off to a less than stellar start. Following a loss to the Dallas Stars that was filled with an array of lapses and bad bounces, goaltender Cristobal Huet faced the media in what was truly a depressing post-game session. The veteran netminder was shell-shocked and disconsolate, lacking the confidence that drove him to become one of the NHL’s elite. After concluding his brief remarks and walking back toward the solace of the locker room’s inner chambers, Toews made a point to intercept Huet with some words of encouragement and a brief hug.
On one hand, it’s remarkable for a 21-year-old to calm and reassure a man 13 years his elder. But again, with Toews, little surprises in that regard.
“I was doing what any captain or any teammate might do,” Toews says months later, reminded of the incident. “I was letting Cris know that his team was behind him, that we’re all in this together. And things got better from there.”
It’s also a testament to other young stars in the locker room, that Toews’ time wearing the “C” has been so smooth — something that’s not lost on the leader.
“We’re all professionals on this team and take our jobs seriously,” Toews says. “We have our fun, but we know when it’s time to work, too. Kaner is right by my side here [in the dressing room]. That doesn’t just go for our work on the ice; it goes for how we conduct ourselves and lead this team together.”
It was a bit jarring, then, when the franchise’s brightest faces found themselves on opposite sides of the rink at the Olympics — separated in the middle of February and in the heat of a playoff push, no less.
“It was weird,” Kane says. “It wasn’t a surprise, we knew [the Olympic break] was coming, but to go from wearing a Blackhawks jersey to your country’s, and then facing off against your teammates, it was a strange experience.”
“We wanted to play well for our countries, but in the process when you’re taking on your teammates, guys you were playing with just a week earlier, that was different,” Toews says.
“In the end, we can all agree it was great that [four] Blackhawks were in the gold-medal game. Kaner likes to be different, so I’m glad in this case he was different by wearing a silver medal instead of gold.”
With that crack, a smile purses to Toews’ lips. He’s no laugh riot, but nor is he completely the “Captain Serious” his teammates and the media have made him out to be.
But those smiles, the ones you see daily in the middle of the Blackhawks’ dressing room, where Toews and Kane hold court side-by-side are telling. It’s a new era for the Chicago Blackhawks, overlooking as bright a future as Chicago fans have seen since the dozen gilded years that brought Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito.
Improbably, it’s this pair of talented youngsters, still fresh with the dew of junior and collegiate hockey, that’s led the team’s revival.