He earned the nickname Captain Serious from his Chicago Blackhawks teammates soon after arriving in the NHL because there was a gravitas to the early Jonathan Toews that belied his tender years.
Even at 19, when he broke into the NHL as a rookie alongside Patrick Kane, Toews was all business. The Blackhawks were a mess back then, an Original Six franchise that had fallen on hard, hard times, which is how they came to draft Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall the next year.
Together, the two helped jump-start a turnaround in Chicago’s fortunes that you still see today. The Blackhawks are perched atop the NHL standings, the only team still undefeated in regulation after 12 games (10-0-2), and looking like a Stanley Cup contender again.
Their turnaround has been fuelled by multiple factors – improved goaltending from Corey Crawford, Kane’s 19 points – but mostly because Toews is off to an unusually productive start.
“Traditionally in the past, Johnny just gets better as the season goes along,” says Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, a polite way of saying Toews is never very fast out of the gate. “Every year he gets better as an individual and a player, but this year, I think he’s starting off at a different level right from the outset.”
What sets Toews’s accomplishments apart is how much he’s won at a comparatively young age. Now 24, the Winnipeg native – who is fluently bilingual and thus a darling with all the French-speaking reporters that pass through Chicago – had a year for the ages in 2010.
In February, after being the youngest forward named to Canada’s 2010 men’s Olympic team, he led the tournament with eight points and scored the opening goal in the gold-medal game – a 3-2 win over the United States.
In June, he then led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, finishing second in postseason scoring only because Daniel Brière produced three points in a losing effort for Philadelphia Flyers that night.
It made Toews the 24th (and youngest member ever) of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Triple Gold Club – which honours players who’ve won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a senior men’s world championship in their careers. Toews has also won two world junior championships with Canada.
On the night the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, teammate John Madden described Toews as “mature beyond his years” and wondered what was left for him to do, considering everything he’d accomplished by his 22nd birthday. Turns out, motivation is never an issue with Toews.
“I guess the age I was at, I wouldn’t say I was naïve, but just the fact that it was so early in my career and I was getting these huge opportunities – I just had a positive outlook and thought that if I kept working, good things were going to happen,” explained Toews in an interview. “To have a season like I had in 2010 – to win the Olympics and our team going all the way to the Stanley Cup – now everyone looks back and expects you to do that again.
“So there’s a lot more pressure now. You’re in a very different situation. Your game matures. You kind of understand how rare those opportunities are and how hard you have to work to get back there. So we’re trying to do that with our team in Chicago and possibly going to Russia next year.”
It is easy to forget that Toews’s presence on the 2010 men’s Olympic roster was not considered a sure bet. Four years earlier, the management team for the 2006 Olympics in Turin left a similarly precocious talent – one Sidney Crosby – off the team, on the grounds that it wanted a more experienced squad to handle the extraordinary pressures that Canada faces in those events.
Thankfully, the new executive director Steve Yzerman followed his instincts and selected both Toews, then 21, and defenceman Drew Doughty, then 20. Both turned out to be important catalysts. Toews was named Canada’s best forward and received tournament all-star honours from the IIHF directorate; Doughty was on the No. 1 defensive unit by the end of the tournament.
Barring injury, Toews’s presence on the 2014 team is considered a mortal lock, provided the NHL decides to send its players to Russia. But he is careful, when asked to look a year down the road, not to take anything for granted. He talks about Sochi as a team that he still needs to make.
“Just being in the Olympics was a dream come true,” said Toews, “and being in Canada, playing for Team Canada, that just added to it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Even though Canada will be defending the gold medal [in Sochi], they’ll play a little more the role of spoiler, not being on their home turf. That could help, but I don’t it ever takes away from the pressure that’s on that team to win.”
So six years after arriving in the NHL, is the captain any less serious?
“To be honest with you, I think he has lightened up a little bit, especially from the first couple of years,” Kane said. “That’s when he got the name – because he was so serious. As time went on, I think his true personality came out. He’s still serious obviously when he needs to be, and takes on the role of being the captain very well, but at the same time, away from the rink or at the hotel, he’s just a regular guy.”
Toews, for his part, says with a laugh: “For a long time, I’ve been trying to fight off that nickname, especially with the guys who like to give me a hard time. They know it gets on my nerves a little bit. But sometimes, it definitely comes out – because that’s my personality. I like to work hard and to win.
“As a player and as a guy and the captain in the room, that’s probably one of the things where I’ve developed the most – just enjoying the game and not taking it too seriously, I guess.”
Perhaps more than anything, Toews’s profile grew in Canada in recent years through a series of commercial advertisements for Canadian Tire. You couldn’t turn on the television around Christmas, without seeing him promoting the chain’s hockey products. They know him in Vancouver too, where the Canucks and the Blackhawks have forged one of hockey’s most compelling rivalries, thanks to three playoff meetings in the past four years.
Toews will tell you his visibility in Chicago has grown every single year, but “you come up to Canada and people are crazy about hockey, they know who you are. It’s definitely reached another level.”
So, for that matter, have Toews and the Blackhawks in the early going.
“His line [with Marian Hossa and rookie Brandon Saad] has been pretty amazing,” Quenneville said. “Night in, night out, at the end of the night, you’re probably sitting there, saying, ‘They’ve had about five grade A-plus scoring chances.’ Maybe the puck didn’t necessarily go in, but they dominated some shifts.
“We like the way he’s playing in all areas. He’s got some real pace to his game. He really seems to be excited about this season and the guys.”