“You could be driving in your car and you hear an interview, and you might not know what Johnny looks like,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, “and you say, ‘Geez, that guy sounds like he’s about 35 years old. He’s been around forever.’ ”
But Captain Sirius – correction: Captain Serious – is not 35, of course. He’s 22. And he hasn’t been around forever, either. He’s entering only his fourth NHL season.
Toews just sounds that way because he is remarkably accomplished and composed for a player of any age, let alone one his age. He won an Olympic gold medal for Canada, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player and the Stanley Cup last season. He has established himself as such a quiet, classy leader that Quenneville compares him to his old captain from the Colorado Avalanche, another No. 19: Joe Sakic(notes).
It’s not. Not in this case, anyway. And as NHL training camps opened up this weekend, it’s a big reason why the Blackhawks have hope of becoming the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since the 1997 and ’98 Detroit Red Wings.
The ’Hawks remain one of the youngest teams in the league. They have spent a short summer partying with the Cup. They have lost a staggering 10 regulars from last season’s roster because of salary cap problems, and they are going to get their opponent’s best shot each and every night.
In other words, they have every reason to be satisfied and distracted, and they have a built-in excuse. No one is predicting they will repeat. Many aren’t even predicting they will finish ahead of the Red Wings in the Central Division.
But listen to Toews, and he nips each of those issues in the bud, one by one.
Youth? Partying? In a press conference on Friday, when someone asked 21-year-old Patrick Kane(notes) whether he was all partied out, he smiled and teased: “What are you talking about?” As Kane said all the right things afterward, Toews sat off to his the side, leaning back, arms crossed, expressionless, waiting for his turn.
“When you go through a crazy summer like we all did,” Toews said, “you kind of crave that routine and feel like getting back into…a normal lifestyle.”
Maybe Toews doesn’t understand what a normal lifestyle is for 22-year-old males.
Satisfaction? Distraction? Toews allowed himself a little of both during the summer. He said he watched Game 6 of the final against the Philadelphia Flyers, and “it brought chills just to kind of watch that last puck go in.” He said he was constantly pulled in different directions, trying to fulfill obligations, traveling all over the place. But when he returned to the United Center for physicals, he returned in body and spirit.
The built-in excuse? Toews allows for no excuses. The Blackhawks lost key members of their Cup team, including goaltender Antti Niemi(notes), defenseman Brent Sopel(notes) and forwards Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Kris Versteeg(notes), John Madden(notes), Ben Eager(notes) and Andrew Ladd(notes). But they kept their core of Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) up front and Duncan Keith(notes), Brent Seabrook(notes), Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) and Brian Campbell(notes) on defense. They also added players such as Turco. So what if they have gone from the hunter to the hunted?
“It’s all about our work ethic and how we decide to play the game that’s going to determine the outcome,” Toews said. “You look at the trades and everything that changed this year, it still doesn’t matter. There’s no lack of talent up and down our lineup. We’re still looking pretty good.”
Not enough to be the favorite, though? That’s fine.
“As far as I’ve heard, no one’s picking us to win this year, which is I think something that will work in our favor,” Toews said.
Toews sounded not as if he were taking a shot at the prognosticators, but more like the ’Hawks couldn’t rest on their laurels.
“The mindset is that you’re never satisfied with where you’re at,” Toews said. “So, I mean, personally I always want to better myself as a player and improve on things as a captain that I can do in the locker room and on the ice as well. The better you get as a player, the more positive effect you’re going to have on your team. Hopefully as a core group of leaders and as a team we keep growing. Who knows what’s out there for us?”
When Turco was looking for a place to play, he and his agent came up with a couple of criteria. The first was that Turco wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win. The second was that he wanted to go to a team with a solid captain, because as he learned in college at Michigan and in the NHL with the Dallas Stars, the second leads to the first.
“You can’t win without good leadership, and your captain always is the one guy you look to when things go wrong,” Turco said. “It’s easy when things go well and when you win and when you get on streaks. But when things go south, how quick can you pick yourself up? You always lean on your captain at those moments, so it’s important to me to have that in the locker room.”
Toews turned around and pointed to Turco, a 35-year-old, nine-year NHL veteran who came to Chicago searching for his first Cup. But as he did it, he reinforced Turco’s point.
“He wants to go out there and win,” Toews said. “For some of us young guys who have been in the league for two, three or four years, we’ve got to realize how lucky we are to have won a championship so early and to know that that’s a special thing, to have that experience. You definitely got to find a way to want it even more the next time around.”
Toews is showing the way already.