When you areCaptain Serious, you leave nothing to chance. When you are called on to performbefore a pumped-up crowd in your hometown, you owe it to yourself and yourfranchise to prepare properly and do the job. Jonathan Toews brings it everyday. This day he chose to also bring cue cards—to Wrigley Field. ¬∂ "I knowthe song," says Toews, who in September threw out the ceremonial firstpitch and led the seventh-inning chorus of Take Me Out to the Ball Game at aCubs game. "But you don't want to screw up in case you have a braincramp."
The afternoon wasa grand success. Toews's pitch was a strike, his wavering baritone deliveredthe lyrics with nary a glitch—although "I don't know if you'll be seeinghim on American Idol," critiqued Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman—andChicago beat Houston 4--1. Toews, a Winnipeg native, added, "Let's go,Cubbies! Finish them off, boys!" at the end of his vocals, a phrasedripping with the rhythm and sensibility of hockey.
Now the21-year-old is turning his voice to the Blackhawks' dressing room as thecaptain of one of the NHL's most dynamic teams. The league is in the midst of asea change, with a flow of young talent—this summer 18 of the 46 playersinvited to Canada's Olympic camp and 17 of the 34 invited to Team USA's wereunder 25—and also a C change. More teams are delegating the responsibility toyoung players, including Toews, who became the third-youngest captain in NHLhistory before last season; Philadelphia's Mike Richards, named captain lastyear at age 23; and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who in June at 21 years, 10months, five days, became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
With Chicago atthe precipice of greatness—and leading the Central Division at week's end—cananother precocious center carry the once woeful Blackhawks to a Cup?
Like success,nicknames have a thousand fathers. Chicago forward Patrick Sharp says he dubbedToews Mr. Serious—the title naturally upgraded later to Captain—when they wereteammates at the 2008 world championships. (That was after Toews's sparklingrookie season, in which he had 24 goals and 54 points in 64 games.) Toewsremembers the origin of the nickname differently. "It started with[defenseman] Brent Seabrook, who I lived with my rookie year," Toewsrecounts. "One day he came in and jumped on my bed, woke me up. I wassleepy, in a crappy mood. He's talking to me, and he's got morning breath, so Iasked him if he'd eaten a turd sandwich for breakfast. He told me to shut upand called me Mr. Serious. Later that day we're still getting on each other'snerves, and he called me Mr. Serious in the locker room. It just sortastuck."
Whatever theorigin of the spot-on sobriquet, there is no debate about Toews's earnestness.Says his mother, Andrée Gilbert, "If I had not seen him being born, I wouldswear he's older." His conspicuous maturity is a boon for the NHL'syoungest team. The downside is that the old-soul stuff makes him a bull's-eyefor dressing-room pranks. (Tricks like the pilfered cellphone and phony textmessages from girls are knee-slappers, apparently.) "I always tell him,'Taser, weren't you ever in third grade?'" says Adam Burish, Chicago'sinjured pot stirrer. "Once you make fun of a kid or give him a nickname hehates, you're only going to say it more. He's our target because we get areaction."
The Young Man andthe C were not an immediate fit. Toews seemed weighed down by the letter,unexpected for someone who is 6'2", 208 pounds, and has what Red Wingscoach Mike Babcock approvingly calls "that big, heavy, hockey butt."Toews had just six points in the first month of the season and did not scoreuntil his 13th game.
"Since I wasnow the captain, I felt I had to be the hero, score the winning goal everynight," Toews recalls. "That was getting to me. I wasn't playing well,and it snowballed. Six games in, it's starting to get ridiculous. Then sevenand eight, and it starts feeling like I can't score. You get the feeling you'rehonestly worthless and can't play anymore."
According toteammates Toews would address the media—a captain's duty—but then stay in hisequipment for another 20 or 30 minutes, mute, processing the game. "I'dshower, get my suit on, be ready to leave, and he'd still be there in fullgear," Burish says. "I'd say, 'Jonathan, let it go, it's all right.'He'd say, 'That's not how a captain is supposed to play.' I'd say, 'You want tocatch dinner, the guys are going?' and he'd say, 'I don't deserve to go.' Hedidn't settle down until Christmas." Toews learned to let go just a littleand wound up scoring a lot, finishing with 34 goals and another seven in theplayoffs as Chicago stormed into the Western Conference finals againstDetroit.
"He reminds meof a young Steve Yzerman," Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland says. "How heraises his play in big games, how upset he gets when things don't go well. He'sa blue-chipper, a guy who wins face-offs"—he won 56% in five playoff gamesagainst Detroit—"and plays two ways and leans on guys down low."
Toews, who was aBlackhawks-best +6 through Sunday, is uncomfortable with the praise from hockeycognoscenti. He called his invitation to Canada's Olympic camp"surreal," saying he constantly had to remind himself that he belonged."I'm watching Sidney Crosby, a young captain like myself, and it's prettyincredible to see a guy who's about my age doing the things he's doing,"Toews said. "I get praise for things that are modest compared to what he'sdone."
Toews is composed,humble and dogged in his pursuit of excellence. The only thing that doesn'tcompute in the short bio of Captain Serious is Judy's Tavern.
Judy's Tavern is ahole-in-the-wall with a jukebox and pictures of Fighting Sioux hockey players10 minutes or so off the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks.After sweeping a weekend series from the Gophers in Minnesota in 2007 some ofthe UND boys, 18-year-old Toews included, gathered at Judy's to celebrate. Youcan guess the rest. The police arrived. He bolted through the emergency exit,the alarm sounded, and Toews, bending to pick up his hat, felt a long arm ofthe law grabbing him. While he would have been of drinking age in his homeprovince, he wasn't in Manitoba anymore. Toews was ticketed for hisindiscretion.
From theperspective of moral relativism, there's probably a slight difference betweenan 18-year-old Toews out with the boys at a bar and a 20-year-old getting intoan altercation at 4 a.m. with a Buffalo taxi driver, as Toews's linematePatrick Kane did this summer. There certainly is a difference in the maturitylevels of the forwards who are invariably lumped together because they enteredthe NHL so spectacularly together in 2007. "Patrick is a 20-year-old who's20," Burish, 26, explains. "Jon is a 21-year-old who might as well be60."
That's partly whyone scout says that, while Kane might eventually lead the NHL in scoring, Toewswill one day lead the way to a Cup. "In the playoffs he wasimpressive," says Calgary's Jarome Iginla. "Composed but fired up. Wetook some huge runs at him, and he took them. He seemed to enjoy it."
So you see,Captain Serious really does know how to have a good time.
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"If I hadn't seen him being born," says Toews'smom, "I would swear he's older."
Photograph by PETER GREGOIRE
BEARING UP After struggling under the weight of the captaincy, Toews finished with 34 goals and seven more in the playoffs.
BILL SMITH/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
SCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE
TWO STRONG Kane (88) may win a scoring title, says a scout, but Toews is the player to build around.