This story originally appeared in the October 26, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
When you are Captain Serious, you leave nothing to chance. When you are called on to perform before a pumped-up crowd in your hometown, you owe it to yourself and your franchise to prepare properly and do the job. Jonathan Toews brings it every day. This day he chose to also bring cue cards—to Wrigley Field.
“I know the song,” says Toews, who in September threw out the ceremonial first pitch and led the seventh-inning chorus of Take Me Out to the Ball Game at a Cubs game. “But you don’t want to screw up in case you have a brain cramp”
The afternoon was a grand success. Toews’s pitch was a strike, his wavering baritone delivered the lyrics with nary a glitch—although “I don’t know if you’ll be seeing him on American Idol,” critiqued Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman—and Chicago beat Houston 4–1. Toews, a Winnipeg native, added, “Let's go, Cubbies! Finish them off, boys!” at the end of his vocals, a phrase dripping with the rhythm and sensibility of hockey.
Now the 21-year-old is turning his voice to the Blackhawks’ dressing room as the captain of one of the NHL’s most dynamic teams. The league is in the midst of a sea change, with a flow of young talent—this summer 18 of the 46 players invited to Canada’s Olympic camp and 17 of the 34 invited to Team USA’s were under 25—and also a C change. More teams are delegating the responsibility to young players, including Toews, who became the third-youngest captain in NHL history before last season; Philadelphia’s Mike Richards, named captain last year at age 23; and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, who in June at 21 years, 10 months, five days, became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
With Chicago at the precipice of greatness—and leading the Central Division at week’s end—can another precocious center carry the once woeful Blackhawks to a Cup?
Like success, nicknames have a thousand fathers. Chicago forward Patrick Sharp says he dubbed Toews Mr. Serious—the title naturally upgraded later to Captain—when they were teammates at the 2008 world championships. (That was after Toews’s sparkling rookie season, in which he had 24 goals and 54 points in 64 games.) Toews remembers the origin of the nickname differently. “It started with [defenseman] Brent Seabrook, who I lived with my rookie year,” Toews recounts. “One day he came in and jumped on my bed, woke me up. I was sleepy, in a crappy mood. He’s talking to me, and he’s got morning breath, so I asked him if he’d eaten a turd sandwich for breakfast. He told me to shut up and called me Mr. Serious. Later that day we’re still getting on each other’s nerves, and he called me Mr. Serious in the locker room. It just sorta stuck.”
Whatever the origin 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 would swear he’s older.” His conspicuous maturity is a boon for the NHL’s youngest team. The downside is that the old-soul stuff makes him a bull’s-eye for dressing-room pranks. (Tricks like the pilfered cellphone and phony text messages from girls are knee-slappers, apparently.) “I always tell him, ‘Taser, weren’t you ever in third grade?’” says Adam Burish, Chicago’s injured pot stirrer. “Once you make fun of a kid or give him a nickname he hates, you’re only going to say it more. He’s our target because we get a reaction.”
The Young Man and the 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 Wings coach Mike Babcock approvingly calls “that big, heavy, hockey butt.” Toews had just six points in the first month of the season and did not score until his 13th game.
“Since I was now the captain, I felt I had to be the hero, score the winning goal every night,” 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 seven and eight, and it starts feeling like I can’t score. You get the feeling you’re honestly worthless and can’t play anymore.”
According to teammates Toews would address the media—a captain’s duty—but then stay in his equipment for another 20 or 30 minutes, mute, processing the game. “I’d shower, get my suit on, be ready to leave, and he’d still be there in full gear,” 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 to catch dinner, the guys are going?’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t deserve to go.’ He didn’t settle down until Christmas.” Toews learned to let go just a little and wound up scoring a lot, finishing with 34 goals and another seven in the playoffs as Chicago stormed into the Western Conference finals against Detroit.
“He reminds me of a young Steve Yzerman,” Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland says. “How he raises his play in big games, how upset he gets when things don’t go well. He’s a blue-chipper, a guy who wins face-offs”—he won 56% in five playoff games against Detroit—“and plays two ways and leans on guys down low.”
Toews, who was a Blackhawks-best +6 through Sunday, is uncomfortable with the praise from hockey cognoscenti. 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 pretty incredible 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’s done.”
Toews is composed, humble and dogged in his pursuit of excellence. The only thing that doesn’t compute in the short bio of Captain Serious is Judy’s Tavern.
Judy’s Tavern is a hole-in-the-wall with a jukebox and pictures of Fighting Sioux hockey players 10 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 of the UND boys, 18-year-old Toews included, gathered at Judy’s to celebrate. You can 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 of the law grabbing him. While he would have been of drinking age in his home province, he wasn’t in Manitoba anymore. Toews was ticketed for his indiscretion.
From the perspective of moral relativism, there’s probably a slight difference between an 18-year-old Toews out with the boys at a bar and a 20-year-old getting into an altercation at 4 a.m. with a Buffalo taxi driver, as Toews’s linemate Patrick Kane did this summer. There certainly is a difference in the maturity levels of the forwards who are invariably lumped together because they entered the NHL so spectacularly together in 2007. “Patrick is a 20-year-old who’s 20,” Burish, 26, explains. “Jon is a 21-year-old who might as well be 60.”
That’s partly why one scout says that, while Kane might eventually lead the NHL in scoring, Toews will one day lead the way to a Cup. “In the playoffs he was impressive,” says Calgary’s Jarome Iginla. “Composed but fired up. We took 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.