HOCKEY, MORE than any other team sport, confers upon its captains an importance that goes beyond the symbolic to the practical, the essential even. They are more than merely good players. They are the official liaisons between coaches and the locker room, between coaches and referees. Captains carry the burden of failure in defeat and often receive outsized credit in victory. They are always the first to hoist the Stanley Cup. A heavy shot, hawklike vision, soft hands and big numbers are all wonderful ancillary attributes of players who wear the c, but in the Church of the NHL, the less easily defined ability to lead generates the most hushed whispers.
This is an article from the May 26, 2014 issue
For this generation of players, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby—who carried his team to a Cup in 2009 and is acknowledged to be the best player in the world—has long been the unofficial totem. This spring, however, a frustrated (and sometimes peevish) Crosby came apart when his team needed him the most, notably in Game 6 of Pittsburgh's second-round series against the Rangers. With the second period winding down and the Penguins trailing by two, Crosby, who scored just one goal in the postseason, used the blade-end of his stick to spear New York center Dominic Moore in the undercarriage. Later, the Pittsburgh center borderline slew-footed defenseman Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. Crosby, who was visibly annoyed on the bench afterward, was visited in the locker room following the Rangers' 3--1 victory by Penguins owner, and former captain, Mario Lemieux.
It was no help to Crosby's reputation that on the same night Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews left his own, much different stamp on the postseason. With the score tied 1--1 early in the third period of Game 5 of Chicago's series against the Wild, Toews, in the midst of a 52-second shift, was the late man entering the offensive zone. He checked Minnesota forward Mikael Granlund off the puck and into the endboards, then beelined to the front of the net. Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa controlled the puck behind the goal while the 6'2", 208-pound Toews battled for position near the crease with Granlund, who is four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. Hossa passed to Patrick Sharp, whose shot from the left circle was deflected by goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Toews collected the bounding puck on his backhand and slammed it home for the game-winner in a 2--1 Chicago victory. It was Toews's fourth game-winning goal of the playoffs and the 10th postseason game-winner of his career, a franchise record.
That Crosby was coming unhinged against yet another lower seed in the postseason while Toews was leading the Blackhawks to the Western Conference finals for the fourth time since 2008 did not go unnoticed. Two days later Crosby and Toews would again play on the same night; shortly after the Rangers became the fifth straight lower seed to oust the Penguins in the postseason, Chicago finished off the Wild in Game 6. That very day a story on the Toronto Star's website had run under the headline WHO'S BETTER? SIDNEY CROSBY OR JONATHAN TOEWS?
If we are mixing sports metaphors here, Toews has been the David Ortiz or the Robert Horry of the rink, delivering clutch moments with frightening regularity. Still, it's strange to think of a center who has only once—and by a hair—averaged more than a point a game in a season as the game's Gretzky or Lemieux or, for that matter, its Crosby. But in locker rooms around the league, Toews's peers will not be swayed by empirical arguments. Last week Sportsnet's Mark Spector informally polled five NHL scouts, asking who they would choose to build a team around, Crosby or Toews. Four of the five chose Toews. "If you were starting a hockey team and you could pick one player in the entire world, [Toews] is the guy right now that you would pick," says Sharks forward Adam Burish. "To me, he is the ultimate winner."
All the 26-year-old Toews has done is win: two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a Conn Smythe Trophy, two World Juniors titles and a World Championship. With Chicago seven wins from its third chalice in five years, he could become the youngest three-time Cup-winning captain in league history, two months younger than Wayne Gretzky was when he won his third, in 1987.
Toews has worn the c since he was 20, and that perhaps is what inspires the most awe. "He had that quality from the day we first drafted him," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman says. "He's got that aura about him, of just being someone that you're going to follow."
The esteem for Toews as a leader is so considerable that even Crosby has acknowledged it. In January, before he accepted the captaincy of Team Canada in advance of the Sochi Olympics, he insisted on running the news by Toews first. Crosby didn't do it for permission—everyone, including Toews, knew that Crosby was going to be the captain. He did it out of respect.
EARLY IN his career Toews earned the nickname Captain Serious, which suggests that he is not a player who takes his duty lightly. He does not. Last June, a few days after Chicago won the Cup with a last-minute Game 6 comeback, Toews phoned Bowman to follow up on a brief conversation they'd had in the immediate, giddy aftermath of the clincher. "Jammer's going to be on the Cup, right?" Toews asked.
Jammer is forward Jamal Mayers, who in 14 NHL seasons had never been beyond the conference finals. Typically, a player must appear in half of a team's regular-season games or dress in the Stanley Cup finals to have his name engraved on the Cup. The 38-year-old Mayers had played in just 19 of the Blackhawks' 48 games last season, and none in the playoffs. But Toews revered him as a leader in the dressing room. "Jamal," Toews insisted to Bowman, "deserves to be on it."
Toews went further. If it was a matter of finding space for Mayers's name, he said that the engraver could omit the customary CAPT. that would appear next to TOEWS. "Jonathan's the ultimate team guy," Bowman says. "And it's a constant theme for him. It's all about the team. He's not bigger than anybody."
When teammates Michal Handzus and Hossa were approaching their 1,000th career games—in March and in March 2013, respectively—Toews made sure the team had silver hockey sticks made to commemorate the occasions. When he was negotiating an extension in 2010, Toews told Bowman that he didn't want to sign or announce a deal until the contracts for winger Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith were done too.
Toews struggled during Chicago's run to the Cup last spring, scoring just one goal in his first 20 playoff games, a drought that, had the Blackhawks fallen short, doubtless would have invited the same criticism that Crosby faces now. But it's instructive that the only authority figure who dared to approach Crosby during this spring's meltdown was the iconic Lemieux. In Washington, the one-way game of Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin, who earlier in his career earned a place in the discussion of the game's premier player, seems to be forever at odds with his coaches—he has been through three in three seasons and has never come close to winning a Stanley Cup. But Toews's ego can be challenged. He had been held without a goal in his previous 10 games going into Game 4 of last spring's finals when teammate Brent Seabrook pulled him aside and asked, "What are you thinking about?" Toews answered, "Nothing." Seabrook repeated the question, firmly, and Toews replied, "Scoring goals." He scored one in the next game, a 6--5 overtime win, and another in the Game 6 clincher.
Unlike Crosby, who's taken on an almost-mythological stature in the sport (his family's famous puck-dented dryer is now on display at the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame, and his gold-medal-winning goal in the 2010 Vancouver Games is the high point of Canada's rich hockey history), or Ovechkin, whose dazzling skill with the puck at times seems to defy the laws of physics, Toews's game is more nuanced, more relatable. "It's more workmanlike," Bowman says. "Maybe it's because he has other [facets to his game], it spreads around the praise he gets, instead of concentrating only on his offense.... He's so effective in so many ways, but he's not so effective in just one way that maybe it dilutes his greatness."
Toews scored 28 goals this season, tied for 26th in the NHL, but he was +26 while facing other teams' top lines. When Toews was on the ice, Chicago took 59.3% of all shot attempts, according to the advanced stats site ExtraSkater.com. He has won a Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league, and he won 57.2% of his face-offs this season. He was the only Chicago forward to play more than 100 minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill. It is from these unsexy parts of the game that Toews derives the most pride (well, that and the Cups). "I look at a guy like [defenseman] Niklas Hjalmarsson and [think], like, It's not right for him to block shots and for [me] to say that that's not a part of my job as well," Toews says.
The romance of the hockey player has always been more about the ordinary than the extraordinary, more about grit than Gretzky. Toews's own background certainly fits this notion: When he was in grade school in Winnipeg, teachers would often ask his mother, Andrée Gilbert, "How did you raise such a focused child?" It was innate, she says. "I mean, he made me look good as a mom, but seriously, I had nothing to do with that. He was really born like that."
That determination is evident in every shift. "He can just will the puck to the net; he'll will the puck through a defender," says Blackhawks winger Kris Versteeg. "He doesn't have the most skill, but he has a lot of it. He has enough skill, but it's his will [that sets him apart]."
In Game 2 of Chicago's second-round series against Minnesota, Toews was rewarded for his extra effort. Midway through the first period Hossa, on a breakaway, skated in on Bryzgalov, faked a shot and made a nifty move across the front of the goal. The two trailing Wild players watched their goalie make the sprawling pad save but failed to see Toews charging in hard. Getting inside positioning on Minnesota forward Mikko Koivu, Toews won the footrace and knocked in the rebound to give the Blackhawks a 1--0 lead.
"There's a sort of repetitiveness to his effort, which people can appreciate," Bowman says. "He does have incredible talent and incredible skill, but he's also got that engine. That's something people can relate to. You might not have a lot of talent, but you can push yourself to bring it all the time."
BEFORE THE Sochi Games, Toews starred in a television ad campaign for Canadian Tire, a home and sporting goods retailer based in Toronto. The spot starts with a close-up of Toews's smiling face, and slowly zooms out to reveal first his parents seated on either side of him, and then the army of real people that played a role in his development as a hockey player when he was growing up. There was his trainer Thom Gross, his best friend's mother, Faith Jenkins-Watt, with her collection of cowbells, his neighbor Marvin Namaka who now maintains the backyard rink that Toews's father, Bryan, built when Jonathan was five. It is earnest, it is charming. It is hockey.
By the end of the commercial the full frame reveals all of those people and many more, surrounding him in the shape of a maple leaf. "We all play for Canada," the tagline read. Even when Toews is the star, he really is not.
"We thought his story was an unbelievable way to talk about how it takes a community to raise an athlete," Canadian Tire senior vice president of marketing TJ Flood says. "Jonathan is just such a great ambassador for what Canada stands for."
The ads were another instance of Toews's elevating those around him. He has already lifted the Blackhawks to the top of the NHL twice, and with a stellar cast of characters surrounding him—from the shifty Kane to the shot-blocking Hjalmarsson—Chicago is seven wins from another Stanley Cup, seven wins from what qualifies as a pro dynasty in the 21st century. The Blackhawks' captain might be the best player in the world, but he doesn't need that title. He just wants to win.
Game-winning goals for Toews in the 2014 playoffs, an NHL best. He has scored 10 postseason game-winners, a club record
Percentage of shot attempts taken by Chicago when Toews was on the ice, a nearly 3-to-2 advantage
Follow the victory trail of Chicago's captain
2010 GOLD MEDAL
Scored once, with seven assists, in Vancouver
2010 STANLEY CUP
Won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP
2013 STANLEY CUP
Scored two goals in the finals against the Bruins
2014 GOLD MEDAL
Scored one goal and added two assists in Sochi
Percentage of face-offs won by Toews in 2013--14, behind only the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron among players with more than 1,500 draws