Ten years ago, during the NHL’s lockout that cut the 2012-13 season in half, I walked into a beautiful steakhouse just off Millennium Park. I was meeting a photographer and a couple good friends — Dave Pagnotta and Dennis Bernstein — to shoot the images that would accompany the cover story of an issue of The Fourth Period Magazine.
We got set up with the restaurant’s management and in walked the subject of our story: Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Back then, Toews was a 24-year-old veteran with one Stanley Cup championship on his resume. Well, he had one Cup and an Olympic gold medal, a Conn Smythe and was the youngest member ever to join the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club.
At 24, he already had a resume that would provide strong consideration for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The young man we met with that day was engaging with a big smile. He dressed well and had fun with the photo shoot. When the flash bulbs were done with their job, we sat down and ate together. He joked with us, shared a few anecdotes from the Blackhawks’ dressing room and went on his way.
Later, I chatted with him for the story that would wrap the photos from that day. The Jonathan Toews I spoke with was a bit different than the guy in the restaurant. He was the “Captain Serious” Blackhawks fans had some to expect, answering questions with a sharp demeanor.
We chatted about some of the struggles not many fans knew about at that point in his career. The scary concussion symptoms he had dealt with during the 2010-11 season that made his performance in that year’s playoffs against the Canucks even more heroic. He was open about his health back then, at a stage in his career when many hide any potential physical limitations because of the competitive disadvantage they might become.
In the decade since then, Toews’ career has become a lock for the Hall. He’s added a Selke Trophy, a Mark Messier Leadership Award, another Olympic gold and two more Stanley Cup championship rings.
But his health has always been in the background. He’s handled his personal business in private and led the Blackhawks on the ice. Indeed, he was the perfect Felix to Patrick Kane’s Oscar in the Blackhawks’ production of The Odd Couple.
Before last season, after sitting out the pandemic-shortened season with then-undisclosed health issues, Toews opened up about the long COVID impact on his body in an interview with Mark Lazerus of The Athletic. He also opened up in an unprecedented video on Twitter.
This wasn’t the Toews that fans had some to expect. He described not knowing if/when his body would be back to what he considered “normal.” He was… human. He wasn’t the winning robot that many had wanted him to be over the previous decade of leading the Blackhawks to championships.
One quote stood out to me, especially in light of the conversation I had with him nine years prior.
“My body has been under so much stress for a long time. I’ve had some different times where I just hit the wall. I don’t think I ever really recovered the way I should. It’s kind of crazy to say you went through your 20s and never felt your best, but that’s what it was.”
Toews has always held himself to a high standard. And he hadn’t allowed anyone inside his bubble, his circle. We knew the hockey player, and he was a great one.
Fast forward a year and the only franchise that he’s played for is in an incredibly different place. Since that first piece by Lazerus, the Blackhawks have released their internal investigation into the sexual assault of Kyle Beach. They threw a ton of money at a new-look roster, and then Stan Bowman was punted because of his role in the Beach situation. The months that followed included the removal of Jeremy Colliton as head coach, more off-ice drama, and the re-start of a rebuild.
On the ice, Toews battled through the toughest season of his career. He couldn’t buy a goal for months, but finished the season strong. He was clearly trying to get his body back in NHL game shape — indeed, back at the level he expected himself to perform at — while trying to lead an unhappy roster full of transplants that didn’t work well on the ice in Colliton’s “systems.”
Many fans have held Toews and other veterans from the 2010 team personally responsible for not standing up for Beach. Many fans have held Toews and other veteran leaders from 2010 personally responsible for the roster falling apart around them. The big cap hits, the decline in performance and the players who have left have all led fans of the Chicago Blackhawks to a very unhappy place.
An unhappy place where Toews is still the captain.
So when Lazerus spoke with Toews in late July, some of what Toews had to say was spun out of context. Or taken too literally. Or simply not good enough for fans who have always expected their best Blackhawks to be the elite player(s) they were at one point in their career.
“I’m not going to sit here and say what I’m going to do or what the future holds for me, because I really don’t know.”
Toews told Lazerus that he doesn’t know what his future holds.
Trade rumors will swirl around him until he is no longer wearing the Blackhawks sweater. Entering the final year of his contract, that’s natural; it’s happening at a higher volume around Kane, who has been by his side for more than 15 years.
As we get ready for the 2022-23 season to begin, Toews is already the longest-tenured captain in the history of the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. He’s reached the 1,000 games played plateau and, with Marian Hossa’s number heading to the rafters this coming season, knows that his 19 will eventually be there, too.
When stars like Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour and others were traded in the 1990s and early 2000s, fans chalked it up as “Dollar Bill” undercutting his franchise to save money. When Chris Chelios was traded to Detroit, fans were (and still are) pissed because he had promised all of us that he would never accept a trade to the Red Wings.
We — Blackhawks fans — have always held our star players to a high standard and wanted them to be in Chicago forever. But now, with free agency and a hard salary cap, those feelings and expectations have evolved.
More recently, when the Blackhawks have traded away the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Artemi Panarin, Brandon Saad (twice), Andrew Shaw and, now, Brandon Hagel, Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat, fans have thrown the blame at Bowman’s front office. And, in some regard, at players like Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook for signing long-term contracts with big cap hits.
But now that we’re looking at the potential end of the road for Toews in Chicago, one has to ask: what does Jonathan Toews owe Blackhawks fans?
My answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
We don’t know how he feels on a daily basis. We don’t know if this will be the final season he’s a Blackhawks or if this is the final season of his career. We don’t know if he really wants to chase another ring or if he places more value on only wearing one sweater for his entire career like Sidney Crosby will in Pittsburgh and Alex Ovechkin will in Washington.
Most importantly, every indication is that Toews doesn’t know the answers to those questions right now, either.
And he shouldn’t have to know the answers.
For once, we should allow Toews to be human. To own his body and his health and made the best decisions for himself. And to keep his plans between himself and his agent and, at some point, Kyle Davidson and the Blackhawks.
We aren’t owed anything. We have cheered him through the greatest years of the Blackhawks franchise on the ice, and he’s heard the criticism from fans and media alike in the wake of the Beach investigation. He’s heard fans and media questioning his ability to play at the highest level again. And only he knows how much is left in the tank at this point.
We need to accept that, even at 34 years young, he’s been through a great deal during his NHL career that he’s never allowed the fans to know about. And, out of respect for what he’s been for the Blackhawks, we owe him the time he needs to make these decisions.