Can We Please Appreciate This Version of Jonathan Toews?

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Can We Please Appreciate This Version of Jonathan Toews?

Chicago Blackhawks

When we entered the Blackhawks’ dressing room at the United Center after the morning skate on Friday, the hoard of microphones, recorders and cameras stopped at Patrick Kane‘s locker for about eight minutes.

Moments later, it shifted a couple stalls to the left where Jonathan Toews‘ nameplate hangs above his pads.

Chicago’s captain cleaned himself up and faced the media like he has so many times over the last almost 20 years. Yeah, almost 20 years… it’s wild to think about how long these two players have been institutions on Madison.

But then there’s the other reality in the Blackhawks’ dressing room right now. This team is getting younger. And that can be a bit awkward sometimes.

When I spoke with Reese Johnson before the team took off for their season-opening road trip, he told me how much living with Toews during his first NHL season helped him. Similarly, MacKenzie Entwistle told me how much being “buddies” with Toews and Patrick Kane has helped his confidence and comfort level in the league.

“I remember growing up as a kid idolizing Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and then you get in the same locker room and it’s easy to be nervous,” Entwistle told me on Friday.

That has been, by far, the universal first response when I ask one of the new players “What’s it like playing with Kane and Toews?”

“Yeah, they were my heroes growing up.”

Growing up?

Some of us remember when 19 and 88 were the teenagers trying to shift the course of the franchise. But over the past 16 years, those two have gone from boys to men (damn, here comes an easy, sappy “End of the Road” joke).

Toews was named the captain of the Blackhawks so long ago, there’s an entire generation of fans who don’t know anything but Toews wearing the C.

We’re now in uncharted waters with both Toews and Kane, who were introspective before the home opener on Friday. Kane said he hadn’t (and wouldn’t) think about this being potentially his final season in Chicago. Toews, on the other hand, was pretty transparent about where he’s at in his career.

“It’s the last year of my contract, so it definitely dawns on you that you’ve got to seize every moment that you can… It clicks in that you can never take playing this game at this level for granted, especially wearing this sweater.”

Tyler Johnson has played with some really good (future Hall of Fame) players in Tampa. Hell, he’s been a really good player (still can be when he’s healthy and has looked good early this season) and is the kind of veteran who young guys will lean on for help. He’s now skating on a line with the Blackhawks’ captain, and they’re producing.

I asked Tyler what makes a great leader in the NHL. His answer wasn’t surprising, but he specifically brought up 19… off the ice.

“The most important thing to be a leader in the NHL is being a leader on the ice,” Johnson said Friday. “It’s not necessarily your best player or your most vocal player but it’s the ones who give it their all every night. They’re giving up their body to help the team. That goes a long way. And being inclusive. If you ask the young guys here I think most would say Toews is one of the first guys to come up to them in the organization and talk to them.”

I have asked some of the young guys in the organization. And they confirm what Johnson sees as being some of the great off-ice value Toews brings to the room. When I wrote about Toews’ leadership evolving back before the season opened in Denver, Reese Johnson and Sam Lafferty said similar things about Toews as Entwistle and Johnson did this week after three games on the road.

But let’s circle back to Tyler Johnson’s entire definition of leadership. It doesn’t have to be 100+ points. It doesn’t have to be loud shouting or big glass-rattling hits. It’s about effort. Consistent effort on and off the ice to make the other guys in the room better.

However, (big, bold HOWEVER), the Toews we’ve seen thus far is… something else. It isn’t a complete throwback to the mid-2010s; he isn’t in his 20s any more. It also isn’t the guy who was physically broken in the bubble in Edmonton when the Blackhawks came back for a quick beatdown of the Oilers in the “playoffs.” And it sure as hell isn’t the guy who was trying to find his body again after taking a year away from the ice to figure a lot of things out.

What we’re seeing from Toews this year is an appreciative, reflective leader.

He’s selling out on every shift. He’s having fun. I honestly don’t know if we’ve seen this many smiles from 19 on the ice in 3-4 years. And, guess what? He’s producing. Toews isn’t squeezing the sawdust out of his stick like last year desperately fighting to get a frickin’ goal. He’s got two in three games, including the Blackhawks’ first marker of the year.

We don’t know what the future holds for Toews. Frankly, I get the sense he really doesn’t either at this point. But he’s living for today and enjoying the ride. And, as someone who has cheered for him from the time he was the teenager who was in awe of the “old guys” in the locker room that he and Kane have now become, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the time we still have with him in a Blackhawks sweater.

Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab