Commentary

The growth of Chicago's skating stars

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were created to be the face of the Blackhawks

Updated: May 26, 2010, 12:47 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Jonathan Toews and Patrick KaneJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesPatrick Kane, left, and Jonathan Toews have the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992. The duo's next task: end the NHL's longest title drought.
They are lumped together more often than not, sharing a burden practically written into their contracts and loving the responsibility thrust upon them. They were born less than six months apart. And while neither was bred for the game, they took to hockey like pedigrees.

On a team with plenty of heart and a well-defined soul, they are, as they were created to be, the face of the Chicago Blackhawks. But if that face were split into two, one lip would be curled up while the other would be a straight line, one eye dancing while the other staring straight ahead.

And, as we know so well by now, one side would be business in the front and party in the back while the other, well, all business.

[+] EnlargeToews
Courtesy of Toews FamilyJonathan Toews showed a passion for hockey at a young age.

Jonathan Toews, said his father, Bryan, was "always on a mission."

In kindergarten, remembered Toews' mother, Andree Gilbert, Jonathan's teacher told her she had never seen a child who concentrated so intently or was quite so dedicated to the task at hand, whether it was completing a puzzle or playing with Legos.

"Even when he was coloring, he made sure he was not going to go over the lines," said Andree. "A lot of times, we'd tell him not to worry. We always told him, 'Just let your hair down. Have fun.' But that was the way he was. I remember one time when he was about 6, he got this interest in dinosaurs and he wanted to read everything and know everything about dinosaurs. He knew human beings were here for a reason and he wanted to understand why. He's that kind of person."

When he was 5, his father recalled, Jonathan was playing on his first soccer team when he developed a side ache.

"I was trying to tell him, 'It's OK, you don't have to keep playing,' but he wouldn't listen," Bryan Toews said. "Meanwhile, the other kids are picking dandelions, but he was on a mission. It didn't matter, he was going to play with the pain. At 5 years old, it's quite something how he already had that."

For years, Bryan Toews constructed an outdoor hockey rink each winter outside their Winnipeg home for his boys to practice. (David Toews, who plays at North Dakota, is two years younger than Jonathan and was drafted by the New York Islanders.)

"Jon would be out there skating with his buddies on a Saturday, and his buddies would come in and Jon would stay out," Bryan said. "We'd give hot chocolate to his friends and his friends would sit there and ask us, 'When is Jonathan coming in?' and I'd say, 'I don't know.' So they'd sit there for a half-hour, 45 minutes and realize he wasn't coming in. So they'd go back out and want him to come in and play video games or something but he'd just continue skating and shooting. They could do whatever they want. He was just happy on his rink and he just played and played. He just loved it."

On the same Saturday mornings about 994 miles away in Buffalo, N.Y., little Patrick Kane was lugging his hockey goal out onto the street.

"I'd see the top of his head go by the living room window with his net and roller blades," said Patrick's mother, Donna, "and then a little while later, I'd see him coming back in, saying, 'They're not taking it serious enough.'

"I'd tell him, 'Pat, they're just kids, they're just playing.' He was like 6 at the time."

While both Kane and Toews were hockey prodigies, the Kanes would constantly be reminded of Patrick's small stature.

"Just wait until he starts getting checked," other parents would grumble within earshot of Patrick's father, Pat Sr., who would think to himself that no one was more prepared than his son, who had been checked and double-teamed for years before that.

Toews gave up taekwondo just three months short of receiving his black belt because he couldn't give it the proper attention with hockey, soccer and swimming. By age 12, he dropped soccer and swimming but not before his parents were told by those in the know that he could have pursued a career in professional soccer.

Both future Hawks stars matured quickly in the game, though while Toews was consistently an elite prospect, Kane had to constantly prove himself, barely making the USA's under-18 team that played in Sweden, and returning after with a draft rating that soared into the top 10.

By the time they both appeared on the doorstep of the Blackhawks -- Toews, 19, as the third overall pick in the 2006 draft before spending a year at the University of North Dakota, and Kane, 18, as the top pick in 2007 -- they were ready. Almost.

"

I remember when Patrick was drafted, thinking, I can't imagine how at 18 he was going to feel living in this huge city because I was so overwhelmed. It was so nice that with Jonathan, he had somebody going through the same thing.

" -- Patrick's mother, Donna Kane

Both sets of parents felt they would be better off not living on their own, Toews ending up rooming with Brent Seabrook, and Kane with then-assistant Hawks general manager Stan Bowman and his family. A year later, Toews moved out of Seabrook's place and -- in just one day to his mother's amazement -- purchased a three-bedroom condo in a luxury downtown high-rise. Two months later, Kane bought a two-bedroom unit in a similarly luxurious building just a few blocks away. Without knowing, they picked out the same sectional and the same carpeting.

"I remember when Patrick was drafted, thinking, I can't imagine how at 18 he was going to feel living in this huge city because I was so overwhelmed," Donna Kane said. "It was so nice that with Jonathan, he had somebody going through the same thing."

On the ice, the transition seemed seamless. Then-coach Denis Savard had seen both players in prospect camp and had fallen in love.

"They were just a notch above," Savard said. "When the stage is big, Kaner just loves it. He thrives on it and will find a way to make things happen."

In Toews, Savard and then-GM Dale Tallon immediately saw leadership potential.

"Toews was 19 but had the mind of a 30-year-old in how he approached things," Savard said. "Naming him captain was a clear-cut decision, not difficult to make -- one, because of his maturity and two, because he practices as hard as he plays if not harder and you can't teach that."

Toews' parents, however, had a somewhat different reaction.

"Two, three months into the season, we started hearing 'He's our captain' and it kind of freaked me and my wife out," Bryan Toews said. "We were really concerned that he should have some success here before they burdened him with that. We knew in our minds he had the makeup, the leadership qualities and we knew how his character was. But we had to see how his NHL development was going to go. So it was a little scary for us."

Toews said it was scary for him as well.

"Absolutely," he said, "always with that element of the unknown. It's something you never know if you're prepared for and that makes you nervous a little bit. But I just tell myself it's a challenge that anyone would love to have a chance to take on. So I made the best of it. I still have so much to learn but I'm enjoying it right now for sure."

For their part, his teammates showed no signs of resentment and agreed that Toews was an easy choice to wear the "C."

"I don't think he was too young when he got it," said Patrick Sharp, who is seven years older than Toews. "I think everyone was expecting Johnny to be the captain. Right from when he walked in, he kind of had that label put on his shoulders like he was the future leader of the team and at the time, we were all pretty young. We were all learning as we went, but he's done a great job as our leader."

Adam Burish remembers Toews' initial insecurity.

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane
John Sommers/Icon SMIPatrick Kane was the first pick of the 2007 draft.

"I know he was more hesitant about it than any of the guys were," Burish said. "I know right when it happened, he talked to a few of the guys like, 'Is this a good thing? What are the guys going to think about this?' He was conscious of the guys in the room, which is a pretty cool sign of his maturity that he would think about that. But for the guys, it wasn't an issue at all. It may have been a different decision if we had a bunch of 35-year-olds. But it's a young group of guys. And the way he carries himself, the way he works on the ice, it just screams leadership. It wasn't an issue in here at all."

Brian Campbell, 11 years older than Toews and Kane, was won over as soon as he came to the Hawks for the '08 season.

"[Toews] represents us and how everybody should act away from the rink and on the ice," he said. "There aren't a lot of kids his age who act like he does. He comes and works every day and prepares and works at his craft."

Their teammates say they have matured both on and off the ice. But apparently they have not outgrown getting teased.

"I don't think Toews is as serious as people make him out to be, but he's definitely a lot more serious than Kaner," said Kris Versteeg, at 23, just two years older than Kane. "Kaner is a little more outgoing and Taser wound up a little tighter, so they're different in that way. But they both take the game seriously and both love the game.

"And they're not hard at all to tease, both of those little pukes. It's a lot of fun for me. They're both terrible at comebacks. They have no game."

Once, Kane's teammates took his car keys and moved his car to the other side of the United Center so he had to walk around the building and through fans to get to it. And after Kane scored his first goal, Brent Sopel told him tradition was that he buy everyone wine. The tradition began with him.

"I helped him order wine and bought special labels for all the bottles," Donna Kane recalled. "They all loved it. It really lightened the locker room up."

Toews is not quite so easy a target, as Seabrook learned in San Jose when his incessant grabbing of Toews' video game controller eventually caused Toews to tackle him.

But Sharp said both Toews and Kane are somewhat misunderstood.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireJonathan Toews is having a record-setting postseason.

"[Toews] has lightened up a little bit," Sharp said, "but he gets in a zone when it's time to play hockey. He has his fun though, don't let him fool you.

"And anyone who knows Patrick the way we do, knows that he cares about hockey just as much as anybody else. He has that reputation of being laid-back and loose, but he's just as serious as Johnny is. They were both very professional right from day one. They're very humble kids as well, so it's nice to be teammates with guys like that."

Clearly, Kane's incident and subsequent legal troubles with the Buffalo cab driver last summer took a toll. But he faced the media's questions and continues to answer them, and it has seemingly had no long-lasting negative effect on his career, save for some residual razzing on the road.

"You can dwell on that," Donna Kane said, "but the positive part about it were the text messages and phone calls from family, friends, teammates and people literally around the world who said they were behind Patrick 110 percent because they know Patrick. I hope in people's lives, they're not just defined by one incident, one situation. I, as a quote, normal person, wouldn't want to be, but a lot of times athletes are."

Kane's teammates rallied to his defense and continue to have his back.

"Everybody felt so bad for him because always there's a lot more that goes on than what you read or what you see," Burish said. "And I thought it was so cool how he handled it. He stepped up to it. He wasn't going to say, 'I didn't do it' and give the full story because that doesn't get you anywhere. But he handled himself like a man. As much fun as he likes to have and he's a smiley guy, he handles himself pretty darn maturely to be under that spotlight and to be under that much pressure every day as a 21-year-old kid."

Donna Kane said her son "didn't have a choice."

"You're a boy in a man's world," she said. "Even though you may want to be 18, 19, 20 like your friends, sometimes you can't. You can be the best thing to walk the face of the earth and if you have a bad game, cough up the puck, it's 'You stink, trade him.' For Patrick and Jonathan, all of a sudden they have to realize that everything they do is critiqued."

If there is any jealousy between the Hawks' two young stars, it is impossible to detect. Though they admit to competitiveness, particularly when Toews' Canadian team defeated Kane's U.S. team for the Olympic gold medal, they seem to be better for the association.

"It helps a lot," Kane said of having Toews as a teammate and friend. "Ever since we came in our first year, it seems like we've been paired up together whether it's playing, as roommates [on the road], different commercials, all the off-ice things. We have the same agent. …

"Coming in our first year, I knew we were going to hit it off, probably going to have to hit it off to give this franchise something to live for. But there's been a lot of other guys in here, it's not just us two."

When they do disagree, they both said, it's minor and resolved quickly.

[+] EnlargeJessica, Jacqueline, Patrick and Erica Kane
Courtesy the Kane FamilyJessica, Jacqueline, Patrick and Erica Kane before Patrick's first NHL game.

"We do a lot of things together and sometimes it's tough, when you're doing all those things, not to get sick of him. I'm sure he gets sick of me too," Kane said. "That's just the way the relationship is. But I think it's healthy at the same time, and if we're on the ice, one of us isn't afraid to yell at the other guy or yap at each other on the bench. But we [also] know the next shift and the next time on the bench, we're going to be more calm and talk about it and we'll make up real quick. It's a real healthy relationship for me and I hope he'd say the same thing."

Toews agreed.

"Yeah, we're competitive," he said. "But we've always been together on the same line, helping each other develop and mature as players and people too. In practice especially, that's where the competition comes in. We always want to better each other and we end up helping each other improve."

As for their difference in personalities, Kane said that's a positive as well.

"It's like opposites attract," he said. "Off the ice, he's probably more of a leader, serious about hockey. That's not to say I'm not serious about hockey but to be honest, I'm more easygoing, I like to laugh and have fun and it seems like he's pretty serious about hockey all the time, which is good for our team and it's good to have that mix.

"On the ice you can see it too. He's a really good two-way player and it seems we can really feed off each other, which has just come from the last couple years of playing with each other. It's been good."

That doesn't mean a mother can't still worry a little.

Donna Kane laughed that the other night when the family went out to dinner, her son innocently asked if it didn't seem weird to her that whenever he left a place, everyone seemed to know he was there.

"I was like, 'Pat, that's technology,'" she told him gently. "'That's texting and camera phones. See those two guys next to us …'"

And then there are the women.

"I don't know how Andree feels about it," Donna said, "but it's a sad thing for me because a lot of the guys had girlfriends before they became NHL players and I'm always going to wonder, 'Do they like Patrick for Patrick the person, or for Patrick, the NHL star?' I think he's smart enough. I think Jonathan is. But I still keep that in the back of my mind. They're so young."

Toews' mother worries too, though she said she believes her son would see through someone interested in him only for his career. Still, she said, the boy can be oblivious.

"One time I was walking ahead of him and there were five or six girls who saw him and were yelling and screaming and crying and so excited and he didn't notice it at all," she said. "Of course, after that I went to see Oprah and when I saw her, I acted just like the girls, yelling and screaming and so excited. When I told Jonathan, he was like, 'Oh Mom, don't tell me this, it's embarrassing.'"

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.