Kane, Toews, Skille giving Blackhawk Nation hope
[Editor's note: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Jack Skille are just a few of the new crop of rookies coming into the NHL this season, but they all happen to be in the Blackhawks' organization. ESPN.com will follow their progress throughout the 2007-08 season in a series called "Beginner's Puck." Our series starts in Chicago just before the start of Blackhawks camp.]
CHICAGO -- Their paths have intersected, albeit briefly, in hockey rinks near and far, but they could hardly say they knew each other. They knew about each other.
"Don't say too much, don't say too much," Kane jokes, reaching out with a familiar, brotherly hand to Toews as the pair sit in a hotel lounge not far from downtown Chicago.
Even before camp began, they fell into an easy camaraderie; Kane good-naturedly questioning Toews' diligent backchecking during shinny with other members of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Toews giving Kane a good ribbing after Kane struck a goal post.
They laugh easily at their most emotional encounter at last year's World Junior Championship, where Canada beat the U.S. in a shootout en route to a gold medal. Toews scored three times in that shootout session. Kane missed twice.
Physically, personality-wise, and in their backgrounds, the two could not be more diverse.
Toews is a solid, quiet, Canadian boy from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who played on the backyard rink until he was too cold to go on. He honed his skills at the University of North Dakota and was selected with the third overall pick in 2006. Although he just turned 19 in April, there is nothing about Toews that says "boy."
Kane is not quite scrawny, but definitely slight. Later, he'll describe with a grin how he "bulked up" over the summer, jumping from 163 pounds in July to 170 at the start of camp.
If Toews comes here representing the whole package, a player that doesn't need to learn how to play the game at both ends of the ice (he blocked a shot in the second period of the Blackhawks' second preseason game and broke a finger, which will keep him out of action until close to the season opener), Kane is the wild card. Immensely gifted offensively, Kane is in an awkward spot developmentally.A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Kane became the first overall pick in June's draft by virtue of a sensational junior career in London, Ontario. For a boy who will not turn 19 until the NHL season is more than a month old, Kane is surprisingly comfortable with questions and has the makings of a wry wit.
Asked about the experience of throwing out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field and then singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with coach Denis Savard, Kane suggests Savard was trying to hog the microphone (later, Savard will smile and say he was worried Kane might not have known the words).
"I wish I could have had the pitch back," Kane adds.
However different their paths might be, however striking the differences might be between Toews and Kane, make no mistake, their paths are inexorably linked. Weeks before they will line up for their first NHL games, even before anyone is sure both will even make this team, one wonders if the sum of their parts might be what turns this franchise around and drags it out of the hole in which it has existed for more than a decade.
Too early? Of course.
How many "can't miss" or "special" players turned out to be nothing more than footnotes in the history of the game? Sometimes when a team is starved for success, starved for redemption, they see gold where there is a piece of yellow. Still, there is an unmistakable buzz around the young players in Blackhawks camp this fall, a buzz that speaks to something that's been in short supply here for a long time: hope.
Here's what current captain Martin Lapointe told ESPN.com after watching Toews on the ice for just a couple of days and playing golf with him at the team tournament."Me, personally, I'd make him captain right now," Lapointe said. "It's not that I don't want the C. He could sit beside me and I could help him. I would take pride in that.
"Jonathan's the kind of guy who wants to be a leader, who wants to learn from the veterans. He's a smart kid, too. He plays with a lot of emotion. He's not just a skill guy who can score goals. With him you get the whole package. Very special."
General manager Dale Tallon was very coy at the start of training camp as to which direction they might be headed in terms of the captaincy. Sidney Crosby is the captain in Pittsburgh at 19, although, granted, Crosby exists in a different world altogether.
There was a guy named Steve Yzerman in Detroit who became captain of a bad Original Six team at age 21 and helped shape the Wings into a model franchise. At his first training camp, Lapointe sat beside Yzerman and later won two Stanley Cups with the Detroit captain. Lapointe knows it's way too early to be comparing the two No. 19s, but he does anyway.
"He's got a lot of similarities," Lapointe says of Toews. "He's scary good."
Yzerman, who was given the task of putting together the Canadian entry in last spring's World Championships, turned some heads when Toews was named to the roster. Toews was a major contributor as the Canadians captured gold. When Toews stepped onto the ice for Canada's first exhibition game, he played on the power play with Rick Nash and Shane Doan and didn't look out of place at all, Yzerman told ESPN.com this week.
"He obviously was able to keep up, more than keep up," said Yzerman, adding that he was startled to see how physically mature Toews was.
Toews roomed with Doan, and as much as Toews learned about being able to compete with NHL players, his most valuable lessons might have come from Doan about what was going to be expected of him off the ice, what it means to be a leader.
"I could go on and on all day about how special he is," Toews said. "He taught me about respect and waiting my turn. It was almost an awakening."
It's one thing to hear someone talk about respect and leadership. It is quite another to put it into practice. But there was Toews on the Sunday night before the start of training camp, on the phone to Kane, asking when he was getting into town, making sure he wasn't on his own. Jack Skille also received a call -- another top draft pick who may yet be the third member of this dynamic group of rookie forwards to make this team.
The seventh overall pick in 2005, Skille is the power forward Hawks management has been waiting for. Playing for the University of Wisconsin last season, the 6-foot-1, 206-pound Skille dislocated his elbow in the second week of the NCAA season against Toews and North Dakota.
He hopes not to let nerves get to him this fall.
"I have high expectations for myself. I'm just going to play, play hockey," Skille said. "That was a long season for me. I've been anticipating this [NHL training camp] for a long time now."
With so much attention being paid to Toews and Kane, does Skille fly under the radar? Maybe. Maybe not.
"I wouldn't care if I got all the press in the world," he said. "I'm not a guy that really likes the limelight."
Former Calgary GM and longtime scout Craig Button thinks the dynamic that exists around the three rookies is particularly positive.
"They have to be tickled pink that Jonathan Toews is the real deal. And he is," Button said. "He's such a well-rounded player, there's no part of the game he can't compete in. There's nothing light about Jonathan. Nothing."
"That team put a bull's-eye on him and they didn't support him. It was just tee-off time and they teed off on this poor bugger," Button said. "With Patrick Kane [and, to a lesser degree, Skille], they're not setting him up. I think it's perfect for him if he stays."
Kane has played with Tuomo Ruutu and veteran sniper Robert Lang; but if the Blackhawks don't believe Kane is ready to play with NHL players, he will return to junior. That's a mug's game for talented teenagers who have had a taste of life in the bigs. If Skille or Toews, who seems the most ready of the three, need seasoning, they'll head down the road to the team's AHL affiliate in Rockford, Ill.
Tallon and Savard are saying all the right things about wanting to be patient and do what's right for their young players. But they are former Blackhawks players and understand the hunger for a change in this franchise.
The key for Savard will be in creating an environment where his young players can make a difference without feeling they have to do it all.
"I've got a lot of things going on," Savard said when asked about line combinations. "It's the veteran players that have to take the lead. It's all good. The biggest thing is that they're special kids."
Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were criticized for keeping 18-year-old Jordan Staal in the lineup, but they nurtured him and he ended up with 29 goals and was nominated for the Calder Trophy. Tallon believes there will be more 18-year-olds making similar contributions because of the NHL's stricter enforcement of obstruction rules. In the old days, he said, young players, especially smaller ones like Kane, simply weren't strong enough to consistently fight through the holding and obstruction. Now, they can.
If they do get the chance, the rookies will have done their homework, on and off the ice. Before camp even began, Toews and Kane were out to dinner with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. With the Blackhawks' recent miserable finishes parlaying into top draft picks, the two defensemen are veritable old-timers even though Keith is 24 and Seabrook 22. Both were high draft picks and Kane and Toews grill them on life as NHLers. What are the players like on and off the ice? What are the coaches like? Travel? Different cities? Chicago?
Even Keith and Seabrook have found themselves wondering about what the youngsters mean to the franchise.
"All of them are so skilled, it's pretty crazy," Keith said. "You see how good they are now and you can only imagine. We're fans of the game, we're fans of the team, we're just like everybody else."
It is not hyperbole to say they are the future of the franchise. It is fact. But a hockey team is a fragile thing. Chemistry depends largely on players behaving as they're supposed to, speaking when they're expected to speak, sitting quietly when they should be sitting quietly. Kane has never taken an NHL shift and he's already thrown out the first pitch at a Cubs game. Toews has never played an NHL shift, yet he's already won a World Championship and people are talking captaincy.
They seem to have found that delicate seam between being immobilized by fear and nervousness, and being so cocksure they annoy the heck out of their teammates. All three are aware of the misfortune that has befallen this franchise and are equally aware of the expectations they bring for this season and beyond.
"We kind of always know it's there," Toews said. "We don't know how hard it's going to be. But I guess we're going to find out."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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