Too young to lead the Blackhawks? Toews says: Bring it on
That's what some of Jonathan Toews' teammates have been calling him since the start of training camp.
It's pretty funny given that Toews is both the new captain of the Chicago Blackhawks and, well, a pretty serious kid.
"Yeah, I got a little ribbing from some of the guys," the 20-year-old Toews said in a recent interview. "But I don't have a problem with that.
"I don't think that much will change for a while," Toews said. "I'm just going to let my play speak for itself. I'm not the only guy out there. I just happen to be the guy with the C."
At the Blackhawks' fan convention this summer, new players Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet were introduced along with defending rookie of the year Patrick Kane. Kane, the yin to Toews' yang, said he noticed Toews looked a little uncomfortable and unusually quiet as he waited.
"I knew something was up," Kane said with a laugh.
Sure enough, Toews was the last one introduced, the youngest captain in Blackhawks history.
"I got chills for the kid," Kane said.
In the past, the naming of a captain in Chicago might not have been the stuff of headlines, but these are different times in Chicago. With the Blackhawks enjoying a revival off the ice, it's now up to a fresh-faced, earnest boy whose new nickname is Captain Serious to lead them to such a movement on it.
Before GM Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard made the final decision, they sat down with Toews and asked him if he honestly believed being captain was going to be too much, too soon -- if it might hurt his level of play.
"I looked them in the eye and I said, 'Absolutely not,'" Toews said.
But to look at Toews -- whether he wanders out of the Blackhawks dressing room, approaches the media, signs autographs for fans, skates onto the ice or skates back into his own zone to cover an opposing center -- you catch a flash of the No. 19 on the back of his jersey, and we defy you not to think of another No. 19, a guy named Steve Yzerman.
I have no doubts that he'll be fine. ... John's a really mature young guy. It's kind of a natural evolution for him to be a leader.
--Steve Yzerman on Jonathan Toews' new role as captain
Yzerman was a shy kid out of Nepean, Ontario, drafted by a woeful team in Detroit with the fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft. One day before the start of the 1986-87 season, Wings coach Jacques Demers called Yzerman into his office. He wanted to make Yzerman captain.
"It really caught me off guard," Yzerman told ESPN.com recently. "I was really surprised, coming off a difficult year."
The Red Wings had finished fifth in the then-Norris Division and were out of the playoffs. Yzerman, 21, had played in just 51 games. But, at the start of the next season, Demers introduced Yzerman as captain, and the Red Wings went on to win their first division title in 23 years.
Can anyone say déjà vu?
Toews was the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, a center who is expected to lead the Blackhawks out of the hockey wilderness.
In hindsight -- hindsight that includes three Stanley Cup championships and a boatload of individual trophies and accolades -- Yzerman admits it was a lot of pressure for a young player just making his way in the league. "I wasn't nervous, but it really opened my eyes," he said.
He wasn't just a hockey player anymore, he was the face of the Detroit Red Wings. He was the man who met with the media and fans. He was a conduit of information from the dressing room and a symbol of the team. He worked hard to make sure that symbol reflected the proper things.
"I made sure I was prepared to play," Yzerman said. "I became a little more serious and intense on a day-to-day basis."
Did being captain make him an elite player?
"I'm not sure I became an elite player for some time after that," Yzerman said. "Being the captain, you try to be better in all areas. I don't know that it was ideal."
Yzerman has more than a passing connection to Toews.
It was Yzerman who made a surprise call to Toews two years ago to ask if the collegiate star from North Dakota would be interested in joining the Canadian team Yzerman was putting together for the World Championships. Toews was surprised, honored and then determined to fit in, which he did.
It's a good bet Yzerman will be the man at the top of the Canadian Olympic pyramid for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, and he'll make a similar call to Toews in a little more than a year. In the interim, if Yzerman has slight misgivings about putting pressure on a young player by making him captain, he has no concerns that Toews will be able to assume those duties without missing a beat.
"I have no doubts that he'll be fine. But it's tough for a young guy," Yzerman said. "There's a lot of accountability. The captain represents the team to the fans, to the media.
"John's a really mature young guy. It's kind of a natural evolution for him to be a leader."
Toews isn't the only young man carrying around the burden of leadership these days. There's a young man named Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh who just finished taking his team to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season as captain.
Not long after Toews was named captain, he heard from Crosby.
"He sent a text message to me, congratulating me," Toews said.
But if Yzerman had one piece of advice for Toews, he said it's crucial other players in the dressing room help shoulder the burden of leadership and share in the responsibility. He pointed to his own experience when players like Glen Hanlon, Mel Bridgman, Mike O'Connell, Dave Lewis and Blake Dunlop were there to form a safety net around him. "They really controlled that locker room," Yzerman said.
"It's a delicate situation, but it won't be, because I'm going to handle it right," Savard said. "And Toewser's going to handle it right. He's the same guy. He's the hardest worker on the ice every day. He doesn't accept losing. That's why he's the captain."
Toews understands things have changed dramatically in the short time he's been with the team. Along with defending Rookie of the Year and best buddy Kane and a handful of other young players, Toews understands they are the catalysts for long-anticipated change.
"There are going to be tough moments," Toews acknowledged.
It will be up to him as captain, and the rest of the players in the room, not to let those tough moments become exaggerated and send the team into the abyss.
Tallon figures it's a good thing that most of the lineup isn't that much older than Toews.
"They're young guys. They're not too far apart in attitude and experience," he said. "My message to Johnny is, 'Don't worry too much about it. You don't have to balance the budget or worry about the deficit. It's hockey.'"
"He's so serious as it is, you've got to try and lighten it up."
Despite the Captain Serious moniker, there is a nice blend of youthful exuberance and single-mindedness about Toews. He and Kane have joked about the captaincy; Toews ribs Kane that he must now follow every order, get him room-service meals and bring him Gatorade. Kane has balked, naturally.
Last season, Kane lived with assistant general manager Stan Bowman, while Toews lived with Brent Seabrook. But the two have moved out of their shared accommodations to downtown condos that are on the same street.
"We could probably look in each other's windows at night if we wanted to," Kane joked.
Tallon jokes that he's got a place downtown, too, just so he can keep an eye on the pair and make sure they're eating the right stuff.
Of all the players in the Hawks dressing room, Seabrook has had the best vantage point for Toews' ascension from wide-eyed rookie to captain.
"Living with him, just the way he carries himself, he's such a great player and such a great young kid, you knew he was going to get it sooner or later," Seabrook said of the captaincy.
"He doesn't need much help. I think he's going to be one of the best ever."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Blackhawks had a revival season in 2007-08. Will they be able to take the next step this season and reach the playoffs?:
• The team: Not so long ago, the Blackhawks were an afterthought in Chicago. Now, the buzz around the team is palpable, and so are the expectations. Will this young team be able to deliver? Burnside
• The captain: Jonathan Toews is the youngest captain in Hawks history. Too much pressure? With a strong work ethic and some striking parallels to one Stevie Y, this kid says: bring it on. Burnside
• The parallel: Steve Yzerman was considered to be one of hockey's best leaders. Now, Jonathan Toews is the New Classic leader. Launch
• The mindset: How do teams know a younger player is even ready to be a captain? Former NHL GM Jay Feaster gives us an inside look into what teams look for, from the draft and beyond. Blog
• The pictures: Get an inside look at the Blackhawks' first training camp festival. Gallery