Toews raising his game at Olympics
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It was a warm June evening in Toronto almost two years ago on the eve of the NHL awards, and Jonathan Toews was musing about what a blast his first NHL season had been.
We remember suggesting to the young Chicago Blackhawks star that his stellar rookie season had no doubt put him on the radar for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.
"Do you really think so?" Toews then asked.
Toews is midway through his third NHL season, and it was a shock to no one that he made the team. The 21-year-old Hawks captain smiled Thursday on the eve of Team Canada's semifinal game against Slovakia when reminded of that conversation.
"I guess looking back it's more believable now," said Toews, tied for the Olympic scoring lead with seven points. "You never expect anything great like this. You look at some of the players who have had great careers and won Stanley Cups and been at the Olympics before, names that I'm sure you guys can think of that were left off this roster. You just can't expect something like this. It's an amazing opportunity for any individual in that locker room to be here. We're doing our best to take advantage and really enjoy the moment."
Toews has raised his game as the stakes have risen in this tournament, turning in a monster performance Wednesday night in the 7-3 rout over powerhouse Russia in the quarterfinals. His centered a line between Rick Nash and Mike Richards that was charged with shutting down Alex Ovechkin's top line with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin.
By the start of the third period, all three Russian players were on different lines; that's about all you need to know about what a masterful job Toews' line did. In the biggest game of his burgeoning career, Toews looked like a 20-year NHL veteran; his poise with the puck and the clarity of his decision-making betrayed his age and the immense pressure he was under to deliver. Canada coach Mike Babcock knows what he's got with Toews.
"I play against him all the time," said Babcock, who also coaches the NHL's Red Wings. "He's the No. 1 center on the best team in the National Hockey League. I don't know how surprised we should be. He's going to be a good player for a long, long time. He's not a blazing-speed guy or toe-dragging you, he's just got great hockey sense. He's got a heavy bottom half [strong on his skates]. He's really strong and he's played well."
"He's a great two-way player," said Staal. "We don't play them a lot. I think for me, you appreciate him a little more as the tournament goes on. He brings a lot to the table at both ends of the rink. He's been great in the faceoff circle."
What's striking, as you hear Toews speak, is just how calm and serene he is about this whole business. Just another day at the office, it seems, only with an entire country demanding gold and nothing else.
"It's huge, there's a lot of pressure and there are a lot of eyes watching," said Toews. "It's a tremendous opportunity for any player to be in a situation like this. You've got to ask yourself: 'How many more chances are you going to get like this?' You've got to take advantage of it and really play your best and enjoy it as much as you can. That's what I'm trying to do."
He reminds you of a Hall of Fame center who also used to have that quiet confidence, never one to get too frazzled by anything: Steve Yzerman. And it just so happens the Team Canada executive director has taken the time throughout this tournament to reassure his players with small little chats that seem to have had a huge impact.
"I talk to him every day," said Toews. "He has always had some great advice for us. He's such a calm guy all the time, too. It kind of becomes contagious. He's said to enjoy the moment and don't worry about everything that's being said. Just go out and play, and that's what we've done.
"You know that every word coming out of his mouth is so credible. He's got so much experience, winning at every level. Everything he has to say, you listen. It sinks in pretty quick."
Sounds so simple. At least that's how Toews is making it look right now.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.