When you are Captain Serious, you leave nothing to chance. When you are called on to perform before a pumped-up crowd in your hometown, you owe it to yourself and your franchise to prepare properly and do the job. Jonathan Toews brings it every day. This day he chose to also bring cue cards—to Wrigley Field. ¶ "I know the song," says Toews, who in September threw out the ceremonial first pitch and led the seventh-inning chorus of Take Me Out to the Ball Game at a Cubs game. "But you don't want to screw up in case you have a brain cramp."
The afternoon was a grand success. Toews's pitch was a strike, his wavering baritone delivered the lyrics with nary a glitch—although "I don't know if you'll be seeing him on American Idol," critiqued Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman—and Chicago beat Houston 4--1. Toews, a Winnipeg native, added, "Let's go, Cubbies! Finish them off, boys!" at the end of his vocals, a phrase dripping with the rhythm and sensibility of hockey.
Now the 21-year-old is turning his voice to the Blackhawks' dressing room as the captain of one of the NHL's most dynamic teams. The league is in the midst of a sea change, with a flow of young talent—this summer 18 of the 46 players invited to Canada's Olympic camp and 17 of the 34 invited to Team USA's were under 25—and also a C change. More teams are delegating the responsibility to young players, including Toews, who became the third-youngest captain in NHL history before last season; Philadelphia's Mike Richards, named captain last year at age 23; and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who in June at 21 years, 10 months, five days, became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
With Chicago at the precipice of greatness—and leading the Central Division at week's end—can another precocious center carry the once woeful Blackhawks to a Cup?
Like success, nicknames have a thousand fathers. Chicago forward Patrick Sharp says he dubbed Toews Mr. Serious—the title naturally upgraded later to Captain—when they were teammates at the 2008 world championships. (That was after Toews's sparkling rookie season, in which he had 24 goals and 54 points in 64 games.) Toews remembers the origin of the nickname differently. "It started with [defenseman] Brent Seabrook, who I lived with my rookie year," Toews recounts. "One day he came in and jumped on my bed, woke me up. I was sleepy, in a crappy mood. He's talking to me, and he's got morning breath, so I asked him if he'd eaten a turd sandwich for breakfast. He told me to shut up and called me Mr. Serious. Later that day we're still getting on each other's nerves, and he called me Mr. Serious in the locker room. It just sorta stuck."
Whatever the origin of the spot-on sobriquet, there is no debate about Toews's earnestness. Says his mother, Andrée Gilbert, "If I had not seen him being born, I would swear he's older." His conspicuous maturity is a boon for the NHL's youngest team. The downside is that the old-soul stuff makes him a bull's-eye for dressing-room pranks. (Tricks like the pilfered cellphone and phony text messages from girls are knee-slappers, apparently.) "I always tell him, 'Taser, weren't you ever in third grade?'" says Adam Burish, Chicago's injured pot stirrer. "Once you make fun of a kid or give him a nickname he hates, you're only going to say it more. He's our target because we get a reaction."
The Young Man and the C were not an immediate fit. Toews seemed weighed down by the letter, unexpected for someone who is 6'2", 208 pounds, and has what Red Wings coach Mike Babcock approvingly calls "that big, heavy, hockey butt." Toews had just six points in the first month of the season and did not score until his 13th game.
"Since I was now the captain, I felt I had to be the hero, score the winning goal every night," Toews recalls. "That was getting to me. I wasn't playing well, and it snowballed. Six games in, it's starting to get ridiculous. Then seven and eight, and it starts feeling like I can't score. You get the feeling you're honestly worthless and can't play anymore."
According to teammates Toews would address the media—a captain's duty—but then stay in his equipment for another 20 or 30 minutes, mute, processing the game. "I'd shower, get my suit on, be ready to leave, and he'd still be there in full gear," Burish says. "I'd say, 'Jonathan, let it go, it's all right.' He'd say, 'That's not how a captain is supposed to play.' I'd say, 'You want to catch dinner, the guys are going?' and he'd say, 'I don't deserve to go.' He didn't settle down until Christmas." Toews learned to let go just a little and wound up scoring a lot, finishing with 34 goals and another seven in the playoffs as Chicago stormed into the Western Conference finals against Detroit.
"He reminds me of a young Steve Yzerman," Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland says. "How he raises his play in big games, how upset he gets when things don't go well. He's a blue-chipper, a guy who wins face-offs"—he won 56% in five playoff games against Detroit—"and plays two ways and leans on guys down low."