When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the result was as much about chemistry off the ice as it was cohesion on the ice.
With Patrick Kane leading the way offensively and goaltender Antti Niemi a stalwart in goal during the playoffs, the Hawks grinded their way through an arduous first-round battle with Nashville and made relatively easy work of San Jose and Vancouver before knocking off Philadelphia to claim the Cup for the first time in 49 years.
Many a talented team has stumbled in the two-month quest for the championship. The Hawks stayed on their feet three years ago because of the mood in the locker room.
Jonathan Toews, then as now, was the captain, but was still growing into the role. The real leader in the room – and such leadership is more critical in hockey than any other team sport – was third-line center John Madden.
A veteran of two successful Cup runs in New Jersey, it didn’t matter that Madden was a minus-2 in the 2009-10 season, with an identical number in the playoffs. His presence was critical to the maturation of a group of young players who weren’t expected to make a big run for the Stanley Cup until 2011 at the earliest.
Simply through his actions, Madden taught Toews, a natural leader, the finer points of how to be a captain. It was often Madden who would first say a few words when the team played a bad period and words needed to be said. Toews learned from that.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Madden said in Philadelphia in the hours after the Hawks won the Cup.
That was as much endorsement as fact. Thus when Madden and a host of others, including Niemi, were let go thanks to the burden of the NHL’s salary cap, Toews was ready to take full control of the room.
And he has.
Here is Toews after Friday’s victory over Calgary, confident and assured of his team’s quality, but just wary enough that nothing would be taken for granted in the preparation for the team's playoff run, which began with a first-game 2-1 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild.
“We have a great foundation to our game,” Toews said. “This next week or so, we have to bring to light some of our past mistakes, and remind ourselves of the good things we did this year that made us successful.
"Make sure we focus on those things, that we keep that going, that we don’t get away from our game plan.”
The Hawks are the overwhelming favorite to come out of the Western Conference, but they were favored over Phoenix last spring. Then they ran into a hot goaltender in Mike Smith, Raffi Torres ran into Marian Hossa, and things went south fast. That sticks in Toews’ craw.
“Playoff hockey, especially in the first round, can be pretty chaotic sometimes,” Toews said. “Very fast-paced, a lot of hitting. Sometimes some teams will try to take you off your game, and no matter what, you’ve got to stay with it. So we’ll be focused on that.”
Toews has been captain since 2008, getting the C stitched to his sweater only 65 games into his NHL career, a record for swiftness. He was nicknamed Captain Serious by his teammates even before that. But Toews, who turned 25 on Monday, can smile. And he doesn’t seem to be a taskmaster. He leads as much by example as he does by words.
In that regard, he’s similar to Mark Messier, who captained the New York Rangers to their most recent Stanley Cup in 1994. Messier, in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky when both were with the Edmonton Oilers and Gretzky was captain, proved to be the more effective leader in the long run. It was Messier who guaranteed victory over New Jersey in a crucial semifinal game, then scored a hat trick to win the game and swing the series to the Rangers.
When Toews was drafted by the Hawks – third in the 2006 draft – several old hands said Toews, though slighter of build than Messier, had the potential to be every bit the leader that Messier had been.
Two years later, entering his second season with the Hawks, Toews was called in by general manager Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard and asked if he thought being captain would hurt his play.
Toews, all of 20 on that summer day, looked them in the eye and said, “Absolutely not.”
He has become a more polished player each season, a faceoff genius, superb defensively (his plus-28 led the NHL this season), a polished passer and scorer of timely goals. Not for nothing are many talking Toews up as an MVP candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Writers from around the league select the winner, which for Toews is a plus. They too see his locker room persona after games, and while nobody sees precisely how he prods his teammates to play better, they pick up the vibe, and invariably come away impressed when interviewing him. Toews is the rare modern-day athlete who speaks in complete paragraphs, his train of thought never derailed.
With six years in the NHL also comes perspective. In midseason, just after the Hawks’ 24-game point streak to start the season ended, Toews acknowledged the achievement, then looked forward.
“It was nice to set the record but it’s nothing more than that. We’ve matured from where we were last year,” Toews said. “We understand it’s a lot of fun to go out there and play tight games and win every single night. That’s more fulfilling, to go out there and play a team game and do the little things right and go away with two points instead of hoping for offense and trying to beat teams by scoring goals.
“Most of all, when we win a game we’re not satisfied. We go into the next one with an even better work ethic, conscious of what we can do better.”
There was a time when next to nobody in the Blackhawks locker room thought that way. That time was before Jonathan Toews arrived.