Your worst enemy could be your best friend and your best friend your worst enemy. – Bob Marley, Who the Cap Fit
Goodness gracious, how the universe has shifted. There was a time not long ago when Patrick Sharp and his teammates would go to local bars with fistfuls of tickets to Chicago Blackhawks games with a mission to give them to anyone who promised to use them. Now the team goes 2-1-4 to start 2014 and the sky is falling. The Chicago Tribune runs an online poll asking, “Are you worried about the Hawks?” instead of “Are you aware the Blackhawks play in something called the NHL?” In one of the most sports-crazed cities in the world, there’s almost as much consternation over the Hawks as there is over the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since the advent of the Boy Scouts and the vacuum cleaner and have lost 197 games in two years while adopting a mascot that doesn’t wear pants. Almost.
That’s what two Stanley Cups in four years gets you. It gets you cred. It gets you north of 21,000 fans night after night and record TV ratings. It gets you people who once didn’t even know what a second-line center did wondering whether the Blackhawks should go out and get a second-line center before the trade deadline. It means Bryan Bickell can no longer hide in the background when he struggles after signing a four-year deal worth $16 million. It means people will still question Corey Crawford’s glove hand and wonder why Marcus Kruger gets so many chances, while prospects Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin continue to toil in the minors.
And who’s responsible for all this? A lot of people, but no two more so than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They are the fresh, sparsely-bearded-in-the-playoffs faces of the franchise. When the Blackhawks ended a 49-year championship drought in 2010, Kane scored the Cup-clinching goal and Toews won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Three years later, Toews had a goal and an assist in the penultimate game and Kane was playoff MVP. Kane won the Calder Trophy in 2008 and five years later Toews won the Selke. They appear together in car commercials and on the power play and roomed together for five years on the road until the new collective bargaining agreement allowed players their own rooms. They are the Felix Unger and Oscar Madison of the Madison Avenue. Can’t you just see Toews as the fastidious, tidy and slightly anal-retentive one and Kane as the guy who leaves used pizza boxes all over the place?
They are young, filthy rich, wildly successful and inexorably linked, right down to their $6.3-million cap hits and the fact their contracts expire after next season. But at the Olympics in Sochi, they’re on opposite sides of two of the world’s pre-eminent hockey powers. They’re big-time players on those teams, too. Toews will be counted on to be Canada’s second-line center behind Sidney Crosby, a far cry from 2010 when he started in Vancouver as the team’s 13th forward and emerged as the top forward in the tournament. His presence will be felt on every inch of the 200-by-100 foot ice surface. Kane will be the offensive centerpiece on a U.S. team that will need his creative brilliance. It isn’t the first time Kane and Toews have crossed swords and it won’t be the last, but you’d have to think Kane is getting tired of being bettered by his teammate. “Yeah, he has my number,” Kane says. “Yeah, he does. He does for sure.”
In fact, as Kane remembers it, the only time he’s beaten Toews was back when they were kids playing summer hockey. Kane was playing for a team called the Junior Flyers, made up of the best kids from all over Ontario, Detroit and Buffalo. They were playing in a tournament in Edmonton against a club from Winnipeg and saw this kid with a funny name who scored all three of his team’s goals in the final. Even though the Junior Flyers won 6-3, the eastern kids were impressed. “We were saying, ‘We’ve got to get this Toews kid on our team next summer,’ ” Kane recalls. “He was exactly the same player then as he is now. Same skater, same stride, same player. A two-way center.”
If you haven’t already done so, put “Go to a Blackhawks game at the United Center” on your hockey bucket list. They line up for standing room two rows deep. From the second Jim Cornelison begins the first words of The Star Spangled Banner, they’re on their feet cheering. Chelsea Dagger is actually a pretty catchy tune if you don’t have to hear it a hundred times a season. (And the press food, oh the press food. Makes you think you’re at an eight-year-old’s birthday party. They serve mac and cheese with chicken fingers after the second period. The second period!)
Chicago game operations staff knows how to make the fan experience an enjoyable one without being either hokey or mean-spirited (*cough* Toronto). In one segment, players are asked to do their impression of a Kane goal celebration. Most of them make a heart in the air with their fingers, then emphatically punch through it. Get it? Heartbreaker? Duncan Keith lifts his left leg, puts his arms out to his side and twiddles his fingers. Great stuff. Then they’re asked to emulate a Toews goal celebration. Patrick Sharp says, “a Toews goal celebration?” then deadpans at the camera without even a trace of a smile.
All Dazzle versus All Business. Kane and Toews seem to alternate between being the team’s MVP, depending on the season and the circumstances. This season it’s Kane putting up career numbers despite not knowing from one game to the next who his linemates are going to be. Chicago has such a good thing going with Toews between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on its top unit, but the team wouldn’t be nearly as good if Kane weren’t carrying the Hawks offensively by being so good on the second line.
When it comes to having the puck on his stick, Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit is still the NHL’s standard-bearer, but Kane is in hot pursuit. His stickhandling is sublime. He controls the play whenever he’s on the ice, starts rush after rush, rarely turns over the puck and might be the best saucer passer in the league. As Kane matures as a player, his ability to control the pace of the game is becoming more pronounced. When it comes to pure skill, with all due respect to Datsyuk, Kane might be without peer in the NHL. For his part, Kane thinks he resembles Evgeni Malkin with the puck more than Datsyuk, which is still pretty good. “A lot of guys in this league, they get the puck on their stick and their heart rate goes up,” says Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins. “When (Kane) has it on his stick, he’s even more calm and cool. He’s got ice in his veins. Everything he does, the puck lands flat. It never bounces. It’s right on the guy’s tape. He’s an amazing guy to watch.”
If you leave him too much time and space, you’re asking for trouble. If you close the gap on him, you’re daring him to step around you and embarrass you in the process. “I really don’t know how you defend against him,” says Chicago GM Stan Bowman.
It’s all done at an incredible speed and it’s all done under the white-hot glare of the spotlight. Toews, on the other hand, is more understated, although he can display a pretty dirty set of mitts himself when he gets the puck in front of the net. Kane puts people in the seats and sometimes takes them out. Toews wins championships. Only once in the six times Toews has played for Canada has he failed to win a gold medal and that was in 2008 at the World Championship when Canada lost the gold medal game in overtime to Russia on a goal scored on a power play.
For such an unassuming young man, Toews has a lake in northern Manitoba and an arena in his hometown named after him and, in 2007, was awarded the Order of the Buffalo Hunt from his province for being the first Canadian to win gold at the world juniors and World Championship in the same year. That was the year Toews indelibly established himself as a clutch performer, scoring three times during the shootout in the semifinal of the WJC against Team USA. Guess who was playing for the other side? Kane shot twice in the shootout and was stopped by Carey Price both times. “We actually beat ’em twice in that tournament,” Toews says, allowing himself a rare moment of self-satisfaction. “So there you go.”
Three years later, Kane and Toews were on opposite sides again, this time as emerging NHL stars participating in their first Olympics. Toews began as a depth piece for Canada, but it wasn’t long before he began to show the best players in the world that he belonged among them. By the time Canada faced Russia in a quarterfinal, Toews was centering a line with Rick Nash and Mike Richards that had become the shutdown unit. It completely neutered Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin in a 7-3 blowout that turned the tournament around for the Canadians after they had lost in the round-robin to Kane and Co., though a thundering hit by Shea Weber on Ovechkin early in the game also helped. “You’re watching him and you know it’s going to happen because you know how competitive he is and how he always seems to step up and become the best player,” Kane says of Toews’ performance in 2010. “A lot of guys in this dressing room knew that would happen.”
For his part, Kane was pivotal to the Americans’ success in Vancouver. He started slowly, but by the end was playing on a successful line with Ryan Kesler and Dustin Brown. In the gold medal game, Kesler tipped Kane’s shot past Roberto Luongo in the second period to cut Canada’s lead to 2-1. Then Zach Parise knocked in a Kane rebound with 24.4 seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime. Kane is a confident young man, in case you haven’t noticed. He starts with a healthy amount of confidence to begin with and the more he has, the better he plays. He remembers he and his teammates went into the dressing room after the third period convinced they were going to win. “A hundred percent,” says Kane, who watched tape of the game for the first time only in mid-January of this year. “Looking back on it, maybe we were a little too confident we were going to win, especially after what transpired in the last minute of the game. It’s funny. My heartbeat was going up (watching it) even though I know what’s going to happen in the dying seconds of the game.”
Toews and Kane went on to even greater things four months after when the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Then they went out and won another one three years later. They were both just 21 during the 2010 Olympics and have added team and individual accolades to their resumes since.
Both have learned to appreciate what the other brings to the game. Both will be on the lookout for tendencies that will give their teams the upper hand in Sochi. On Kane, it will be to try to limit his time and space, but not commit too aggressively at the risk of being beaten to the outside on the big ice. Good luck with that. For Toews, well, how do you defend against a guy who does everything so well and plays with such a competitive edge? He has earned the nickname ‘Captain Serious’ honestly. But those close to him will tell you that’s only a small part of his personality. Toews is actually a laid-back guy away from the rink. On this night, he’s asked to do a meet and greet with the family of a disabled young girl and he handles the situation with aplomb. He smiles easily, looks very comfortable in his skin and gives the fans his undivided attention.
He’s not an automaton after all. The difference with Toews, though, is how he approaches the game. As the clock ticks closer to puck drop, Toews flips a switch and enters a cone of silence, all the better to devote every thought to the task at hand. That’s the precise moment in time when he morphs into Captain Serious. “When he gets into that mode an hour or two before the game,” Bowman says, “at that point he’s really locked into the game. Some guys, 10 minutes before the game, they’re really loose. That’s not Jonathan.”
That might be Kane, though. Toews is definitely the more methodical of the two, while Kane relies on skill and instinct. But it’s a skill honed by hours of practice and refinement. Many hockey people in the know claim Kane is one of those few special players who moves faster with the puck on his stick than without. He goes into the tough areas of the ice and comes out with the puck without being hit. He screams up the right side of the ice and almost always seems to find the seam. He might be the most deceptive puckhandler in the game today. “Other than his flat-out skill, it’s incredible how he can sell one thing and do the other,” Toews says. “He’s so good at putting himself in positions where defenders might think he’s going to do one thing, but he’s got not one, but maybe two or three options.”
As we’ve said, difficult to stop. And stopping Toews is no easy task, too, because it’s impossible to take his compete level away from him. That, Kane says, is what makes Toews such an agonizingly difficult opponent. He has so many facets to his game, that to opponents he’s like Jell-O. Once you think you might have him contained in one area, he bulges out at the other and he’s beyond your grasp. “He’s the ultimate competitor,” Kane says of Toews. “Whether it’s shinny hockey or 1-on-1 battles in practice, you always want to get the better of him and he always seems to come out on top. He’s obviously done that at a lot of different levels.”
The Olympics were a springboard to great things for Chicago and Toews and Kane four years ago. Canada and the U.S. have traditionally been all-or-nothing propositions at the Olympics. They meet in the gold medal game when it’s in North America and flame out when it’s elsewhere. With Canada in Group B and USA in Group A, there’s no guarantee Toews and Kane will cross paths in Sochi aside from in the cafeteria at the athletes’ village. They met twice in Vancouver, with Toews coming out the winner when it counted most. If they do meet, you can bet both players will be keeping score. “We’re excited every time we’re apart just to see what it’s like,” Toews says. “We’ve been included in the same sentence and the same conversation our whole careers. When we go head-to-head, there’s a feeling we have a little something to prove against each other. The best thing is, though, we’re still hungrier than ever to stay at the top, to keep winning Cups and keep doing what we’re doing.”