A half-decade is all it takes for the fortunes of a hockey franchise and an athletic phenom to collide. Witness the recent history of the Chicago Blackhawks: Five years ago, the team wasn’t on television and its current captain wasn’t even on the 23-man roster. The team wasn’t on television because the National Hockey League was in a lockout, and its current captain, Jonathan Toews, wasn’t on the roster because he was still in high school. In fact, he was barely old enough to drive — but that didn’t matter because he could skate.
He skated his way to scoring 110 points in just 64 games during one season at a boarding school in Minnesota. He skated his way to the University of North Dakota, where he led the Fighting Sioux to consecutive appearances in the Frozen Four. And he ultimately skated his way onto the Chicago Blackhawks, who drafted him as the third overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
By the time Toews scored his first goal on his first shot in his first game as a pro, the Blackhawks knew they had something special. And Toews knew he was in a special place when the Blackhawks named him the youngest captain in team history (20 years, 79 days) in just his second season. In fact, the move made Toews the third youngest team captain in the history of the NHL, sealing his place as the leader of the rink resurrection currently taking place in Chi-Town.
“The city has definitely changed a lot,” Toews says. “A couple years ago, we weren’t even on TV. (Editor’s Note: Late owner Bill Wirtz did not allow home games to be televised in the Chicago area, a decision that has now been reversed.) Now when we go to the pharmacy or the grocery store, people know who we are. They’ll see me on the street and just yell, ‘Hey, Captain!’ We get recognized and it’s great.”
Part of the reason for the recognition is that it’s been a while since Blackhawks fans have had anything to cheer about. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961, and the most recent “glory days” they can point to were the early 1990s squads led by Jeremy Roenick. But Toews, who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, had a different favorite player.
“Growing up, for me, it was Joe Sakic,” Toews says. “He was the biggest name for me, and when I got to play against him, it was amazing.”
Their first encounter took place during Toews rookie season, where he admits that he wasn’t the player then that he is now. “When I came in as a rookie, I had a lot of speed,” he says. “But I didn’t have the strength I do now. I’m much stronger today. I’ve probably put on 8 pounds. Now I can hang onto the puck much better.”
Some of Toews’ increase in size and strength is the natural growth that occurs in young athletes in their late teens/early 20s, but a major part of his physical evolution has to do with his incredible work ethic and his grueling workout routine. Like most hockey players, he focuses heavily on his leg work because he needs to be able to generate enough power to propel his 6-feet-2-inch, 210-pound frame across the ice at top speeds for three periods. As a result, he has a self-proclaimed large backside. “All hockey players have big asses,” he says, laughing. “We all have it in common. It just sort of happens naturally.”
By “naturally,” he means that when you spend hundreds of hours on skates a year from the moment you can walk until you’re a grown man, your body adjusts accordingly. In addition to the ice time, however, Toews spends plenty of time in the weight room, especially in the off-season. “Normally, a lot of guys will come into training camp a little bit heavier than they intend to be because you drop weight quickly with the amount of skating we do,” he says. “This year, my goal wasn’t to gain weight but to keep getting stronger.”
He does this with seemingly endless sets of squats designed to build leg muscles thicker than steel cables. “I’ve done lots of squats these past three or four years because I’m focused on becoming a better skater, which means improving my quad strength,” he says. “I’ll do split squats, hack squats, all that type of stuff. I’ll also do lots of cable pulls for my hips, my hip flexors and groin. If you’re not strong enough, you’re going to tear those because they get beat up over the season from playing so much hockey.”
This isn’t to say that Toews ignores his upper body. The Blackhawks often do circuit training in the weight room, getting a full-body workout by using a variety of lifts. He says they’ll do a version of resistance-based high-intensity interval training (HIIT), using light weights, going 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off for each muscle group. The sessions are almost intolerable. “The 30 seconds rest is almost as bad as the actual lifts because we know what’s coming next,” he says.
Outside the gym, the team focuses mainly on drills and workouts that simulate the 45-second to one minute bursts of energy that take place in a hockey game. “I do a lot of sprints and foot races,” Toews says. “I’ll do drills on the tennis court with cones. We also do 400-meter sprints to get the breathing and aerobic system going. It’s a lot of endurance stuff because the season is a marathon and you rely on what you built in the off-season.”
Further bolstering his ability to stay in peak form for an entire season are his eating habits, which are a little more high-tech now than his days at the University of North Dakota a few years ago. “When I was in college, if I felt tired, I just felt like I needed more sleep,” he says. “Last year I didn’t feel like myself, so this year we worked with a nutritionist about eating to get the energy I need. The nutritionist did these hair tests and saliva tests to see what we needed.”
It turns out what Toews needed was a heavy dose of organic foods, including potatoes, rice, salmon, chicken and green vegetables. “Before a game, I’ll have a potato and lots of rice and some salmon,” he says. “That gives me the energy I need.”
As captain, that energy will come in handy when he’s leading men who are almost twice his age through practice — or taking on an opposing team who may view the “C” on his jersey as a big bull’s-eye. “I don’t look at it like that,” he says. “Having the ‘C’ on your chest means that the other team has to worry about you. I think it’s a good thing.”
For the city of Chicago and its beloved Blackhawks, it’s a very good thing.