By Larry Wigge
That defining moment is nearly at hand.
It is for Jonathan Toews ... and the Chicago Blackhawks against their most heated rival the Detroit Red Wings, who they are down 3-1 in their Western Conference Semifinal Series.
Four years ago in a hotel room in Detroit, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews showed his age. He wanted to show his leadership, but he couldn't.
The 22-year-old center from Winnipeg, Manitoba, was too young and inexperienced to put on the defining moment, he knew the Blackhawks needed from him down 3-1 in the series against the Red Wings.
Toews wanted to put the Blackhawks on his shoulders and beat back the defending champion Red Wings. Every fiber of his soul, told you so. But his time simply hadn't come.
Toews said, "You look at the great players who have worn the 'C' and there's always a defining moment. For me, this is definitely the toughest time as captain. The biggest game coming up."
Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux were names of famous captains that came to mind. All of them would not back away from a defining moment.
"Reality sinks in, you're not in dreamland anymore," Toews told me before Game 4. "You've got to earn every point and every chance. It's not easy.
"But it's not all on my shoulders. We're a young bunch ... with great goals."
From the time he left the University of North Dakota campus after his sophomore year, he was a 19-year-old with a 30-year-old's confidence and maturity.
"He’s a lot like Rod Brind’Amour," Former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button told me before the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in which Toews went third behind defenseman Erik Johnson and center Jordan Staal, who went to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively. "There's no part of the game he can't compete in. He just does everything well. But what makes him so special to me is that I have never seen him give up on a single play ... and, believe me, that kind of attitude rubs off on everyone around him."
Added Rick Dudley, special assistant in Montreal, "He's one of those rare players, the kind of guy you see out there busting his butt play after play. If you're a teammate, you have to say; 'I'd better get my (butt) in gear.' "
But being such a young captain -- that's the tough spot that even Sidney Crosby discovered against the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago. There's always more you can give.
In 2010, he wouldn't let it go an go. He put the whole Chicago Blackhawks on his shoulder and led them to their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Forty-nine years had past since the Blackawks had lifted the Cup in victory.
You learn from the diversity you face -- and you grow from it. Toews has stepped up to show all the experts, that he has grown into the captains 'C'.
Watching and learning is something Jonathan Toews has been good at since he was a kid.
"I remember taking Jonathan to his first NHL game when he was 4-years-old. You know how kids are at that age, they lose their attention span after a few minutes and want to do something else. But Jonathan didn't even want a treat when I offered to buy him a pop or hot dog. He said, 'Dad, all I want to do is watch the game,' " Bryan Toews, Jonathan's proud dad said proudly in a phone conversation a while back. "When it comes to hockey, he’s always been driven and determined and very, very smart. He gets that from his mom."
Bryan Toews is from farming stock in rural Manitoba and now works as an electrician for the University of Manitoba. Jonathan's mom, Andree-Gilbert, is from Quebec, where she studied to become the managing director and finance expert for a large credit union in the Winnipeg region. She's smart and she is particularly proud of the work she has done in French relations in the Manitoba area for the bank.
It's been quite a quantum leap from getting his first stick when he was 2-years-old and stickhandling a tin of petroleum jelly around the house without a misstep. He got his first pair of skates when he was 3 and was an instant whiz on the ice.
"Jonathan could see things you'd show him and then go right out there and do them better than I'd describe them," his dad laughed. "I remember I had him on the lake when he was four. He had such a natural stride. I remember several parents coming up to me and asking, ‘How old is that kid?' "
Jonathan maintains that he wasn't so natural.
"I never was one of the biggest kids, but I kind of found myself thinking of ways in my mind to beat them," he said. "I'd use my skating, my stickhandling, my wits to visualize ways to win."
Toews has had to visualize ways to win, down 3-1 to Detroit.
The curious thing about it is that he takes every game, every shift, as a learning experience with him.
"We're slowly getting better and better," Toews started out. "It's not like it's just happened all at once. You saw a slow, steady improvement over the season. I think you're seeing it right now as the playoffs have come along. We spent a lot of time with each other on the road. We're having fun playing hockey, whether it's hanging out in the hotel or going for dinner.
"We've done a lot of bonding as a team and it's showing on the ice -- even since last year's conference finals against Detroit. We're having fun. We understand what makes us successful as a team, that one guy can't get off his game or else we're not going to win that way. We're slowly getting better. But we're still working to that next level."
Still cautious to accept all accolades -- that have been coming the last two ... or three years.
"I've been asked a lot of questions like that just because I've been in on a lot of goals, whether it's a power-play or five-on-five," Toews said, without admitting any special about his game. "Again, just things seem to have really clicked around the net. I don't think I've changed that much from the regular season.
"Obviously, you raise your play at both ends of the rink. You try and play the right way. But just when you feel really confident, things click, pucks will go in. That's the way it's been right now.
"But, you know, you got to understand as a player that you stick with what works and you work hard for that success. Just haven't taken shortcuts. Haven't changed my game. It's continued to go that way. So hopefully I'll keep scoring goals and contributing that way because it's a lot of fun when it's working that way."
Detroit's Dan Cleary saw it ... in Toews.
"You can see it," Detroit forward Dan Cleary said a while back. "With the Blackhawks, it Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
"They hang out together. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke are the same for them on defense."
He paused for a minute. Then continued his thought.
"Toews and Kane are a lot like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk." Cleary continued. "They are the Blackhawks two best players. Like Henrik and Pav, NO ONE works any harder than them. It's easy for the rest of the team to follow them."
Fast forward to 2013. Red Wings and Blackhawks meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
A lot of players have come and gone on the Detroit and Chicago rosters. But ...
The Blackhawks finished the season with a 36-7-5 record, best in the NHL. They had gone the Blackhawks holds the second longest NHL record for most consecutive games earning a point at 30 games (24–0–6). But ...
In the second round of the playoffs, they were facing their bitterest rival the Red Wings. Detroit didn't seem to be a match for Chicago. The Blackhawks were the first seed and the Wings were the seventh with a regular-season record of 24-16-8, just qualified for the playoffs on the last weekend of the season.
Toews laughed at checking into a Chicago hotel and ...
"Playing Mario Brothers all night long on the computer," the strong and rugged center said. "It could be one solution."
But this time, there was no time for fun.
Toews, the captain who had won the Stanley Cup in 2010, had few answers. Down, three games to one, in the Western Conference Semifinal Series.
"What's there to be down about?" Toews said. "Obviously, we're not where we want to be in the series, but dwelling on that and feeling sorry for ourselves isn't going to do anything."
Never has the one game at a time cliche been so apt.
"You've got to think about winning," Toews said, who reminded that the Blackhawks had won the Cup in 2010. They had learned to win. They had cleared the obstacle from the past.
Winning is the only thing.
"That's the only thing that should be on our mind," continued Toews. "Everything's got to be positive. You can't be thinking what-ifs. If you have anything like that cross your mind, Detroit's too good of a team. We're not thinking about that at all."
While Toews' job is obviously one of the safest in all of sports, the captain has been shouldering much of the criticism this series. The 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has no goals and three assists in nine games this postseason. He's actually played quite well and has generated some quality chances the last two games. In fact, the Hawks have put together two strong efforts. Detroit's simply been better.
"We need him, he's the best player on the team ... and our leader," teammate Brent Seabrooke said. "And you know, if the rest of the group sees him like that it’s going to trickle down, so we need him to be focused and ready ... and I just told him to sit down and take a couple of deep breaths and be ready to be back out there. We need him.”
Said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville: "He's a true leader and he's everything that represents our organization in the right fashion. You couldn't ask for a better captain or a better competitor than Johnny."
Toews has been largely unable to shake free of the pestering presence of Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, though Quenneville should be able to make that happen with the last line change at home in Game 5 Saturday night.
"I'm not as worried about him as maybe you guys think I should be," Toews said. "He's a good player, he's doing a good job of playing smart defensive hockey. But you know, it doesn't mean I'm not getting chances and not getting to the net. Those chances are coming and at some point they have to go in."
That's what he's telling himself, anyway.
In the meantime, the Hawks are trying to invoke the ghosts of comebacks past, notably the 2011 series against the Vancouver Canucks, when they were down 3-0 and rebounded to force Game 7 and only lost on Alex Burrows’s overtime goal.
"It just goes to show that things like that are possible, that we were very, very close to winning that series," Toews said, "and I'm sure Detroit knows and we know that this series is a long way from being over."
Jonathan Toews has been there before ... and survived.