Much consideration has been given to the legacy of Jonathan Toews, 15-year captain and three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks. He missed the 2020-21 season due to complications from Chronic Immune Response Syndrome, and now will likely sit out the 2023-24 season because of ongoing issues with his health and long COVID.
In his career to date, this man has seen an incredible amount of success. So what can we currently infer about the state of his career? This is where one needs to take a step back and look at the big picture. Because Toews isn’t exactly your normal hockey player. In fact, he’s always been quite extraordinary. To understand what I mean, we must start at the beginning.
Jonathan Toews – The Younger Years
Toews was born on April 29, 1988 in the St. Boniface-Winnipeg area to Bryan Toews and Andree Gilbert, and seemed destined for the NHL at a very young age. His dad tied on his first pair of skates when he was only three and says he became an instant whiz on ice.
In an interview, father Toews was quoted as saying: “Jonathan could see things you’d show him and then go right out there and do them much better than I’d describe them. 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?'”
To which Jonathan added: “It wasn’t that natural for me. 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.”
And win he did. When he was still a pup, the elder Toews built a backyard rink for Jonathan and his kid brother David so they could skate till they dropped. What others called hard work was fun for the Toews family. Dad skated right along with the boys as their skills grew and their talent developed.
The payoff came quickly. In his Bantam year Jonathan was drafted #1 by the Tri-City Americans but chose instead to play high school. In his last high school year he played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, MN (110 points in 64 games) and ended up spending the next two years at the University of North Dakota where he amassed 85 points in 76 games, had a plus-38 rating and led the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four in both 2006 and 2007.
Representing the NHL and Team Canada
Drafted third overall by the Blackhawks in the 2006 Entry Draft, Toews made the leap to the NHL in the fall of 2007 at age 18. Along with Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane, Toews was part of a new-blood youth movement that moved the 2008 Hawks into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
In December of his second year (2008-09) he was made an assistant captain and on July 18, 2009 was named captain at the ripe old age of 20, becoming the third youngest player to do so behind Vinnie Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby. His nifty scoring touch and his heads-up style of play have made him a fan favorite. He was rewarded in December 2009 with a six-year contract extension worth about $6.5 million a year.
Toews competed internationally for Team Canada and won gold medals at the 2005 World U-17 Hockey Challenge (leading scorer 8-4-12), 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships and at the 2007 Men’s World Championships. In the semi-final against the USA, he scored once in regulation and three times in the shootout to advance his team to the finals.
The year 2010 was kind to this powerful young player. In February, he competed for Canada against the World in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, leading his team with eight points. His seven assists led the tournament while he tallied his only goal to open the scoring in the crucial Gold Medal game against the USA. At the end of the two weeks, sporting a shiny new Gold Medal, Jonathan was named Best Forward.
Back in Vancouver in May for the NHL Western Conference semi-finals, in the pivotal fourth game, with three goals and two assists, he tied Stan Mikita’s longstanding Blackhawks record for most points (5) in a single game.
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But it didn’t end there. Toews and his Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. It was the first time Chicago hoisted the Cup since 1961, a drought of 49 years. Toews was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player in the playoffs. He amassed seven goals and 22 assists in 22 playoff games. He also became one of only eight players to win Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup in the same year.
Continuing an Illustrious Career
This intense and driven young man charged on. He led his team to two more Stanley Cup championships, in 2013 and 2015. He was awarded the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward in 2013. In 2015, Toews received the Mark Messier Leadership award for being a leader in his sport as well as a contributing member of society. He was also recognized as the ESPY Best NHL player, selected by an ESPN Nominating Committee. Between 2009 and 2017, he participated in four NHL All-Star games, and was nominated for six. In 2017, he was part of a prestigious group that was honored as the 100 Greatest NHL Players.
Internationally, Toews again represented and won the Gold Medal with Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics. In 2016, he was a part of the Canadian team to win gold in the World Cup of Hockey.
Success comes with its perks. In July of 2014, the Blackhawks signed Toews and teammate Kane to identical eight-year contract extensions to the tune of $10.5 million per year. The contracts went into effect for the start of the 2015-16 season.
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“Jonathan and Patrick have become cornerstones of this franchise during their time in Chicago,” then general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “We are excited to ensure they will continue to lead our organization for years to come.”
Having two players eat up $21 million dollars in cap space is not exactly ideal, but the Blackhawks felt it was worth it for these two “faces of the franchise” that essentially turned the fortunes of the team. Especially for Toews, it’s been a double-edged sword. His history earned him a sweet contract, but there was also the constant pressure to live up to it.
Toews’ Mid-Career Rollercoaster
Sure enough, Toews hit a dip in his illustrious career from the 2015-16 season through the 2017-18 season. In a three-year span, the captain amassed 58, 58, and 52 points respectively in the regular season. This was definitely under his 63-point average from is first eight seasons.
In those same three seasons, the Blackhawks were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round two years in a row and didn’t make the postseason in 2017-18. Individually, Toews managed only one goal and seven assists in eleven playoff games. He looked especially vulnerable in April of 2017, when he was consistently knocked off the puck and dominated by the Nashville Predators in a four-game first-round sweep. Many thought Toews was officially washed up.
Well, don’t tell Toews that. He got to work to improve his game. In the summer of 2017 he committed to a different offseason regimen, one that focused more on speed and skill. It didn’t immediately pan out in 2017-18, but another long offseason allowed him to fine-tune things even further. As he told Scott Powers of The Athletic,
You realize what a lot of guys have been doing for years (in the offseason) and why the league is so good and why there’s so much young talent nowadays because they’re ready and everyone’s working so hard and working at developing their game.
(from ‘Jonathan Toews ready to let his play do the talking after putting long offseason to use’, The AthleticCHI – 9/6/18)
It all finally paid off in the 2018-19 season. Toews enjoyed not just a resurgent year but a career-high season to boot. His 35 goals and 46 assists for 81 points were career-highs in all three categories. Not bad for a “washed up” veteran. He continued with a strong campaign in the 2019-20 season. Due to COVID-19 pandemic, the Blackhawks’ regular season only lasted 70 games. In that span, Toews accumulated 60 points, second only to Kane. Also due to the pandemic, Chicago found themselves gifted a playoff berth. In nine postseason contests, Toews led the team with five goals.
The Captain’s Latest Chapter
Ah, but then comes the most recent chapter of this man’s extraordinary history. In Dec. 2020, Toews announced he would be out indefinitely for the pandemic shortened 2020-21 season. In a statement he confessed to experiencing symptoms that left him feeling “drained and lethargic, and working with doctors to better understand his condition. Sure enough, Toews did not play the entire season. As a matter of fact, he pretty much disappeared, leaving the hockey world to wonder what the heck was going on with the Blackhawks’ captain.
Finally, in Jun. 2021 Toews provided an update. He revealed he had been suffering from Chronic Immune Response Syndrome. Simply put, his immune system overreacted after not giving it enough time to rest and heal. His body fought back from all the stress he put it through over the years, triggered by a bout of COVID-19 in Feb. 2020.
I wasn’t too vocal about the things I went through this year. I appreciate the understanding and support and wanted to share this message on where I’m at. pic.twitter.com/3qgftKki10— Jonathan Toews (@JonathanToews) June 30, 2021
Once again, Toews fought back in an attempt to resurrect his career. He participated fully in the 2021-22 campaign, where he contributed 12 goals, 37 points and a stellar 59% faceoff percentage. But alas, in the 2022-23 campaign, the final season of his eight-year, $10.5 million annual contract, Toews’ health issues caught up to him once again. He missed 29 games, namely all of February and March, to illness. Finally, he admitted in a statement he was “still dealing with the symptoms of long COVID and chronic immune response syndrome”.
Toews did return for the final seven games of the season. But this had more to do with the organization declaring they would not be re-signing Toews to another contract. General manager Kyle Davidson indicated this decision was about “clearing the deck to some extent to allow the organic growth for young players into leadership roles”. Toews and the Chicago fans were able to enjoy a last hoorah of sorts, knowing this was management’s decision. Finally, in Aug. 2023, Toews announced he’s not retiring but “taking time away from the game again this (2023-24) season”.
It appears the end of a legendary career is in sight. But we should learn a lesson from his past and realize Toews could surprise us yet again. Perhaps after some rest and recuperation he’ll make himself available towards the end of the season with a contending team, for a push for another Cup. Maybe he’ll manage his health issues and sign with another club for the 2024-25 season. He’ll be 36 years old by then; but heck, stranger things have happened. Or, he’ll officially declare retirement and ride off into the sunset.
Even if he never plays another game, Toews had built an incredible legacy. It’s safe to say he’s a future Hall of Famer, and his No. 19 will eventually find its way to the United Center rafters. There might be one more chapter to this story of glory. Then again, there might not.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
** originally written by Kevin Hunter in May 2010