It’s supposed to be a routine photo shoot. The setup is standard enough when the Chicago Blackhawks PR staff whisks captain Jonathan Toews into an empty ballroom at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in early October. Toews is impeccably dressed in a charcoal suit with a squared-off knit tie and light brown shoes. He dutifully boards a stool in front of a backdrop bathed in a giant light, as so many players have done in preparation for a cover shoot. But after that first click of the camera, everything goes off script.
“Wait,” Toews says. “Can I have a look at that?”
He hops off his stool and approaches the crew THN has assembled for the day. Photographer Jon Blacker steps aside and lets Toews peer at the camera.
“Man,” Toews says. “That’s brutal. I look like I just woke up from a nap. Actually, I did just wake up from a nap.”
Toews heads back to his perch.
Toews pops off the stool again. What the heck?
“I look like a deer in the headlights on that one. We’ve got to do better than that.”
This process repeats a few more times, with Toews coaching himself into being a better model and experimenting with different expressions until he finally finds what he wants. It’s apparent he is no passive participant in this project. He’s micromanaging, and it’s nothing to do with how he looks that day or what mood he’s in. He’s the freshly hired guest editor of THN, and he’s actively…doing his job. It’s not something we’re used to. Toews is really working. It’s also not the first task he’s completed for the venture, as he’s already taken home a list of story ideas to peruse and pare down. He insists he did all the homework himself. He seems proud of it, and he should be, as he’s sailing past the expectations of what a hockey player contributes to media coverage of him, especially when the season has already started. Toews’ Blackhawks are in town to play the Maple Leafs the next day, yet he’s still lending his time to a side project.
This type of behavior is consistent with the “new” Jonathan Toews. Have you noticed it over the past year or two? He still embraces the ‘Captain Serious’ nickname, but it no longer clings to him like a latex glove. The new Toews is a renaissance man who’s interested in branching out and showing more of himself to the world. He’s joined Twitter and Instagram, where he shares his opinions on nutrition and the environment.
A week before the Toronto photo shoot, in the bowels of Chicago’s United Center, Toews opens up about, well, opening up:
“The biggest reason I’ve joined is to try and include myself in some conversations as far as what I’m interested in off the ice and what I’m interested in giving back to. A lot of players have their foundations and different things they want to contribute to. They use their platform or their name, their status, to be able to contribute to something. So for me it’s to try and be a part of that world and show why I care about it and why it’s made a difference for me.”
Jonathan Toews with the Stanley Cup at the 2015 NHL Awards.
His mind now more open than ever, Toews even agrees to try things like taking over as boss of this magazine for an issue. Decisions like these contradict the Captain Serious stereotype, but Toews’ teammates, such as close friend Patrick Sharp, who has watched Toews evolve from an 19-year-old rookie to the 29-year-old veteran he is today, see it more as Toews unveiling a side of himself that always existed and has bloomed into something he’s finally comfortable exhibiting in public.
“That reputation, Captain Serious, has gotten blown out of proportion,” Sharp said. “He certainly takes the game seriously and his training, but he likes to let loose and have a little bit of fun and poke fun of himself. It’s nice to see that he’s getting involved with the fans, with the media, social media, to show that lighter side of him.”
It’s a side Bryan Toews and Andree Gilbert always saw in their son growing up under their roof in Winnipeg. Jonathan was, of course, the devoted hockey nut he’s reputed to be. He had the backyard rink, built and maintained by his dad, and a never-ending devotion to being the best he can be in the sport. The Toews family understood early that Jonathan was a special athlete, and Bryan, an electrician, was protective over him and younger brother David, a New York Islanders third-round pick in 2008. Having a handyman father meant plenty of opportunities to learn various trades and apprentice with home-improvement projects, but Bryan forbade it. That hasn’t changed today. It’s hands off the work, literally, whenever Jonathan comes home during the off-season.
“Every time there was a chance to step up on a ladder or grab a hammer or do anything with my hands, he was the first to get in the way and make sure I wasn’t doing that,” Toews said. “Even chopping wood for a fire in the summer. He doesn’t want anything going sideways. He’s probably right in that sense. He wants me to wait until after my hockey career until he teaches me all the handyman tricks. He grew up on a farm, and he’s learned that since he was a kid, but it hasn’t been passed down yet.”
When Toews got his first condo in Chicago after becoming an NHLer for the 2007-08 campaign, it had 12-foot ceilings, so Bryan purchased a 10-foot ladder to climb up there and maintain the lights – on the condition Jonathan never climbed it. Bryan left a toolbox there, too, for odd jobs any time he and Andree visited mid-season, and Jonathan wasn’t to touch it. So there was a serious approach to hockey in the family, and it carries through today. But the Toews clan is more than that, including Jonathan.
First off, they’re all bilingual. Andree, hailing from Sainte-Marie, Que., met Bryan as a teenager when she moved to Winnipeg to learn English. They bonded through mutual friends and fell for each other. They’ve both maintained strong holds of their respective languages throughout their marriage, and it’s been passed on to Jonathan and David. That means breakfasts at the Toews table can sound like a United Nations convention, switching back and forth between tongues. In an instant, Jonathan will speak to mom in French, then switch to English for dad, who doesn’t really practice speaking French anymore but can understand most of it. Jonathan doesn’t get to use his language skills much during the season, since the Hawks haven’t had a Francophone regular since Antoine Vermette in 2015, but he’s proud that he has maintained the skill.
And language is just one of the interests his parents witnessed developing over the years. Toews practised Tae Kwon Do as a kid, and if he has children of his own someday, he says he’ll enroll them in a martial art for the all-around athletic skill it promotes. Toews is also a crackerjack fisherman, having consistently lived near lakes, though he’s not as good as David. Toews has also always been enthusiastic about the environment.
“He’s always had that Captain Serious moniker, and he’d like not to change it, but to not have people just think of him as only a serious hockey geek,” Bryan Toews said. “There’s more to him than that. He’s a very self-educating person. He’s a lifelong student, and we’re so proud of him as a person. He’s always learning more, whether it’s about the environment, about nutrition, about how we take care of ourselves, about how the world works, how we’re taking care of it, how we’re leaving a footprint behind.”
Toews’ parents knew he felt that way for years, but it’s relatively fresh information to his legions of fans. It came to light in June after U.S. president Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Accord, a UN agreement between close to 200 nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to curb the damaging effects of global warming. On Instagram, Toews called Trump’s announcement “another step backwards in dealing with a major global problem.” He added, “The only way to solve this argument is to try and set your own agenda aside and see how this affects everybody. The only lie we tell ourselves is that we are more special than other life forms on this planet.” The post generated quite the buzz on social media as Toews was outed as “anti-Trump.” He bristles at such a simplified label, though. He doesn’t see what he did as firing a shot at the presidency or right-wing politics in general.
“I wanted to be different in that I didn’t want to take a position,” he said. “I don’t know if most people think I was extreme in one sense, but I don’t think I was at all. I was pretty on the fence. More and more you see athletes who, deep down, don’t really know what they’re talking about but want to cause waves and bring attention to themselves by making off-the-field comments.
“I’m not pretending to be super educated on a lot of these topics. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read the Paris Accord through and through. Everyone has their own views, and I think a lot of that is based on their personalities, some kind of attitude handed down to them in a sense they don’t realize. So all I was trying to say was, if you think you know something, try to hear out the person who has an opposite opinion of yours. That’s the only way you make progress. People automatically think I’m attacking Trump. You see that in the comments, and that’s not at all what I was saying. People didn’t even listen or read it.”
Toews in action versus the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017-18.
It’s exciting to think of Captain Serious as Captain Planet, an environmental crusader, but that’s an exaggeration of Toews’ devotion to all things green. Even he admitted in that now-famous Instagram post that his footprint isn’t perfect. He cares a lot about climate change but, in his mind, it’s just one of many topics of interest rattling around his brain every day. He’s also the face of Canada’s No. 1 sporting goods retailer, Canadian Tire and, more specifically, Canadian Tire Hockey School, an online resource that teaches details about the game to young players, including equipment tips and drills and training. But his No. 1 passion: nutrition. He’s a health fanatic, which is no surprise given his shredded physique. It’s all the result of an epiphany Toews had after the 2008-09 playoffs. It was the first ticket to the big dance for the rising Blackhawks core, which included Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The stats suggest Toews acquitted himself very well as a post-season freshman. He had seven goals and 13 points in 17 games and celebrated his 21st birthday after Chicago ousted Calgary in Round 1. But even if it didn’t show on the ice, Toews’ body started quitting on him by Round 2. He was constantly sick. He did his best Glenn Hall impression, throwing up before games, and struggled to sleep every night. After the Detroit Red Wings knocked the Blackhawks out in the conference final, Toews woke up.
“I was always thinking I needed to work harder and push through it, not really knowing that not every guy was going through the same thing and that there was something wrong,” Toews said.
He called team trainer Mike Gapski for help. Gapski put Toews in touch with a nutritionist, and so began a summer of testing and experimentation. The verdict: Toews’ diet was the culprit. He learned he was in a battle with his body due to being lactose intolerant and having allergies to certain types of protein. He changed his eating habits and began feeling worlds better. A changed man, he captained Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in nearly half a century one season later, taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Toews averaged almost five more minutes of ice time in the 2010 playoffs than he did while at war with illness the previous spring.
He has since become one of the NHL’s biggest health advocates. He’s not vegetarian or vegan or Paleo. He doesn’t subscribe to any singular, defined dietary philosophy. For Toews, it’s a matter of mixing and matching what works, though his personal menu obviously includes greens, greens and more greens, plus lean proteins. According to Bryan, that means a ton of chicken and freshly caught fish on the family dinner table every summer when Jonathan comes home. He’s rubbed off on the whole family. They’ve all rededicated themselves to better health thanks to his influence and, well, leadership.
So even if Toews wants to redefine the Captain Serious persona, it exists for a reason. He’s somewhat of a captain in every facet of his life. On the ice, he’s arguably the most revered NHLer to wear the ‘C’ since Mark Messier. Toews took home the leadership award named after Messier in 2014-15. No player has won it more than once, as the politics of the honor seem to rotate it around the league, so it’s arguable that Toews should have won it many more times. His teammates follow him not just on the ice but also in observing his off-ice habits, and that extends to his nutrition. Toews isn’t necessarily preachy, but the health practices play such a big part in his life that they’re impossible not to notice and emulate.
“I don’t think it’s too much about him giving tips, but you see him doing his thing, and guys ask questions,” said linemate Brandon Saad. “Especially when you come in as a young guy, you see someone like that and the things they do, and he’s big-time on the health thing. It usually gets guys to try things out and hop in line and see how they feel and react to it. It’s definitely something I’ve tried out. He’s someone I’ve learned from.”
The Blackhawks accept Toews as their universal wellness guru. John Hayden, who turned pro and was dropped right onto Toews’ line last spring after finishing his college career at Yale, said Toews immediately became a life advisor to him. That included teaching Hayden the value of not just eating right, but also recovering after games and workouts. Toews takes a ton of heat from his teammates for being a health freak, but after the teasing ends everyone starts doing what Toews is doing.
He’s established himself as a thinking man’s athlete, a person of many interests, yet there’s no denying Toews the hockey player lives an intense lifestyle devoted to perfection, which can be exhausting. From 2008-09 to 2014-15, the Hawks won three Cups and reached two additional conference finals. Toews logged 117 playoff games over that span, an annual average of 17 extra contests on top of his regular season schedule, and that doesn’t include Olympic gold medal runs with Canada in 2010 and 2014. Playing hockey into June every year really shortens the off-season and consistently left Toews unable to properly scratch another itch of his: travel.
Well, he and longtime girlfriend Lindsey Vecchione can thank the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators for, um, clearing the vacation schedule the past two years. The Hawks fell to St. Louis in seven games in the first round in 2016, freeing up Toews by April 25. Last year? Even earlier. The bottom-seeded Preds stunned the Central Division-champion Hawks with a four-game sweep in which Chicago managed just three goals on piping-hot goalie Pekka Rinne. So – hurray? – Toews was ready for off-season travel by April 20. The early vacation destinations included the Napa Valley, where he and Vecchione toured ex-NHLer Valeri Bure’s winery. “
It was nice to go somewhere where it’s like, ‘Man, we feel like we’re in a different world,’ and just get your mind completely off it and come back more rested and rejuvenated to get back to your normal life,” Toews said. “We got around quite a bit.”
As much fun as they had, chances are he’s ready to put the serious back in Captain Serious and play deep into June again. Toews is coming off two down years by his standards, posting the two lowest points-per-game marks of his career. He has to hope the second half of 2016-17, in which he ignited for 43 points in 44 games, carries over into 2017-18. Chicago needs that offense. Upping his production, however, doesn’t mean turning to stone and filing away the new facets of his personality he’s revealed to the world. Far from it. They may come in especially handy now.
On the opening night of the season, the Blackhawks deployed two players suiting up for their first NHL games and eight with fewer than 100 games of big-league experience. The roster turnover has brought in many young, impressionable faces. And while they’ll look to Toews as a role model during games, they’ll also follow how he lives his life everywhere, from the refrigerator to social media to gracing the cover of THN. It’s up to him to show his teammates how to be pros – and how to be responsible human beings. The three-dimensional version of Toews is here to stay, and the Hawks are better for it.