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Hawks Turn To Young Captain For Leadership

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The "C" on the chest of Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom stands for champion. Four times over. It also stands for courage to be more than just another player.

For Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and any other captain who has yet to win a Stanley Cup, the message is clear: You have to have the charisma of a great leader.

"You look at the great players who have worn the 'C,' and there's always a defining moment," the 21-year-old Winnipeg native said Tuesday, just over 24 hours before Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, with his Blackhawks trailing Lidstrom's Red Wings 3-1 in the series. "For me, this is definitely the toughest time as captain. The biggest game coming up."

Toews had two goals, including the game-winner, to lift the Blackhawks to a series-clinching 7-5 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals. He's scored three goals in Chicago's last three games against the Red Wings (two in Game 2 and Chicago's only goal in Game 4). But he needs to take his game to another level and lead the rest of his team to help avoid elimination at the hands of the Red Wings.

That defining moment is nearly at hand.

"We had a great practice (Tuesday before the Blackhawks traveled to Detroit). We were all lively and upbeat. But we have to bring more," Toews said. "Just trying to break
through is our immediate goal. Our ultimate goal is to take three in a row from Detroit."

GM Dale Tallon recently reminded the world what he said to Toews last summer when he named him the third-youngest captain in the NHL: "My message to Johnny was, 'Don't worry too much about it. You don't have to balance the budget or worry about the deficit. It's hockey.'"

A 3-1 hole to the Red Wings has nothing to do with balancing the budget or worrying about the deficit. It's simply about winning and losing.

"He's a cool kid," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Toews. "He has everything in perspective. We don't want him to change at all. He has gone about (being captain) in really good fashion."

A couple years ago -- when his biggest games were in the family's backyard and his toughest decisions involved McDonald's or Burger King -- Toews couldn't quite conceive of the world he was about to enter. The unwavering brown-eyed stare is still there. But he's not in the Land of Oz anymore.

It's kind of a natural evolution for Toews to be a leader. He was the No. 3 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, a center who grew up in the Winnipeg minor hockey program, played at Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota -- just like Sidney Crosby -- and starred for two years at the University of North Dakota. All that is expected of him in Chicago is to help lead the Blackhawks out of the hockey wilderness.

"Reality sinks in, you're not in dreamland anymore," Toews said 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 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 said before the 2006 Entry Draft in which Toews was taken behind only 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 Blackhawks assistant GM Rick Dudley, "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.'"

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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