From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)
Jonathan Toews' second offseason as an NHL player was much different from the first.
For one, it was a lot shorter. That's perhaps the only downside to making it to the Western Conference Finals -- as opposed to missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs entirely, which the Chicago Blackhawks did in Toews' rookie season.
Beyond seeing a decrease in his vacation time, the 21-year-old noticed an increase in stature for himself and his teammates among hockey fans in Chicago, or anywhere else he went.
"You get recognized and people come up and ask for autographs in the most unexpected places now," the Hawks' captain told NHL.com, "whereas before maybe around the rink and in certain restaurants where you see a lot of Hawks fans, but now it's everywhere. The fan support's been unbelievable, and we only expect it to get better from here, too."
While just a few years ago you'd be hard-pressed to pick out a Hawks jersey in Chicago amid all the fans wearing Cubs, Bears and Bulls gear, Blackhawks jerseys with Toews, Kane, Versteeg and others now adorn the backs of Chicagoans from all walks of life.
Even outside of Chicago and north of the border, Hawks-related memorabilia is a hot item -- one fan at the Kraft Hockeyville preseason game held recently in Terrace, B.C., was spotted paying tribute to the red, black and white.
Add the fact the Blackhawks are an Original Six franchise to the team's recent success and it's resulted in plenty of national exposure -- Chicago hosted the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field against archrival Detroit, and in a matter of weeks will open the season against Florida in Helsinki, Finland, as part of the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere.
"I think it's good for our team and good for our organization," Toews said of the increased exposure. "You saw a lot of years where no one really talked about the Hawks and we weren't a factor. Not only our team but our organization didn't earn a lot of respect across the League, and I think that's changed now.
"We're getting more of those national TV games, more exposure all around. I think hockey fans all over are really starting to enjoy watching our team play and definitely converting a lot of people in my hometown (Winnipeg), even in Canada, to Hawks fans as well."
Of course, with added exposure comes added scrutiny. If the Blackhawks took anyone by surprise last season, they can be sure that won't happen again in 2009-10. Opponents will be affording the Blackhawks the respect they deserve, and Toews is well aware that taking the next step toward a Stanley Cup will be difficult.
When asked about his goals for the season, Toews tried to keep it simple, but it was clear the five-game elimination by the Red Wings in the conference finals is still fresh in his memory.
"Again, just to progress and get better as a team and as a player all year," he said. "It's a long season, but all we can really think about is the playoffs. We've got to keep that in the back of our minds for a long time and just keep taking steps to get better as a team and find a way to get back there."