Stan Bowman playing the long game with Blackhawks stars

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When the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in the spring of 2023, Jonathan Toews will be 35 years old. Patrick Kane will be 34. Brent Seabrook will be 38. And Duncan Keith will be just shy of his 40th birthday.

And, barring any blockbuster trades in the next eight years, they’ll still all be Blackhawks. The question is, will they still be elite players spearheading yet another deep postseason run? Or will they be past-their-prime veterans, clogging the roster and taking up more than $32 million worth of salary?

Jonathan Toews chuckled at the question.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Fair enough. The guy’s just entering his prime years, after all. But while it seems like a silly concern, a far-flung hypothetical, it’s one that Hawks general manager Stan Bowman thought long and hard about before handing out lengthy contracts to his biggest stars, including the most recent one, an eight-year, $55-million deal for the 30-year-old Seabrook. Bowman always has one eye on the present, and one eye on the future.

And he’s betting that his big stars will still be big-time players deep into their 30s.

“You maybe could [wonder] that five to 10 years ago, but if you watch these guys, a lot of these guys are in better condition at 30 than they were at 21 or 22,” Bowman said. “Just the commitment they have to training and to fitness and nutrition. I have no concerns with that. I’m very impressed with our guys and they show no signs of slowing down.”

Indeed, it’s a new age when it comes to hockey fitness. Gone are the days of marginally fit superstars getting by on sheer skill and guile. Nearly every player in every NHL dressing room is a physical specimen, fanatical about his fitness regime, his nutrition, even his sleep.

“I definitely notice a big difference, especially from when I first came into the league,” said Keith, whose fitness fanaticism allowed him to log an incredible workload en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring. “It seems like the guys coming into the league are all well-schooled on what it takes to be fit, and to eat right. All the training methods we have now, it’s just so much more balanced than when I first came into the league.”

And the Hawks are leading the way. Kimmo Timonen couldn’t stop raving about the Hawks’ devotion to fitness during his brief time in Chicago last spring, saying it was unlike anything he’d ever seen in the NHL.

It starts with strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman putting the players through their paces. It’s bolstered by Joel Quenneville’s brief practices and frequent days off. It’s furthered by nutrition programs and players’ own personal workout regimens. And it’s all particularly important for the Hawks, who have more mileage on them than any team in the league. The Hawks have played 11 playoff rounds in the last three seasons — that’s nearly six more months of hockey than players on non-playoff teams.

Imagine the amount of extra games — extra minutes, extra hits, extra blocked shots — they’ll have faced by the time they near the end of their current contracts. It’s why when asked how much of his life is devoted to fitness, Kane quickly answered, “All of it.”

“Especially when you realize how long you go into the playoffs, these deep runs,” Kane continued. “You’ve got to make sure your body’s well taken care of, especially for when you get into those playoffs. It’s a long season. … I think we all kind of feed off each other in that regard, and take notes from one another on how to make our bodies feel as good as possible, and make sure we’re peaking at the right times, too.”

Seabrook frequently cites Quenneville’s practices — efficient and relatively rare —  for keeping the Hawks healthy through the 10-month grind of a Stanley Cup season. Seabrook already has played in 875 games, including the playoffs, in his career. And he’s now under contract for the next nine seasons. Given that he’s only missed 10 regular-season games in the last nine years, that could mean 800 or more games to withstand.

No problem, he said.

“I have no concerns about playing till I’m 38, 39 years old,” he said. “It’s fun having seasons like we just had, and seasons like we just had. It’s a blast.”

It’ll get harder, of course. It’s easier to get out of bed the morning after a triple-overtime game when you’re 25 than when you’re 35. Marian Hossa, who’s 36 (and built like “a Greek god,” in Kris Versteeg’s words) and is under contract for six more seasons, said his workout regimen and pregame routine has changed over the years as he tries to keep up with players literally half his age.

That time will come for the likes of Toews and Kane, and Keith and Seabrook, too. Bowman’s betting they’ll be prepared. And so are they.

“Definitely, this game takes a toll on you,” Toews said. “I guess we’re never done growing, we’re never done learning what makes us better hockey players. And knowing that we can continue to progress and get better and better as the years keep going by — that’s a fun thing to think about.”

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