LOS ANGELES — Jonathan Toews couldn’t contain his smile and he couldn’t keep the secret.
Toews was in the visitors dressing room at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit after a morning skate last March. The World Cup rosters were to be revealed later in the day, but the players who were chosen already had been told. And Toews was so excited that he spilled the beans without even the slightest bit of poking or prodding.
Not about himself. About Corey Crawford.
“There’s one guy I’m super-excited about because I always talk about him and I don’t feel he gets enough attention for as good a player as he is, and that’s Corey Crawford,” Toews said.
That moment — being chosen for Team Canada — put a merciful end to the tired (though legitimate) narrative that Crawford was criminally underappreciated in hockey circles. But it was a long and sometimes trying road to get from Rockford to Los Angeles, where the he will be an All-Star for the second time in three years.
After five years in the minors and two so-so NHL seasons, Crawford’s 2013 Stanley Cup run won over astute hockey observers. The 2015 Stanley Cup run finally won over his most ardent doubters in the Hawks fan base. And his brilliant play during the 2015-16 regular season, in which he carried the Hawks for much of the season, seemed to finally win over the rest of the hockey world.
It was a big deal when Crawford was named an All-Star two years ago. It was all but a given this year.
“We love his development,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Real nice pattern of getting better every year.”
That’s what’s most impressive about Crawford’s rise to the top — it has been slow, but it has been steady. And the low point might have been the turning point. Crawford had eight long months to stew over his performance in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, which the Hawks lost in six games to the Coyotes, thanks in part to a couple of soft overtime goals given up by Crawford. He had a reputation for being good but inconsistent, for being prone to terrible goals, and for not having the mental toughness to overcome such goals.
Crawford doesn’t deny it.
“I probably felt the pressure [after that season],” he said. “You know what? I don’t think it was that bad a year. I just don’t think I was consistent that year. I won 30 games and the numbers weren’t as high, because those games where I was bad, I was really bad. . . . That was a good learning year. It was something that I had to go through. I thought it made me better.”
Scott Darling, Crawford’s goalie partner and close friend, had a similar, if more labyrinthine, climb through the minors to get to the NHL. And he said Crawford’s work ethic and adaptability are what set him apart. Crawford has adjusted how deep he stands in the crease, he was an early adopter of the new “reverse VH style,” and he’s always tweaking little things about his game, even now well into his 30s.
“He’s evolved with the game, which a lot of goalies who have been in the league for a long time don’t,” Darling said. “They have their way that they play, and that’s how they play. But Corey makes the changes every year to get better, and I think that’s why he’s just progressed and gotten better every season.”
Crawford was brilliant to start the season, but an appendectomy on Dec. 3 cost him three weeks and some of his mojo. His numbers are down since his return, but his teammates and coaches’ faith in him never wavers.
“He just keeps getting better,” Quenneville said. “We expect him to be on top of his game, or as good as any goalie in the game.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.