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Jonathan Toews bringing out the lighter side of Captain Serious

Antti Raanta is sitting in his stall in the cramped auxiliary locker room of Rexall Place in Edmonton, answering the usual questions about how mentally prepared he is to play when he hardly ever gets the chance to do so. As a reporter asks a question he’s asked a dozen times already in the past year, Jonathan Toews — who’s been standing behind the scrum earnestly taking pictures with his phone — pokes his head in and nods overaggressively. “Ooh, good one,” he says, before intently locking eyes with Raanta, awaiting the response. Raanta fights through a laugh and tries to answer.

More like Captain Seriously Silly, this guy.

* * *

Jonathan Toews is smiling a lot these days. After practices and before games, he’s discussing the latest “South Park” episode’s depiction of Canadians with Andrew Shaw. Or having a laugh with old pal Patrick Kane over some inside joke you probably had to be there in 2007 for. Or chatting amiably with reporters about life on the road. The man whose reputation (and nickname) is built off his intense demeanor, his fiery on-ice persona and his supposedly stilted off-ice personality, suddenly is the loosest guy in the room.

In the summer, he one-upped most of the league by doing his ice-bucket challenge for ALS awareness while wakeboarding. He played off his Captain Serious persona with a tongue-in-cheek pregame public-service announcement telling fans not to get up from their seats during game action. He’s cutting the ribbon with novelty scissors at team shops, and making appearances, and thanking sponsors, and doing autograph signings. And when the cameras are on, he’s starting to rival Patrick Sharp as the quippiest guy in the room.

He’s calm. He’s chatty. He’s, well, not all that serious.

“He seems a bit lighter in certain areas, and more relaxed around the team and probably away from the game, as well,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “When I see him, he seems like he’s smiling a little bit more.”

Toews notices it, too.

“I think you’re right,” he told the Sun-Times. “I think slowly, more and more, you get more comfortable with everything. It’s just a change in attitude, the way you view certain things.”

It’s not some calculated rebranding, a conscious effort to shed a nickname he’s never liked and make himself more attractive for future endorsement deals. It’s just a natural progression as he enters the prime of his career, an inevitable embracing of everything that being the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks entails, for better or worse.

The weight of the “C” on his sweater was heavy when he was 20 years old. Now that he’s 26 — with two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Selke Trophy — that “C” is a lot lighter. His demeanor is, too.

“When you’re young and you’re given a lot of responsibility, you’re going to take it pretty seriously,” teammate Kris Versteeg said. “He still takes it seriously, but I think he doesn’t let a lot of other little things worry him now. So I think that’s a big part of why you see maybe a lighter side of him now. He was always a guy who liked to hang out with the guys and have fun, that’s never really changed. But it is tough when you’re given that much responsibility and you’re supposed to tell 30- and 35-year-old men what to do when you’re 19.”

* * *

Maybe the line got pinned in its own zone for a full minute, scrambling to survive a shift. Maybe there was a ghastly turnover in the defensive zone, or a botched line change that led to an odd-man rush the other way — some sort of mental mistake that the perfectionist in Toews simply can’t tolerate. Even Toews and Kane mess up from time to time. In the old days, Toews would have yelled, screamed, slammed his stick on the bench, the veins in his neck and forehead glowing red and throbbing. Not this time. Not in November. Not in Game 12 or 17 or whatever it is.

“Instead of him yelling and being mad at everyone, we kind of just tell each other to be positive,” Kane says. “Sometimes, it’s actually funny. Something goes totally wrong and we come off and we actually just laugh about it. He’s still Tazer. He’s still competitive. He still has times where he gets upset. But he seems to be a little bit lighter this year, for sure.”

More like Captain Seriously Chill, this guy.

* * *

It all used to eat at him. Every missed scoring chance, every blown defensive assignment, every goal against. Every loss. Oh, man, the losses. The scowl never left, the replays in his mind never stopped. Kept him up at night. Kept him barking at teammates at the next day’s practice. It’s where the nickname came from in the first place.

“Before I was captain, I was Mister Serious,” Toews said.

Toews still can’t stomach failure. After a loss, knowing it’s his job to answer for it in front of the media, he paces in place, hands on his hips, angry energy wobbling him from side to side and ruining shots for the camerapeople. During morning skates, if he misses the net more than a couple times in a row in tip drills, he slams his stick on the ice and yell at himself. When he doesn’t score in shootout drills, it’s more of the same.

But he can turn it off now. That’s the biggest thing. He can go home. He can relax. He can laugh through an episode of “South Park” or “Family Guy.”

He can move on.

“I’ve learned there’s two ways to go about things,” he said. “You can have that bull-in-a-china-shop, do-whatever-it-takes-to-succeed, knock-over-anything-in-my-way, overaggressive determination to get where you want to go. Or you can try and develop your mental ability and, in an indirect way, make things happen for yourself. I think I’ve kind of learned how to do that, to not necessarily let little things escalate into bigger things. You take the good with the bad. There’s going to be some tough days — we’ve been through a couple of tough weeks this season already. But you can either dwell on that and let it get worse, or you can just say, ‘Hey, it happens to everyone,’ and find a way out of it by focusing on the positives. It’s all about attitude when things aren’t going your way.”

He’s not all the way there. That guy that lost his cool and took three straight frustration penalties in Game 4 against Detroit in the 2013 playoffs, the guy who needed Brent Seabrook to come into the penalty box, pat him on the shoulder and tell him to calm the hell down? He’s still there. Still comes out from time to time. Still yells at a teammate every now and then, still fumes after certain losses. But that guy’s the exception now, not the rule.

“During games, he gets excited,” Quenneville said. “And sometimes you want to [say], ‘Hey Jonny, concentrate on what you need to do and let me be the guy who takes care of some of the issues.’ But that’s Jonny. It’s not a bad trait.”

* * *

The assistant in the new media department needs a moment, and authoritatively tells the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, the face of the franchise, the $84-million man, “Wait here just a minute.” Toews, fresh off a practice, eager to get back to his hotel room for a meal or a nap or anything else, calmly obliges. The “minute” takes about five minutes. Then Toews professionally tapes the thank-you video for Canadian Tire, a corporate sponsor. He takes three steps to his left to another camera and tapes a congratulations video for Hockey Canada, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Nails them both in one take.

More like Captain Seriously Patient, this guy.

* * *

It’s all part of the gig. Toews gets that now. The appearances and the interviews and the signings and everything else. He used to resist. Used to say ’no” a lot more. But with age comes perspective, and with an $84-million contract comes responsibility. Toews doesn’t always love it, but he’s cool with it now. He’s embracing it. All of it. All the trappings of stardom, all the pains and the perks, the ups and the downs.

Yes, he’s Captain Serious. He’ll always be Captain Serious. But he’s more than that. He’s a superstar. A beloved and respected icon in Chicago and in all of Canada. A heck of a wakeboarder, apparently. An occasional goofball. A good employee and a well-liked teammate. Just one of the guys.

“I’ve accepted the fact that the nickname’s going to stick for a while,” he said with a sheepish grin. “It’s just part of who I am. But at the same time, I’m getting more comfortable with showing that there’s another side to me and my personality, especially off the ice. I think, slowly, I’m getting there.”



Twitter: @marklazerus