Jonathan Toews spent much of the last year feeling more like an astronaut than a hockey player.
“It was just a lot of things coming unglued — the normal routine, the normal people you’re surrounded by, the usual things you expect out of yourself,” Toews said Thursday, quietly but honestly, after the Blackhawks’ first day of training camp.
“We all have habits and routines every day that we rely on to find some sense of normalcy and consistency in our lives. And when none of that was there, you kind of feel like you’re in outer space sometimes.”
Over the past few months, though, Toews finally has felt himself coming back to earth.
Some of the things the 33-year-old captain experienced regularly for more than a decade returned Thursday: the quiet of the locker room in the morning, the excitement and nervousness for day one, the huffing and puffing during end-of-practice laps.
His body feels closer to normal, too. Despite skating informally at Fifth Third Arena for the past several weeks, an official practice represented a step up in intensity, and Toews was pleased with how it went.
“As dog-tired as I was out there today, it’s a good feeling,” he said. “Instead of, ‘OK, I’m in trouble; I’m going to be up on the couch for two days doing nothing.’ So to me, that’s progress. [I’m] just feeling a lot better.”
The medical details of Toews’ health issues over the past year — of exactly what left him feeling “drained and lethargic” enough to miss an entire season — are tough to nail down.
He said in a brief video in June he’d been diagnosed with chronic immune response syndrome (CIRS), a condition about which little information exists. He said Thursday he believes COVID-19 aftereffects impacted him, as well. He never tested positive for the virus but did for antibodies later on.
But even as he slowly reenters the spotlight, Toews remains reluctant to make his story specifically about either COVID or CIRS.
“It’s never that simple,” he said. “My health kind of hit a wall, and a lot of things add up to that. The last 10-plus years here in Chicago have gone by in a flash because it’s been one thing all the time. That adds up. It takes a toll on you in a lot of ways: mentally, physically and emotionally.
“It was good for me to check out and try and pick the pieces back up and come back to the game with a new approach and a new appreciation for it.”
The team obviously was thrilled about Toews’ return. Patrick Kane mentioned missing Toews’ strength on the puck and ability to fight off defenders along with his presence off the ice.
But many young Hawks don’t know their captain that well. Some have never played with him.
“After a year off, you’re coming into a new team,” Kane said.
“It’s definitely a weird dynamic that I’ve thought about,” Toews said. “[I’m] not trying to come in and do too much and take [it all] on my shoulders. [I will] try to make some of these new guys feel included so they don’t have to walk on eggshells in that locker room. This is their room, so we can all kind of feed off each other that way.”
As far as his own preparation, Toews has a ways to go. He’s still “chipping away” at his conditioning and working to get hockey to “slow down” in his mind like it used to.
At least there’s a timeline in place. He said his goal is to play in the season opener Oct. 13. He and everyone else will find out in the next three weeks if that’s possible.
“I’m just taking one day at a time,” he said. “That’s all I can -really handle right now.”