Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is coming off a season with career highs in goals (35) and points (81).

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Sleep? Jonathan Toews couldn’t. Not until he turned his nutrition around — the key move in what just may be a career renaissance.

Jonathan Toews wasted no time shoving the wrong thing in his piehole. It was 2006, at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Toews, 18, just had been selected with the third pick in the NHL Entry Draft. He’d handled himself well in interviews leading to the draft, but now a potent amalgam of nervousness and excitement had him literally shaking. A reporter asked what number he hoped to wear with the Blackhawks. His customary No. 9, he answered, failing to realize it had belonged to the great Bobby Hull and hung from the rafters of Chicago’s United Center.

“I really put my foot in my mouth with that one,” No. 19 says, 13 years later.

Toews can look forward to sharing that anecdote and others from his own draft day with whomever the Hawks pick first — again at No. 3 overall, and again in Vancouver — on June 21.

On this spring morning, though, the anecdote surely would be wasted on the fifth graders he’s visiting at Schubert Elementary School in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side. They wouldn’t know the “Golden Jet” from any other golden oldie, but they do know Toews — and they sure know a thing or two about growing vegetables right there in Ms. Zielke’s classroom.


Toews in youth hockey.

Courtesy of Chicago Blackhawks

Toews the fifth grader in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was, he recalls, “confident in my own way, but not, as you can imagine, one of the loudest kids in the class, probably socially shy in some ways.” He was, in other words, very much the person and personality he is as a 31-year-old veteran of 12 NHL seasons. What he wasn’t, though, was a good eater. He had the appetite, but into the aforementioned piehole went many of the wrong things.

The consequences he paid — and all he has learned and done in response in recent years — is what brings the star center to Schubert, where 99% of students come from Spanish-speaking households.

“I’m very proud of you,” he tells them. “You’re doing a heck of a job.”

What they’re doing is growing vegetables and herbs as part of the Tower Garden curriculum that sprung from the noted Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit organization started by New York teacher Stephen Ritz that’s attempting to fully integrate indoor vegetable gardening into a K-through-12 model. It’s an inspired concept — brilliant in its simplicity — and close to Toews’ heart. In two years, his foundation has provided 40 CPS schools with the tools to grow gardens vertically in typically tight classroom settings.


A healthier diet, Toews assures the kids, will help them focus better in school and have more energy to do all the things they want to do.

“For me, it’s important to give back when you have the opportunity to do so,” he says. “But to be connected to something I care about and that’s changed me. I feel like I have a little more ground to stand on.”

Christmas. Easter. If it was a big family gathering and Toews’ paternal grandmother was doing her thing in the kitchen, the baked breads alone could feed an army of Pee Wee hockey players. Toews would ravage the spread until the only thing left to do was lay his little body on the living-room carpet and endure — in silence, as was his nature — the painful effects of cramping and inflammation.

Years later, his mother, Andrée Gilbert, would ask, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I thought it was normal,” he answered.

As a baby, though, he’d wailed with cramps regularly enough that his parents took him to the doctor. Colic, they were told. As a toddler, he’d cried and had temper tantrums that flummoxed Bryan Toews and Gilbert. The underlying nutritional issues went undiagnosed.

“It never crossed our mind that he might have some kinds of allergiesor [intolerances],” Gilbert says. “We were eating like all other families — cereals, breads, sandwiches and pasta. As his mom, it makesme feel so bad. I feel terrible that I never knew nutrition can change somebody’s life like it did for him.”

Eventually, Toews began taking an enzyme supplement to help with his digestion. When he was 8 and at a friend’s birthday party, he realized just as cake and ice cream were served that he didn’t have his pills with him. This time, he passed on the sweet treats. Doing the right thing like that, at that age? Maybe it was a glimpse of his future as one of the most revered captains in hockey.

The 2009 Western Conference finals. The Red Wings. It was an enormous series for the Hawks, and Toews, a second-year NHLer, was in his element. Yet he had a persistent, insidious problem — he couldn’t sleep, hardly a wink. It made him feel sick. He was something far beyond tired.

“I wasn’t sleeping, so I wasn’t recovering,” he says. “I’d try to go home and take a nap after practice every day, but I’d just lay there and was miserable. I wasn’t in a good place.

“But I just assumed everyone else was going through the same thing and I just had to work harder. Just powered through all the time, but I didn’t know what it was like to feel good.”

Toews scored three goals in that series, all in losing efforts, as the Red Wings romped in five games — the last series the Hawks would lose before becoming Stanley Cup champions in 2010. At the time, what Toews needed most was to stop staring at the ceiling all night. He went to the team’s training staff and said there was no chance everyone else was going through what he was. He needed answers. He commenced work with a nutritionist, underwent testing and started to understand the chemistry of his body.

No more silence.

Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks - Game Four

Toews moves in on Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“All of a sudden, I just never thought that it could make such a major impact,’’ he says. “But I stuck with it, and sure enough, my whole world started changing. And here I am, 10 years, at least, later, still learning and still finding ways to improve in that area.”

That Toews managed to become a first-time All-Star in that 2008-09 season is, in hindsight, remarkable.

In his mid-teens, he attended boarding school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the Faribault, Minnesota, hockey power that also produced the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, the Wild’s Zach Parise and the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon. It was eight hours by car from Winnipeg, and Toews was invited out for a meal many times by visiting team parents who lived closer. Most often, he declined.

Toews’ parents thought it was because he was so busy — traveling for hockey and taking an extra-thick course load — and he was. They marveled at his ability to not only function through it all, but seemingly to thrive. Yet, when those invitations came, Toews felt too low on gas to be out and about and making small talk. He was able to summon the energy he needed for hockey, but off the ice was different. He didn’t sleep well at all in those days, either, and was suffering for it.

“He battled for many years with fatigue,” Bryan Toews says. “He’s continually tried to figure things out for himself. He’s always had that strong mind. That’s what helped him battle through that. But it’s got to be hard on the body. It takes wear and tear on the body and the mind.”

As a Hawks rookie, Toews lived with Brent Seabrook in the defenseman’s Chicago home. A long list of teammates — Duncan Keith, James Wisniewski, Jim Vandermeer, Troy Brouwer — had stays at Seabrook’s place early in their careers. They were young. They were hungry. They ate pizza, fast food and other easy takeout like dudes with their whole lives in front of them tend to do.

“It wasn’t like we were going to Whole Foods and grabbing a bunch of stuff to cook,” Seabrook says.

Wrong food, wrong energy for Toews. A season later, though, as he was hanging on by a thread in that 2009 series against the Red Wings, his teammates hadn’t a clue.

“As far as Johnny, he’d never say anything like that to us,” Seabrook says. “He’s one of those kind of guys where you never really see things affect him.”

The 2017-18 season did affect Toews, though his natural stoicism — the stuff of a captain, isn’t it? — doesn’t jibe with wallowing in what went wrong. But lots did go wrong for him and the team. Despite playing in 74 games, Toews tallied career lows in goals (20) and points (52) as the Hawks fell out of the playoff mix for the first time in a decade. Critics pegged him as being on the decline. Foolish voices called for a trade.

Seabrook allows that the whole experience left his longtime friend “pretty pissed off.”

The truth is, Toews was more banged up than was publicized. And when he responded this past season with career highs in goals (35) and points (81), it was a resounding answer to any and all doubters. The Hawks missed the playoffs again, but Toews’ play trumpeted the arrival of a new chapter in a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

“He wanted to come back and have a good season, be good for the team,” Seabrook says. “I don’t think he was trying to show anybody anything or get anybody off his back. Tazer is a perfectionist, you could say. He just wants to be the best.”

A legitimate question now: Is Toews better than ever? He believes he still can be, in no small part because of his continued exploration into, and fascination with, the science of nutrition.

“There’s no doubt I feel like [the offensive] part of my game has always been there,” Toews says. “The previous couple of years, it becomes mental and physical after a while. I haven’t had major injuries — knock on wood — but some little things slow you down.

“But I’m motivated out there to be the best on the ice every night. I feel like I have that mentally. It was fun to be able to get back on the horse [last season], but I still feel like I have tons of improvement I can make. People look at numbers — it grabs attention —but there’s so much more to my position. I haven’t hit that ceiling in my game yet.”

No less of a hockey authority than Mom concurs. When she looks at her boy, she knows what she sees.

“His eyes are clear, he looks rested, he sleeps well. He’s able to do so many more things,” Gilbert says. “Before, he concentrated on battling through hockey, playing the best he could, trying to battle through life. Now, when we see him, I keep saying, ‘Geez, you look sogood, younger and rested.’ He never looks stressed out anymore. As his mom, I’m thinking maybe his best years are ahead of him. He’s in such a good place.”

Toews doesn’t want too much rest, though. Not at playoff time. As far as he’s concerned, his job as captain has never been more serious than it is two years into a postseason drought and four years into a Cup drought.

It will help all the Hawks to go into training camp knowing what to expect from coach Jeremy Colliton, whose transition after coming on board 15 games into last season was difficult for all involved. Roles and expectations will be clearer from the jump. Young defensemen will gain much-needed experience.

“Just a little growth spurt we’ve got to go through,” Toews says. “We’re all going to learn what we need to do for an entire season to be a tight-knit team and play the right way to get where we want to go.”

Someday, the No. 19 will hang in perpetuity with Hull’s 9, Stan Mikita’s 21, Patrick Kane’s 88. For Toews, the individual honors have been plentiful. The three Cup titles with the Hawks have meant exponentially more. At 31, though, he’s still too hungry to reflect on all he has accomplished alongside Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Corey Crawford and the rest.

“When time flies, you realize how special some of those moments were,” he says. “But I don’t think we see ourselves in that sense yet. We’ve got a ways to go.”

And speaking of that piehole:

“We’ll get old and fat and drink beer when the time comes.”

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