Hawks superstar rookies comfortable in Chicago, on the ice
When he drafted them, Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon knew that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were special players, but only after seeing them perform in July at prospects camp did he become certain the two rookies would make the team.
Not only did Toews and Kane dazzle while on the ice, they exhibited a level of maturity and a presence that defied their youthfulness.
Those developments at camp sprung Tallon into motion to devise a plan for the season that most general managers in pro sports seldom face: Finding a place for two teen-age kids to live in the third largest city in the United States.
Kane and Toews are 19, with Kane celebrating his birthday only last Monday. Because of their ages it was only natural for their parents to have concerns about them living on their own in Chicago.
Big city, big worries
Kane's parents were especially worried.
"When we first came to Chicago (from Buffalo) as a family 60 days ago after the draft, driving in we just went, 'Whoa,' " said Patrick Kane Sr. "We were overwhelmed by how big it was."
What the Kanes wanted was for their son to focus only on playing hockey, and they felt the best way for him to do that was to find a place for him to live with a family.
"I believed for him to be put in a situation to play in the NHL at such a young age, that was enough for him to handle," said Kane's mother, Donna. "We didn't want him to have to worry about paying his bills, doing his wash, things like that. You can always get people to do that, but we felt it was more important for Patrick to be in a family environment. For me, it was peace of mind."
Tallon spent a good deal of the summer searching for the right place for Kane to live.
"When we talked to his parents throughout the summer, they were concerned. You know, big city, and things like that," Tallon said. "But there was a mutual understanding that we were going to take care of him and put him in the best place to be successful and not have them worry. He's just a kid, and there are a lot of distractions in the city."
The Kanes wanted their son to live with a family, at least for this first year, and the Hawks agreed.
Tallon interviewed several families, but they lived in the suburbs, too far from the United Center and the team's practice facility in Bensenville. That's when Stan Bowman, the Hawks assistant general manager for hockey operations, stepped up and said Kane could live with his family.
"Pat came over and spent the day with my kids and had a blast," said Bowman, who has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. "He had fun with them and I think in some way it's a good diversion for him to play with the kids. They're little, but they play hockey in the basement and do things like that.
"I knew from talking to the family over the summer that they wanted him with a family," Bowman said. "He just wants to focus on hockey. He doesn't want to worry about trying to live on his own. It's working out great."
Kane said the situation couldn't be a better fit for him as he learns how to be a professional hockey player.
"It's probably the right spot for me," Kane said. "I'm still a young kid and I can't live on my own. It's nice having Stan and his family there to help me out. We'll do it this season and see where we're at the end of the season, if I want to get my own place or if I'll go live with someone else."
Kane actually has been away from his home in Buffalo playing hockey since he was 14. He lived with families while playing Triple-A hockey in the Detroit area and junior hockey in London, Ontario.
"I was away from home for four years before this, so it's nothing really new," Kane said. "I lived with a family all those years so we figure to continue on for another year and see where I'm at.
"Stan has shown me how to get to and from the rink, and where the good stops are to eat around the house. The guys have shown me around downtown and shown me the good spots. I've gone shopping a few times on Michigan Avenue. I've pretty much seen everything in the city."
Toews finds a home
Toews was a different case for Tallon. Having gone to college for two years at the University of North Dakota, Toews has lived on his own before - well, sort of. He shared a house last season on the North Dakota campus with a few of his teammates.
But Toews' parents still were concerned about him living in Chicago, which definitely isn't Grand Forks, N.D.
"Johnny's mother and father wanted him to live with a family, too," Tallon said.
That would have happened had not teammate Brent Seabrook called Tallon over the summer and offered his home to Toews. Seabrook had been preparing to live by himself in the city.
"Seabs stepped up to the plate and said he had a beautiful place and would like Johnny to move in," Tallon said. "Johnny said he would like to do that and I just told them I didn't have a problem with it as long as the mother and father were fine with it.
"So I talked to the mother and she said the more she thought about it, Johnny has had two years of college and they trusted him. I told them I would trust Brent Seabrook with my own kids.
"We just wanted to make sure the families were happy and comfortable because I made a promise to them that we would take care of these kids," Tallon said.
Toews and Seabrook share the household duties, which includes cooking for themselves whenever they have the chance.
"We've been doing some grocery shopping and stuff like that," Toews said. "We're staying alive."
Toews said he couldn't ask for a better place to be or have a better roommate.
"It was important to me that I found a good place and my parents wanted to know I had a place where I would be comfortable and not have to worry about too much," Toews said. "There are a lot of things you have to get used to on the ice that you have to worry about. That's on my mind every day.
"It's nice to have a place where I don't have to worry and just go out and play hockey. Seabs is a great guy and we've got everything we need. It's a great place."
This is Seabrook's third year with the Hawks and he remembers how important it was as a rookie to have veterans show him such things as where to eat, shop and what streets to take to the rink.
"Johnny's a good kid," Seabrook said. "He's very responsible for all his actions and knows what to do. It's nothing really on my part except show him around the city, the different routes to the rink, how to get around and help him with home stuff like cooking.
"We eat out quite a bit or order in, but we do cook. He'll do one part and I'll do the other part."
There's a definite Hawks buzz in the city that can be directly tied to the emergence of Toews and Kane as potential stars. Their on-ice actions have spoken for themselves as they are the team's most dangerous offensive threats and the top rookie scorers in the NHL.
It's also the things they do away from the public's eyes that show they are special and help explain why they have the potential to be superstars on the highest level.
"With Patrick, since Day 1, we gave him a few things a day to look at and think about, but he's so smart and picks up things like no one that's been around here," said Hawks coach Denis Savard. "You tell him once and that's it. You see him in a game and talk to him for two minutes about what he should have done, and the next game, sure enough, he'll do it even without hesitation."
Nobody was happier than Savard to hear Kane and Toews would be living in stable environments as rookies. Savard went through the same thing as an 18-year-old rookie in 1980, when he didn't speak a word of English to boot.
"I stayed with Keith Brown," said Savard. "He was a good cook and I did the cleaning. I don't know where I would have been without Brownie back then."
Bowman gets an up close and personal take on Kane at home every night, which gives him an understanding of how it all comes together on the ice like it does.
"He's pretty quick (learning), and easy to get along with because he doesn't require a lot," Bowman said. "We talk about hockey a lot, watch games. He's a pretty sharp kid. He picks up on things pretty quickly so it doesn't surprise me that he's done as well as he has."
Toews possesses a tenaciousness, almost to the point where it borders on being a perfectionist.
"The thing with him is he doesn't like to fail," said teammate Martin Lapointe. "That's one thing that could be good and bad. It's good that you always want to do good and never fail, but at the same time he has to learn when to take the pressure off too. It can't be all on his shoulders.
"That's one thing he has to understand, to relax," said Lapointe. "He's so competitive, every time he loses a faceoff he comes back to the bench and is ticked off. It's a good quality, but at the same time he's got to make sure that he refocuses and lets that go and focuses on the next shift and the next faceoff. Not too many young guys are like that at his age, not at 19 years old."
The future is here
Make no mistake about it, Toews and Kane are the new faces of the Hawks franchise as it moves forward under the guidance of the team's new chairman, Rocky Wirtz, and now president John McDonough.
It's only a matter of time before there are Kane and Toews jerseys everywhere in the United Center, with a fan's biggest dilemma being which one to get?
At a recent sold-out team function at Dave and Buster's in Addison, Toews and Kane were besieged by fans, which reminded Hawks public relations people of the days when Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios were at the height of their popularity.
Toews and Kane know how to handle themselves with the media as well. They perform like seasoned veterans, always available and ready with insightful answers.
"It wasn't that bad in college with the media," Toews said. "But the most scrutiny I was under was playing for Canada in the World Junior championship. You kind of got used to dealing with the media after that."
Kane said the biggest adjustment with regard to the media is its constant presence every day at practice and not just on game days.
"In London you might just get it before the game or after the game, but here it's for practice," Kane said. "But obviously there should be more (media) because it's the NHL."
The Hawks have done an admirable job of surrounding Toews and Kane with veterans that understand what it means to help rookies instead of being jealous of them, starting with Lapointe, Kevyn Adams and Robert Lang.
"They ask questions and you just have to guide them through it," Lapointe said. "Hopefully you can help out with the small stuff that will help a young guy learning to be a hockey player and learning about life.
"I remember I had guys like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan help me (in Detroit) and it meant a lot to me. I would sit beside Steve and everything that he did, I did because I just wanted to follow his lead and be just like him. I'm sure those guys feel the same way."
It's the worst kept secret at the United Center that Toews will be the Hawks' next team captain, perhaps as soon as next season.
"Toews is just a different kind of guy," Bowman said. "He's probably closer to 25 than 19. He seems like he's already a veteran."
Tallon is running out of words to describe the rookies.
"I've never seen anything like them," Tallon said. "I want them on the ice all the time."
For now and the next 15 years.