TAMPA, Fla. — They met in Moscow as protege and legend. Jonathan Toews was fresh out of college and Steve Yzerman was a burgeoning executive with the Canadian national team.
They would win gold together at that 2007 IIHF World Hockey Championship, a tournament that began with the 19-year-old Toews being shielded from the media until he forced his way into the main conversation.
It was Yzerman’s first major role in management and he decided to place trust in a college sophomore from Winnipeg who grew up idolizing him. By the end of a tournament full of NHL players he considered Toews “one of our best.”
And so a relationship built on deep mutual respect was born.
That helps explain why Yzerman showered so much praise on Toews when asked to compare their playing careers ahead of the Tampa-Chicago Stanley Cup final.
“The reality is that Jon is bigger, stronger … better,” Yzerman, the Lightning general manager, said Tuesday. “He just is. Tremendous all-around player, great person. … He’s bigger, stronger than me. I’m not sure I could even take him in a race either. He’s probably faster.
“Just a better hockey player.”
Some might dismiss those comments as false modesty or perhaps even gamesmanship, but that would be a mistake. Remember that Yzerman later brought Toews to the Vancouver Olympics as Team Canada’s 13th forward and watched him blossom into the tournament MVP.
He was a rock again in yet another golden performance for Yzerman at the Sochi Games last year, just as he’s been during two Cup victories by the Blackhawks and throughout Chicago’s current run to the final.
When Yzerman looks at Toews he sees “mental fortitude.” He also sees a little bit of himself.
“It’s no coincidence that Jonathan Toews has won everywhere,” said Yzerman.
The funny thing about the man known as “Captain Serious” is that he still possesses a child-like passion for the game. Now 27, and with a trophy case that ensures they’ll be building statues in his honour one day, he exhaled deeply when told of Yzerman’s compliments on Tuesday afternoon.
So composed, so unflappable in seemingly every situation, Toews was genuinely touched.
“I want to call him Mr. Yzerman, but I know he’d probably get mad at me if I said that,” he began. “But I think Steve is a very complimentary person and I don’t think he’d say anything less than that. I just take that with a grain of salt.
“I think everyone here knows that’s pretty much untrue, but it obviously means a lot to hear any sort of praise from a guy like that.”
Here we are watching the circle get completed.
It’s no coincidence that Toews wears sweater No. 19 — Yzerman and Joe Sakic were both childhood idols — and if the Blackhawks can win a third Stanley Cup here he’ll surpass the number of championships won by Sakic while matching Yzerman.
One thing all of those men have in common is an incredible drive to continually improve. For Yzerman it meant becoming a tremendous two-way centre after entering the NHL as an offensive phenom.
Toews was a 200-foot player since Day 1 with the Blackhawks, but has developed new ways to influence teammates. Dan Carcillo often shared rides to the airport with the captain four years ago and recalls wondering if he was even having any fun because he was so introspective.
When Carcillo took a personal leave this season following the death of good friend Steve Montador, it was Toews who continued to check in. He’s done the same with other teammates in need.
“He’s really grown in the last couple years,” said Carcillo. “I think spiritually and just being able to calm himself down and being that calming effect instead of being that hard ass and serious guy that everyone’s accustomed to seeing.”
In his own words, Toews says “I’ve learned to step outside of my own world a little bit.”
Throughout the years, Yzerman has continued to learn too.
He became GM of the Lightning in May 2010 and watched the team go on a surprise run to the Eastern Conference final the following spring. Despite that, he recognized that the success wasn’t sustainable and set about completely remaking his roster while enduring two losing seasons and a first-round sweep.
“I wasn’t all that patient,” he said. “But there’s no quick fixes.”
Over the last year Yzerman added Anton Stralman in free agency and acquired Braydon Coburn at the trade deadline. The Lightning have joined the NHL’s elite quicker than even he thought possible and now all he can do is sit back and watch them play for immortality.
“The emotion of winning and losing, I think it’s pretty much similar (to playing),” said Yzerman. “I’m 50 years old. I can’t live in the past. I enjoy this role.”
Time stops for no one, not even a Hall of Famer. The world and our place in it is forever shifting.
Now Yzerman and Toews are on opposite sides of the Stanley Cup final, and this time the roles are reversed. The player is already a legend and the GM is chasing greatness.