Jonathan Toews practises with Blackhawks on first day of camp

Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews attends an NHL hockey training camp in Chicago, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune via AP)

CHICAGO — Jonathan Toews is skating again. He is practising with the Chicago Blackhawks, just like he did before he missed all of last season. He is smiling and joking around with his teammates again.

The rest of the questions, the ones about opening night and returning to form and his fitness, those are going to have to hang out there for a while. All Toews knows right now is the moment.

And right now, he is playing again.

"It feels really good to be back," a smiling Toews said.

The new-look Blackhawks opened training camp Thursday with their captain back on the ice, to go along with a 100 per cent vaccination rate against COVID-19. The 33-year-old Toews skated with a group that included longtime teammate Patrick Kane, the last remaining players from a run of three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons.

It was the latest step in a recovery process that has been going on for a while — Toews has been participating in informal sessions at the team's practice facility — but one that meant something to the forward and the players who know what he went through in the past year.

"I think he looks good," Kane said. "It's great to have him back, obviously. The biggest thing is you want him to be himself, right? He's such a big part of this organization, a big part of this team for such a long time."

In late December, right before the start of the pandemic-shortened season, the Blackhawks announced Toews would miss the start of training camp because of an illness that included symptoms that left him feeling "drained and lethargic."

What followed were months of mostly silence on Toews before he announced in June that he had been suffering from what he described as chronic immune response syndrome. He said Thursday he also had an antibody test that showed he had COVID-19 at one point.

"I think we all have habits and routines in our day that we just kind of 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 a little bit sometimes," Toews said.

"But I think as hard as that was, that was a good thing to kind of get away and really sort through that and figure out how I was going to get back to being myself and being a hockey player again."

Toews also pointed to years of wear and tear on his body, through long playoff runs and international play with his native Canada. He returns with a greater appreciation for all the little things he missed while he was away, even the grueling first day of camp.

"As dog-tired as I was out there today, it's a good feeling instead of like, OK, I'm in trouble, I'm going to be up on the couch for two, three days doing nothing after that," he said, "So I think to me, that's progress."

The return of Toews could provide a big lift for Chicago after an active offseason that included the acquisitions of defenceman Seth Jones and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The center had 18 goals and 42 assists in 70 games during the 2019-20 season.

But Toews said he is taking it one day at a time. He said his goal is to play on opening night on Oct. 13 at Colorado, but he wants to be patient.

As far as the grind of a long NHL season, no one is certain when it comes to how Toews will hold up. But the Blackhawks are planning to stay flexible.

"Once we ramp it up — the schedule gets progressively more challenging as we move forward," general manager Stan Bowman said. "Camp, exhibition games, regular-season games with travel and back-to-back, three in four nights. The schedule gets hard. We don't know how he'll handle it. He could handle it great. If he does, that's awesome. If not, we'll work with him and figure it out."

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