The Chicago Blackhawks kick off training camp this Thursday and one of the biggest storylines during it — and the entire season — will be the health of captain Jonathan Toews.
While there’s been no official word yet that Toews will be on the ice with his teammates, all signs are pointing to No. 19 being just as ready as everyone else.
As for what to expect from Toews this season, though, there’s a decent comparison worth exploring regarding another Chicago star athlete and team captain who missed an entire season in his early 30s with an injury and then returned to action: former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Toews’ offseason training doesn’t appear to have been affected much, though, as Mark Lazerus of The Athletic cited a few sources close to the team on Monday who indicated that Toews is in noticeably good shape as the season approaches:
I know that feeds into the "best shape of my life!" camp cliché, but it's particularly important with Toews. We have no idea how his body will react to playing again. I have to think NBA-style load management will (and should) be a strong consideration. But so far, so good.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) September 20, 2021
Ask anyone who’s in their 30s about how differently their body reacts to physical ailments now as compared to their 20s and know it’s, in a few words, not great. But that’s where the comparison with Urlacher can offer some hope.
Back in 2009, Urlacher fractured his wrist in the Bears’ first game of the season and needed surgery to repair it, ending his season just as it began. That was the 10th season of Urlacher’s career in the meat grinder that is the NFL. That injury did not rob Urlacher of any of the physical gifts that made him a Hall of Fame talent, though, and Urlacher returned to the Bears in 2010 with a Pro Bowl season that helped Chicago win its division and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Here’s the key, though: Urlacher was 31 years old when that injury happened and turned 32 during the offseason while recovering from the injury. Toews was 32 when his absence was announced last December and he’s now 33 years old, which places him right in line with Urlacher’s age.
There is a precedent in this city for a future Hall of Famer being sidelined by an injury for an entire season in his early 30s and coming back at full strength.
In fact, Urlacher said the time away allowed his body to recover from a few decades of punishment every fall, as he told the Bears website:
“I think it definitely has helped my body,” Urlacher said. “I haven’t had a year off since seventh grade. Football-wise I’ve played every year since then. So I think it did help my body kind of calm down and relax a little bit. I still worked out, but I wasn’t taking the pounding that I did in years past. I think it definitely helped in that aspect.”
(Here’s where we mention that Michael Jordan was 30 years old when he stepped away from basketball in 1993 before returning in February 1995 at 32 — and we all know what happened next. But Jordan didn’t stop playing sports like Toews and Urlacher did.)
Urlacher was a Pro Bowl player again in the ‘11-12 season but sustained a knee injury in the regular season finale. He never seemed to fully recover from that, losing the extra gear of speed and agility that made him a special talent and he ultimately retired after the ‘12-13 season.
There are some obvious differences with Toews’ situation given the unique nature of his affliction, which apparently dates back to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Considering all of the mileage on Toews’ tires, though, a full calendar year without being plastered into the boards or scrapping for 50-50 pucks could offer a silver lining in an otherwise dreary year for Toews: a chance for his body to recuperate from decades of hockey.
If Toews’ has fully recovered from it — and there’s no reason to believe he’d be back on the ice if he hasn’t — there’s evidence to suggest that he could return to the form we’ve all come to expect from Toews in his storied career.