Blackhawks count on Toews

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

Some make their living with fists of stone, others with hands of silk.

They are team captains and team enforcers, sons of farmers, of meatpackers, of teachers and, yes, of hockey players.

Manitoba's contribution to the NHL this season runs the gamut, from Winnipeg-born tough guys Riley Cote in Philadelphia and Colton Orr in New York, to small-town products Shane Hnidy in Boston and Edmonton's Dustin Penner, to city-slick point producers Jonathan Toews in Chicago and Alex Steen of Toronto.

HEAPED

The one with the most expectation heaped upon his shoulders is Toews, a 20-year-old Winnipegger who goes into the season as the third-youngest captain in NHL history. Only Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier were younger.

Not only is Toews, a rookie-of-the-year finalist last season, expected to improve on his 24-goal, 54-point campaign, he's expected to lift the Blackhawks into the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

Not singlehandedly, of course. But they don't put the letter on your sweater for nothing.

"We kind of built up what this team's capable of over the summer, and I guess, in a good way, did a lot of talking," Toews was saying from Chicago yesterday. "I guess now it's time to deliver."

After an interminably long off-season -- Chicago just missed the playoffs -- Toews sounds impatient, and maybe a tad pensive, about getting started.

With all the pre-season chatter, the Hawks, who open against the Rangers in New York tomorrow, won't be sneaking up on anybody.

And for anyone who assumes things will come easier just because it's his second year, he has two words: sophomore jinx.

"It's going to be tougher in so many ways," Toews said. "There's going to be some pressure and some challenges we didn't have to face last year. We're going to have to earn every win we get.

"As far as producing and getting on the scoreboard, it's not going to be easier at all. I'll have to be ready to work through some tough moments."

Darren Helm of St. Andrews already has.

You remember Helm, the speedy, out-of-nowhere forward who latched onto a job in Detroit just in time to win a Stanley Cup last spring.

The thinking was Helm, 21, would be ready to crack the Red Wings lineup full-time, this fall.

And while he was in the Motor City for last night's season-opener against the Leafs, it was only to take part in the banner-raising ceremony.

After that, it was off to Grand Rapids and the AHL, thanks to a Wings lineup that's harder to crack than a Macadamia nut, particularly after the summer signing of star Marian Hossa.

"I kind of expected it," Helm said of his demotion. "There were 15 forwards that probably could have made the team, and they could only keep 13. I was kind of the young guy, the guy who hasn't really been part of the system too long. So I had a feeling I was going to be one of those guys that had to go back and develop more.

"It's obviously disappointing. But it should help me in the long run."

Displaying the same good sense he showed in the playoffs, where he had two goals and a pair of assists, Helm calls the move a speed bump, not a setback.

Red Wings elder statesman Chris Chelios helped put it in perspective for him.

"Chelios says it's the pros and cons of being on a great team," Helm said. "I've just got to wait for my time, pay my dues and when I get the opportunity I'll probably be there for a long time."

Ultimately, that's the hope for every Manitoban who breaks into hockey's big show: to stay for a long time.

And, if they're lucky, play for a long time in the spring, at least once in their careers.

Like Helm's already done.

And like Toews is being counted on to do.


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