The Blackhawks opened training camp on Thursday at Fifth Third Arena and there were a lot of new faces on the 63-man roster.
But the one face the city of Chicago was delighted to see most was Jonathan Toews, who missed the entire 2021-22 season with Chronic Immune Response Syndrome. He's been training and skating for several months now, but this was the first formal practice with his teammates since the Edmonton bubble.
"It feels really good to be back," Toews said. "It's a brand new group in so many ways. It's a fresh start for the other guys. For me, especially."
Earlier in the summer, Toews opened up about what he dealt with last season and the journey to getting himself back to a healthy place, both mentally and physically. The time off really gave him a new perspective on life.
"The last 10-plus years here in Chicago have gone by in a flash because it's been one thing all the time," Toews said. "That adds up. It takes a toll on you in a lot of ways – mentally, physically, emotionally – all those things. I think it was just a lot of things that added up, hit a wall and it was good for me to check out and try and pick the pieces back up and come back to the game with a new approach and a new appreciation for it."
His teammates were happy to see Toews on the ice, not necessarily because he gives the entire group a boost, but because he was back in his element.
"It's great to have him back, obviously," Patrick Kane said. "The biggest thing is you want him to be himself, right? He's such a big part of this organization and part of this team for such a long team. After a year off, you're coming into a new team – like I even feel like it's a brand new team, a lot of different faces. Just have him be himself, keep building himself every day. With his work ethic and competitiveness, he'll get there. But overall, today I thought it was a good day for him."
"It means a lot," echoed Connor Murphy. "Everyone’s really happy for him. It can be such a mental grind to sit out a whole season knowing what he means for our team, but just to see him out there and seeing how good of a player he is when he misses time is so impressive. I know I wouldn’t be able to keep up with any practice missing treat much. He’s just a competitor and a warrior and such an athlete that he’s able to bounce back and look as good as he’s ever can when he’s needed."
Toews' return changes the dynamic of the Blackhawks, especially if he can return to top form (or close to it). While he's still not at 100 percent, the goal for him is to be ready by Opening Night on Oct. 13.
But Toews isn't putting a timeline on his official return to game action.
"I'm just taking one day at a time," Toews said. "That's all I can really handle right now. That's my goal, but I think I just have to keep being patient. There are things you can learn as far as how to approach the game when you're not firing on all cylinders and the conditioning isn't quite there yet, so I'm just chipping away at that and getting back into watching video and thinking the game. So, that's my plan. I'd love to, but the focus is on tomorrow for now."