Everybody take a deep, cleansing breath. Pull in the air until you can’t pull in any more. Now let it out slowly. Feel that? That’s relief. That’s the wonderful, overwhelming sensation that comes with knowing that Jonathan Toews is OK. That he is not in the grips of a debilitating disease that will cost him his life.
The Blackhawks captain, the team’s beating heart, released a video Wednesday morning and put a name to the illness that kept him off the ice last season and us in the dark: Chronic Immune Response Syndrome (CIRS). It’s a condition associated with exposure to biotoxins, such as mold. Most people’s bodies can process biotoxins. Those with CIRS can’t, causing immune-system dysfunction.
“There’s a lot of things that piled up, where my body just fell apart,” Toews said in the video, which he put on Twitter. “… I just couldn’t quite recover, and my immune system was reacting to everything that I did — any kind of stress, anything that I would do throughout the day, there was always that stress response.
“I took some time, and that was the frustrating part — not really knowing when or how we were going to get over the hump. But thankfully I’ve got a great support team of people that helped me through it, and [I] learned a lot about the stress I put on my body over the years.”
Toews has started skating at the Hawks’ practice facility and signaled that he plans to play next season. Some of you might accuse me of burying the news — he’s going to play again! — but that’s a very, very distant second in the importance department. No. 1 is that he’s still with us and that it appears he’s healthy.
“I appreciate all the support,” he said. “A lot of people were worried, and I definitely felt bad to a certain degree that people were that worried that they thought it was really serious, but in the back of my mind, I knew I’d get through it. It was just a matter of time.”
I’m not sure I understand why he didn’t let the public know of his diagnosis earlier, but that was his right. It’s his life, his body and his condition. Perhaps it took him all this time to feel comfortable with what he had. Maybe he couldn’t process what was happening to a body that had helped bring the Hawks three Stanley Cup titles.
But I can’t tell you how many times over the past six months I heard whispers that Toews had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal illness. That’s how the world works. Somebody always knows somebody who says they know something. Before you know it, Toews is on his deathbed, and we’re wondering if Last Rites is capitalized or not.
We can dismiss all of it as silly now, but at the time, there was nothing silly about it.
The Hawks were never going to tell us what Toews’ condition was, even if they knew it. There are laws against that sort of thing, of course, but secrecy is as part of hockey as much as smelly locker rooms are. (Secrecy might be why they’re facing two lawsuits over an alleged sexual-assault cover-up.) You couldn’t even get an upper- or lower-body designation out of them. Given what Toews’ malady turned out to be, they would have listed “body” as the injury.
It doesn’t matter now. It was great to see Toews on that video Wednesday, sounding like Toews, skating like Toews, being serious like Toews. For 13 seasons, the Hawks — and us — were blessed with his presence, and when that presence went away, it was a massive physical and emotional void. How are you supposed to skate with one leg? That’s how it felt.
Toews didn’t talk about the challenges his illness might present as he works back into playing shape. But all of that is background noise, a discussion for another day. He’s better now. That’s all that matters. We saw, with our own eyes, that he’s OK. Toews or someone else was smart enough to understand the importance of his showing himself to fans and media in a video. For too long, there was nothing visual to make us feel better about the superstar. Now we see. Now we believe.
So take another deep breath and let the relief wash over you, Blackhawks fans. Your captain, the player who always seemed to do the right thing at the right time, is back among you. And life is good.