June 14, 2010
On Aug. 17, 2009, this was the first image of a U.S. Olympic hockey player fans saw before the Vancouver Games: Patrick Kane(notes) standing at a microphone in a suit and speaking about his arrest earlier that month for allegedly assaulting a cab driver in Buffalo, during an early morning dispute over exact change after a night of revelry.
Quite a first impression, that one.
"Because I put myself in being in the wrong position in the wrong time, I've caused a lot of pain for my family, my hometown of Buffalo, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Blackhawks and obviously the great fans we have here in Chicago. And for that part, I sincerely apologize," said Kane at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, Ill., in a guarded and emotionless prepared statement.
Fast forward to June 11, 2010. Kane stood onstage at the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup parade in front of 2 million ecstatic Chicagoans. He chugged champagne on the way to the rally, had a beer in front of cameras and wore a beaming grin as he stepped to the mic.
"It's really a treat to be here. I'll tell you one thing: I'll try to keep my shirt on all summer, just for you guys," said Kane, in reference to some candid images of he and some teammates partying in a Vancouver limousine.
"For all the cab drivers out there," he continued, smiling widely, "I love ya."
We saw our share of redemption stories in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, and Kane's may be one of the most dramatic: A crisis-controlled android in interviews and a national punchline for fans during the season, before transforming back into an impish, carefree player, partying in plain sight and actually telling Patrick Kane jokes at the championship rally.
What a difference a Cup makes.
I first met Patrick Kane when he became the fifth U.S.-born player to be drafted first overall, as Dale Tallon of the Blackhawks snagged him with the top selection in the 2007 draft.
First thing that struck you: That the kid was so undersized, the best defense for NHL opponents might have been to tuck him in their back pockets. The second thing that struck you: That the kid absolutely exuded a passion for the Game and for the limelight. From USA Today:
"I love to score goals and I love to plan my celebrations," he said. "I love scoring for the fans, for the team, for myself. That's not to say that I won't pass if I see a teammate in a better scoring position. But I like to score."
During Kane's stellar rookie season (21 goals, 51 assists and the Calder Trophy), we started to understand that he wasn't your vanilla, tedious, fountain of inane soundbytes that, say, Sidney Crosby(notes) was as a young star. Like his assessment of international ladies during an appearance on Sporting News Radio:
You've played in a lot of different countries in this world ... who's got the best chicks?
Russia. If you go there, you'll see the hottest chicks you'll ever see. It's not a great area but the girls down there, they're pretty good.
You've played in Canada ... how are Canadian ladies?
They're pretty good. You know it's funny — they know if you're a hockey player. It's pretty good. You don't really have to initiate much out there, they'll just come up and talk to you out there so it's pretty cool.
What about the Euro girls? What about the Swedes and the Fins?
Yeah, the Swedes — they're all blondes out there. If you like that, I'd head out there too, because they have some pretty good looking ones. I didn't see too many in Finland that I really liked but I would probably have to say Sweden and Russia were the best for the European countries.
Spoken like a 19-year-old, but not like a 19-year-old NHL player. Then again, how many 19-year-old NHL players appear on video attacking a fake cow before a cookout and trash-talking Dominik Hasek(notes), as Kane did in Summer 2008.
Yes, seriously. Click the image.
One summer later, the freewheeling Patrick Kane was nowhere to be found. He and his cousin were arrested early morning on Aug. 9, 2009, after police alleged they assaulted and robbed a Buffalo cab driver after a disputed fare. After his public apology at USA Olympic orientation camp, Kane pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct on Aug. 27, avoiding jail time with a conditional discharge and penning a letter of apology to the cab driver.
The incident knocked the 20-year-old on his ass. Old friends and fans in Buffalo were suddenly critical of him. His parents' lawn back home was allegedly "littered with dimes" to acknowledge Kane's new infamy as "20-Cent." His honor as NHL 10 cover boy was suddenly being debated.
In January, with the Blackhawks clearly among the NHL's elite teams and with his place on the Olympic squad solidified, another red-faced moment. All right, bare-chested: An image of Kane partying in a limo with Vancouver locals hit the web. It was a harmless bit of boys-will-be-boys-ism, but it added another comedic note to the national punchlines about Kane.
Upon his return to Vancouver — in search of a different form of bliss — I spoke to Kane virtually every day of the Olympic hockey tournament. He was back to being reserved, guarded, low-key.
Occasional bits of candor — like his pent-up frustrations about being an American player in the U.S./Canada rivalry — were book-ended by humility. He was playing through a year of scrutiny, and now he was under an international spotlight, playing for an underdog. So his best behavior was his only behavior.
As the NHL playoffs began, Kane showed signs that the personal pressures were decreasing. The Mullet. The lines in his hair. The playful repartee with reporters.
On June 9, Patrick Kane finally reclaimed his swagger. A finals filled with Pronger-instigated frustrations culminated with his giving Chicago its first Cup in 49 years with a flick of his stick. His celebration was cathartic and contagious: While confusion reigned in the crowd over whether or not it was a goal, Kane's teammates had no doubts once they saw him jubilantly leap into the Blackhawks zone.
On the ice after hoisting the Cup, Kane cracked jokes, pulled his friends (including his "infamous" cousin) into media interviews, and acted with no concern about public perceptions in what was, without question, a defining moment for his career.
He was Vinny Chase from "Entourage," only with a humble streak intact and with lesser magnitudes of self-destruction in his bio.
At the rally back in Chicago, the unrestricted behavior continued, from the champagne flowing on the team bus to his wisecracks on stage. Then, when asked for penance because he had the nerve to make light of his foibles, Kane said no apologies necessary.
Which is, again, quite a departure from last summer.
It's good to have Patrick Kane back. He's a name in the NHL. Not a bold-faced one in the N.Y. Post like Sean Avery(notes), or a brand one like Alex Ovechkin(notes) or Sidney Crosby. His is a name that evokes that of a blithe soul from blue-collar Buffalo who's a damn good hockey player and loves, without equivocation, playing damn good hockey.
He's flawed, but utterly approachable from a fan standpoint because of it. And although I goofed on him at the time of the boast, there's no question that his enthusiasm and stellar play have allowed Kane and Jonathan Toews(notes) to become, in effect, the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of Chicago hockey.
Didn't think that would happen this quickly. So allow us to apologize to Kane, for a change.