The ongoing evolution of Patrick Kane: Blackhawks superstar better on – and off – the ice

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

CHICAGO — This much is true: Patrick Kane got sick of buddies texting him: “I hear you’re going to (fill in the blank).” He got tired of critics picking apart his play. And yes, he got embarrassed when more of his off-ice escapades ended up on Deadspin and the Chicago Blackhawks brass sat him down for a talk.

“Anytime you hear different things – whether it’s trade rumors or people saying you’re not living up to your complete potential – you’re obviously going to get ticked off about that,” Kane said. “I feel I have a little bit of something to prove this year.”

Kane has nine goals and 23 points in 18 games, eighth in the NHL scoring race. That’s a 41-goal, 104-point pace over a full 82-game schedule. While the Blackhawks have earned at least a point in each of their first 18 games, an NHL record, he has put up at least a point in 15.

Last season, opposing coaches whispered that Kane made life easy on them when he stopped skating and cheated defensively. This season?

“He looks like he’s a very, very determined player,” said Todd McLellan, whose San Jose Sharks have lost to the Blackhawks three times, watching Kane put up four points. “He looks like he wants to be a game-breaker night in and night out. He looks like he wants to put the team on his back and go.”

But does that mean something snapped? Does that mean he’s a man now at age 24?

Not exactly.

“People want to say he’s different and he’s grown up and he’s matured,” said linemate and friend Patrick Sharp. “He’s the same old Kaner to me.”

Is that a good thing?

“That’s a good thing, yeah,” said Sharp with a laugh. “He’s got a bad rap. He’s got a passion for the game. He cares about it. He works extremely hard. People don’t see that or tend to talk about it, and it’s paying off now.”

Kane said he wants to prove something to himself more than anyone else. He set such a high standard in 2009-10 – earning an Olympic silver medal and a Stanley Cup, producing 30 goals and 88 points in the regular season, adding 10 and 28 in the playoffs, scoring the Cup-winner in OT – the last two seasons were disappointing.

He had 73 points in 73 games in 2010-11, but the ’Hawks – with half their Cup roster lost to a salary-cap purge – were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. He slipped to 66 points last season, and the ’Hawks, still putting the pieces back together, went out in the first round again.

“I think I owe it to myself to put my best effort forward and prove how good I can be,” Kane said. “Just want to get back to having that feeling after winning the Stanley Cup. I was 21 years old when it happened. It almost feels like you’re invincible. You feel like you’re …”

He paused, searching for the right words.

“I wouldn’t say, like, given everything,” he continued. “But you feel it’s just going to kind of come to you after something like that happens. After a couple years of coming back down to earth and back to reality, you realize how hard it is and how hard you have to work to get there.”

* * * * *

This is not a new Patrick Kane.

“He’s not a new man,” said Pat Brisson, his agent.

He hasn’t changed. He is trying to make changes – trying to remain true to his colorful, fun-loving self, while improving as a player and as a person.

He hasn’t grown up. He’s growing up. Growing up isn’t a smooth process for many people, and it can be more complicated when you’re a millionaire athlete in the public eye. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, but Kane’s story has not ended. It’s not even in the middle yet.

“It’s more of an evolution,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. “I think people want to make it as like one thing – as like, from that moment, everything changed. It’s not that way. It’s more, he’s 24 years old, right? He’s in the process of going from a kid to a man, and I think he’s learning the hard way in some ways that his life is different than not only [yours and mine], but it’s even different than most of his teammates’. He’s got a different profile than they do. That’s the way it is.”

People follow Kane more closely than others because of what he has done on and off the ice. Attention begets attention. While the sports media scrutinizes his performance, Deadspin is on the lookout for its next scoop. It has a running thread of Patrick Kane gossip, going back to the incident with the Buffalo cab driver in August 2009, the photos of him shirtless with women in a limo in January 2010.

We have to be careful. We don’t really know Kane. All we know is what we see on the ice and in the media, and we tend to oversimplify the good and the bad. Performance doesn’t necessarily reflect maturity one way or the other – remember, Kane’s best season came when he was 21 – and sound bytes that say all the right things mean only so much. Kane talked about growing up at the All-Star Game media day last year, then got into trouble again in May, Deadspin detailing a drunken weekend in Madison, Wis.

But Kane has to be careful, too. We don’t really know him. Our opinions and perceptions are formed from what we see on the ice and in the media, and these aren’t the innocent old days enjoyed by, say, Bobby Hull, before the cameraphone and Internet. He can’t keep giving Deadspin material. The true test will be after the season when he is out of the structured team environment.

The Blackhawks talked to Kane after the Madison incident and expressed their disappointment. They talked to him about his mistakes, how pictures can be posted for everyone to see in seconds, the effect they can have on him and the team. But Bowman said they didn’t give him a specific ultimatum, didn’t threaten him with a trade.

“I don’t find that’s really an effective way to motivate people,” Bowman said.

Bowman also goes way back with Kane and his family. He spent a good part of his childhood in Buffalo, where Kane grew up. When he was Chicago’s assistant GM and Kane was a rookie, Kane lived with him.

“He’s a great kid,” Bowman said. “It’s not like he’s someone that you really worry about his character. He’s got a close-knit family. He’s close to his parents. He’s close to his sisters. He’s a normal kid. If he was different, if he came from a troubled background, maybe you’d have to approach him differently. I think you need to point out what’s at stake for himself and for the organization, but you don’t have to browbeat him on it because I think he understands.”

“It seemed like it was pretty clear to him that we live in a different world, and at the same time, he cared a lot. I could see he cared so much,” Brisson said. “Was it a turning point? These players are so young. We all have little turning points in our lives. You learn about yourself. You adjust.”

“I mean, there’s some things that I’ll obviously have to change as time goes on, as I get older,” Kane said. “I realize that. Especially in the day and age now with social media and cameraphones and things like that, you always have to act like you’re being watched. But I love to play the game, love to be around the rink and love to joke around with my teammates and have some fun. I don’t feel I’ve changed too much. I feel I’ll always kind of be myself, whatever happens.”

* * * * *

Kane actually wanted to prove something last season. It just didn’t happen. He had off-season wrist surgery, limiting his training. He moved from right wing to center, back to right wing and then back to center, trying to help the team. Even when things were going well in early March, he sounded disappointed.

“I thought this year I was going to come in and be a big-time player, be an elite player in the league, and try to be up there with the best players in the league,” he said then.

Sixty-six points might be a career year for most players, but they were a career low for Kane. He trained hard after the Madison incident and the talk with the brass, but he was planning to, anyway.

“I know he looked at his season last year, and he wasn’t happy,” Brisson said. “He said, ‘Come on.’ He said to himself – aside from the incident and all that – ‘I can do a lot more. I know what I have, and I’m not happy with what I provided based on what I can provide.’ And I think that’s the biggest part.”

Kane played in Switzerland during the lockout – and lived with his mother. It is the last story on his Deadspin thread right now. The plan really wasn’t for him to go to Europe as some sort of hockey boot camp, dangling on the big ice at the rink, hanging out with mom at home. The arrangement lasted longer than expected because the lockout lasted longer than expected. But it was good for him.

His skills and focus were sharp when the NHL returned. He also returned to the right wing, where he has played most of his career and feels most comfortable, on a line with Sharp and centerman David Bolland, whose defensive prowess gives them freedom offensively. He’s skating well. Coach Joel Quenneville said he’s shooting the puck as well as ever and his positioning without the puck is better, too.

He seems more serious. He seems to appreciate where he is. He seems almost like he was scared straight – or that he realizes the legacy he could leave in Chicago if he does the right things year after year. We all know what could go wrong. But think about what could go right: He could be a legend.

“To be honest with you, I don’t really see myself anywhere else,” Kane said. “That was another thing, too. If you want to stay here in Chicago, where you’re comfortable, where you’ve been for a long time, in a great organization, great city … We have a great team, too, so we have another chance to win again, and that’s huge.”

But without pause, he shrugged that off.

“Once you get out there playing hockey, you’re just playing and not thinking too much,” he continued. “Sometimes you think too much off the ice, and it translates to the game on the ice. I thought I was better off just worrying about hockey.”

That’s not a very sexy story. That’s fine.

“I think his legacy will take care of itself,” Bowman said. “He just loves to play hockey. He wants to be the best player in the league. That’s what motivates him. I think you’re right, that he could be a legend, but that’s not his focus. He’s just not that kind of a kid.”

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