It’s hard to remember now, but when Patrick Kane came into the National Hockey League, in 2007, it looked like the league’s best days were over. The 2005 season had been canceled because of a labor dispute between owners and players — one that made both look bad — and ESPN had dropped its broadcasting rights in the fallout. In Canada there was even a movement to take back the Stanley Cup trophy, which began as an award to the best amateur team in the country, from the NHL. Fans, especially those in Chicago, were apathetic at best.
That turnaround, of course, is thanks in large part to Kane, the star of the Chicago Blackhawks. Along with Sidney Crosby, the dazzling but oft-injured captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kane galvanized fans across the league with a style of play not seen since Gretzky’s heyday — a creative, offensive-minded approach that even non-fans could appreciate. And they did: Since Kane’s arrival in the league the NHL has seen a nearly 65% percent rise in viewership. Suddenly, hockey is fun to watch again.
“When you buy a ticket to watch Patrick Kane play,” says ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, “you don’t feel cheated at the end of the night.”
The last few seasons of hockey have been so fun to watch, in part, because Kane has an uncanny habit of delivering in the clutch: In seven seasons in the league, he’s scored 37 game-winning goals, including seven in the playoffs, the third-most in NHL history. He’s also including a Stanley-Cup winning tally he notched in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers, in 2010. “You want to be known as a big-game player,” says twenty-five-year-old Kane.
If Kane doesn’t play up the hype surrounding him on the ice, he’s done everything to garner the spotlight off of it. After joining the league at the age of 18, Kane became known for his off-ice antics, which often involved a few beers after a big game. In 2010, after leading the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup win in nearly five decades, Kane was photographed, shirtless, surrounded by two college-aged women and a teammate, holding condoms and lubricant, in a Vancouver limousine.
Two years later, after he’d led the Blackhawks to another Stanley Cup — and won the series’ MVP award in the process — he was photographed lying on the ground, mouth agape beneath a crowd of onlookers, during a drunken 2012 offseason Cinco de Mayo weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We all saw the photos,” says Kane said about the Wisconsin incident. “They’re pretty embarrassing.”
While such antics may have led to reprimands, even suspensions, in other mainstream sports, in the blue-collar world of hockey, Kane was widely viewed as a refreshing counterpoint to the increasingly media-trained athlete.
“He looked human,” Melrose, the ESPN analyst, explains. “I think it just endeared him to people. He’s an unbelievable player and an unbelievable talent, but he’s just like my 18-year-old kid.”
Kane has been on a hockey fast-track since he was nine, when he was told by his youth coach that he was too good for his own age group and began playing with teenagers. At 14, Kane agreed to move to Detroit to live with former NHL star Pat Verbeek in order to play on Vebreek’s Honeybaked AAA hockey club.
“I hadn’t seen a more talented kid at that age group,” says Verbeek.
Kane brought high-expectations to the Blackhawks when he was selected as the team’s first overall pick in the 2007 draft. And he didn’t disappoint. The ‘Hawks went from having such low home-game attendance that they weren’t televising them, to now having sold-out 277 games? straight.
“We knew there weren’t many fans to start when we came in,” says Kane, the undersized (5’10” and 175 pounds) star of the Chicago Blackhawks. “But Chicago became a hockey hotbed with a 180-degree turnaround.”
Blackhawk’s coach Joel Quenneville says that’s largely thanks to Kane, and his unpredictable style of play. “Nobody knows what he’s gonna do,” says Quenneville. “He has a real patience — at the very last second he can make the decision which somehow turns out to be the right one. He’s very tough to defend.”
Kane kicked off this season in typical fashion, scoring the game-winner in a shootout against the Dallas Stars, a wild face-off that made the Stars’ goalie, Kari Lehtonen, look like he was operating in slow motion. After losing last year’s Western Conference Finals in game seven to the Los Angeles Kings, it was a good start to this season .
“We have to win and win now,” says Kane. “If you reach the Conference Finals and you lose by one goal in Game Seven, that doesn’t mean you had a good season. That means you lost.”
The competitiveness is also what makes him hard to bet against. “To me he’s the best American-born player in the NHL right now,” says former player Eddie Olczyk, who now serves as the Blackhawks’ color commentator. “He’s the guy. And he's still a young guy. Fans should gravitate to him for years to come.”