"We probably went to about 25 to 30 Sabres games a year since I was 6 years old," Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks right wing and Buffalo native, told NHL.com. "We’d even play hockey with mini-sticks in the hallways and have a good time."
At the time, it seemed like playing for the Sabres would have been Kane's ultimate dream come true. It hasn't worked out that way. He instead found a more rewarding path to skate.
"I always tell people that, today, if there were a choice between Chicago and Buffalo I would play in Chicago because they have treated me so well," Kane said. "Looking back on it, I couldn’t have gone to a better place."
Can you blame him for thinking that way?
Thanks in part to Kane and teammate Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the hottest franchises in professional sports these days. They'll hit a high note Jan. 1 when they host Detroit in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field.
Kane has been anticipating the atmosphere since the announcement was made this summer that the game was coming to Chicago.
"I think of things like 45,000 or more fans at the game and looking around and seeing all of them, that’s going to be the fun part," Kane said. "You say it’s the Winter Classic, and here we have two Original Six teams in probably one of the most historic venues in North America. It doesn’t get much more classic than that."
Kane very well may be on his way to a classic career, but that's getting ahead of things. But what this newly minted 20-year-old already has done in the NHL is amazing and certainly worthy of some reflection.
He was the No. 1 draft pick in 2007 and quickly became one of two faces of the franchise. He won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year with 72 points in 82 games. He's a favorite to play in his first All-Star Game this season.
"He's a special player," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville told NHL.com. "There are not too many guys in the League that can do what he does."
Still, success hasn't changed him.
"He has always been a pretty confident kid," Toews said. "That's what makes him the player that he is. He's a unique individual in every way. Guys on the team appreciate him for that and what he brings."
Kane said he's learned never to treat playing in the NHL as work.
"We're playing hockey for a job and it doesn't even feel like a job," he said. "You have to work hard and make sure you're prepared, but for you, it's your job but you enjoy doing it, right? It's the same for me. It's a job but you really enjoy doing it."
He didn't enjoy it so much Oct. 16, when the Blackhawks fired coach Denis Savard.
"It felt like you were losing a friend more than a coach," Kane said.
Savard was the guy that showed Kane the ropes last season. He was the one who kept faith in Kane despite a less-than-stellar preseason. He was the one who told Kane after his NHL debut in Minnesota that he "was the best player in the game."
When Kane met the media the day after Savard was fired, he had to be rushed out of the locker room because he became overly emotional in front of the cameras.
"I kind of broke down," he recalled. "I couldn't hold it in. It was a sad day."
It was a humbling day, and there haven't been many of those in Kane's short career. It was the day he learned the hard way that nothing comes easy in the NHL, and there are prices to be paid when things aren't going right.
"I only had a goal and an assist at that time," Kane said. "I felt responsible."
Fast forward two months, and Kane now says "it seems like the right decision" to change coaches. He believes in Quenneville and trusts that he's the right person to lead the Hawks to the next level, which means the playoffs this season, hopefully as a high seed. Chicago went into Monday's game tied for fourth in the Western Conference.
That Savard already has been welcomed back to the organization as an ambassador has put Kane's mind at ease.
"Joel is a great guy, too, and he's a hell of a coach," Kane said. "He really knows what he's doing behind there. He lets the boys be boys. He's not so involved with the players. You have to show up and do whatever you have to do to be ready to play."
Kane has answered the bell under Quenneville. He is playing with confidence and a sense of belonging, which he believes are the two tangible differences in his game and mindset from last December to this December.
A year ago he was feeling his way. Now he's comfortable with his stardom.
"I feel I belong in this League and that I can do great things in this League," said Kane, who has 34 points this season. "It's just hockey and you're just playing a game. You can't get caught up in the NHL. If you do, it can be scary."
It may not seem like it because the Blackhawks have been such a feel-good story for a while now, but Kane is under intense pressure in Chicago. If the team doesn't win this season, if they don't at least make the playoffs, it will be viewed as a disaster.
Pressure? Bring it on, Kane says.
"I thought I had a good year last season, but not up to my potential," Kane said. "It's tough to say that you want more out of yourself when you have been so lucky, but that's how I play. I play better under pressure."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer