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Patrick Kane - Leader by Example

by Bob Verdi

N

otice the eyes, the hands and also his footwork. It's those skates that propel Patrick Kane on his next joyride. They're the launch pad of his genius, connected to a mind wired with a remarkable hockey IQ. His body accelerates as his radar slows the game down, while he weaves and bobs, looking for spaces only he can calibrate. He surely will be stalked by opposing checkers, or he might just feign hovering harmlessly out there, patiently waiting until the last millisecond, when it's time to strike.

 

"He's fun to watch," said Alex DeBrincat, a frequent accomplice who realizes that No. 88 is even more fun to play beside. After 1,000 games, 1,000 points, 400 goals and dozens of linemates, Kane remains a seminal force with the Blackhawks. He makes everybody around him better. Also, he makes everybody around him money.

 

Now, at 32, because what's past is not quite great enough, Kane is doing his Benjamin Button reverse aging thing. As Kane matures, he refines and adds to his skill set. Kane is an entertainer. He misses the fans as much as they miss him. But the show goes on. Iconic artists, composers and authors don't need to create their masterpieces in front of a crowd.  

 

As a rookie, Kane's coach was Denis Savard. The first overall draft choice in 2007 had a quiet training camp, so Savard told him to relax and "just keep doing what you're doing." Now Savard, who possessed a flair for the spectacular, admits he never even fathomed attempting some of Kane's histrionics. Like that backhand from the blue paint where the puck, as if someone above is pulling it on a string, takes a vertical path to the roof of the net.

 

Jeremy Colliton, Kane's present coach, was asked how he would defend against him. Well, mused Colliton, you can try to deny him the puck. Pause. Colliton went on. But somehow, he said, Kane will find it, or it will find him. Kane will discover a seam, or an opening. "So intelligent," praised Colliton. "So professional in every way.

 

"His production is better than ever, but to me it's all about the work ethic away from the puck and willingness to put pressure on the puck and create transitions for himself and his linemates, too. That type of team-first mentality, that's what we're trying to build here so we can have long-term success. Not only is he doing it, but he's encouraging other guys to do it. When you're unselfish, it comes around. When he's driving that, it sure is powerful."

Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks' President of Hockey Operations/ General Manager, was Kane's first "landlord" in Chicago. He lived with Bowman's family, a comfortable situation for a lad somewhat overwhelmed by a really big city. 

 

"Since then, the most impressive thing about Patrick is how he has evolved," said Bowman. "He's 32 now and still getting better, which is unusual. Normally, players peak in their late 20s and then you maybe see a slight decline. With Patrick, I think you could make the case that his last couple or three years have been his best.

 

"That comes with a passion for the game and his fascination with adding new wrinkles. Whether it's working on his shot, the release, the one-timer, subtle ways to become better. Not just during the season or practice. During his summers, too. Rather than reflect on all he's done, Patrick is more about 'what's the next thing I can do?' That's really a special, rare, quality.

 

"He's also embraced a certain leadership role. He and Duncan Keith play a lot of minutes, a lot of important minutes. For them to set the example with all our kids is vital. For these kids, everything is new. The buildings, the league, the teams. They don't know what they don't know. They've made it to the NHL. Now they want to stay in the NHL.

 

"But I'm not surprised about what I've seen from Dunc or Patrick. Patrick is one of the best players in the world, one of the best NHL players ever, but he's very unassuming for a superstar. He's always gravitated toward younger players, yet he fits in with all groups and individuals. Great personality, great wisdom. And obviously, very competitive. Leads by example.

 

"Like I've said before, Patrick reacts on ice level as though he's watching the game from the 300 level. At ice level, or close to it, you see all the commotion, the movement, the big, tall bodies. But if you're upstairs, the game looks different and seems easier than it is. 'Oh, there's a guy who's open. Right over there.' It's uncanny what he does. You can't teach that."

 

Asked about Kane, two Hall of Famers echoed each other. Bobby Hull, a Blackhawks' ambassador, cited Kane's ability to skate with extraordinary speed while maintaining puck control. Hull said he can't remember anybody better, any era. Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks' senior advisor/hockey operations, seconded the notion.

 

"Kane also has that sense where everybody else is," Scotty said. "When he was younger, Kane probably was viewed more as a playmaker. He's still great at that. He makes things happen. But he can score in a lot of ways. He's durable, and if you notice, he doesn't get hit a lot. That's a skill in itself, if you think about it."

Hockey is Patrick Kane's occupation. Apparently, milestones are his hobby.

 

Brett Hull stands as the all-time point producer for American players with 1,391. Earlier this season, with his 1,034th point, Kane passed Doug Weight for seventh place on the list. There is every chance that Kane will wind up atop everybody, especially if he maintains this prolific pace during his 30s.

 

Kane began this abbreviated season in fourth place for career points with the Blackhawks, trailing only Stan Mikita, who amassed 1,467 in 22 years, Bobby Hull at 1,153 and Savard at 1,096. Again, the matter of destiny for Kane would seem to be when, not if.

 

Those are all regular season numbers. In the postseason, when the stage is bigger but the cracks smaller, the more he excels. He broke the franchise record for game-winning Stanley Cup playoff goals with 11, and he did that when he was 27.

 

Not surprisingly, more than a year before participating in his 1000th game, Kane achieved his 1,000th point. On January 14, 2020, Kane notched his 996th and 997th in Ottawa. One night later in Montreal 998. Then it was on to Toronto, "Hockey Night in Canada" as a backdrop, when Kane reached 999.

 

The countdown crescendo then moved to the United Center on a Sunday evening, January 19. At 14:14 of the third period, Kane assisted on Brandon Saad's goal during a 5-2 conquest of the Winnipeg Jets. Always prepared, Toews consulted with officials before the game about a master plan to celebrate. The Blackhawks' bench emptied, and 21,487 stood to salute No. 88.

 

"What a moment," said Kane, who became only the 90th player in NHL history to attain 1,000 points. "Everyone coming onto the ice and sharing that with me. You see some faces in that pile who have been a big part of a lot of those points. I told the team that afterward. Just looking at everyone's face and everyone's excitement."

 

Alas, two very important season ticketholders were absent. Parents Pat and Donna. An ice storm foiled their travel plans.

 

Two nights later, Kane was feted at the United Center. Another roar was his, but as Kane quipped, it might not have been the loudest of the evening. Just so happened the Florida Panthers were in town, and their new coach, Joel Quenneville, beloved winner of three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks, stole the show. Or at least half of it. 

 

Because of this vile COVID-19 pandemic, Kane's 400th goal in late February and his 1000th game a week or so hence were not suitably honored. He deserves more than a mute button. But there will be a date to be circled when a sold-out United Center salutes No. 88. His parents shall look on from their regular seats, a few rows behind the west goal, among the many friends they've made all these winters.

"Crazy numbers, those are," said Dad. "For our son to have 1,000 points and 1,000 games, you know, as a parent, you always have dreams. I think back to when Pat was a kid, when he must have played a 1,000 games in this league or that league, maybe four in one day, changing socks in the car, on the way to the next one.

 

"He played in so many tournaments. When he was 12 or 14, other kids are always bigger. I don't know that we thought he was too small, but you just wondered whether he could get to that next level. I can't think of one morning when he complained about waking up at 6 to play or practice. He loved hockey, still loves it, maybe more than ever. And he's all in on the rebuild in Chicago. All in.

 

"Some guys just have that passion. How old is Joe Thornton, 41? Don't think he signed in Toronto because he needs a paycheck. He needs hockey. All-Star Game in St. Louis a few years ago. Pat could have used the rest, knew he'd be booed. But he wanted to go. 'When I'm done years from now', he said, 'I'll look back at that and be glad I did'. We drove to the game in the car, just like old times.

 

"He's excited now. We're excited. Donna and I haven't physically seen the baby yet. Or any games in person because of COVID. But we watch on TV, and it's fun. Pat takes nothing for granted. He wants to get better. All the time. Whatever it takes. He's a student of the game. Before the season, he told me, 'Dad, I like this kid (Kevin) Lankinen. We might have something good going on here. Could be competitive.'

 

"Pat has a way of figuring things out. Basketball, as a kid. He's inbounding the ball, but the guy he's supposed to throw it to has his back turned. So Pat just threw the ball against the guy, picked it up, shot and put it in the basket. Basically, passed the ball to himself. 

 

"He's into golf now. I see him on the course. He sees a hole, he figures out how to play it. Always that way in hockey. So driven. Welcomes challenges. All the stuff that was written about the Blackhawks before the season, he's thinking, wait, let's see what happens when the puck drops. He wants to win another Stanley Cup in Chicago. He's all in on that, too."