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Kane poised to make history with Hart win

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika / Chicago Blackhawks

The Hart Trophy has been awarded to the most valuable player of the National Hockey League 91 times. It has gone to 55 players, including obvious immortals like Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, obscure names from the past like Frank Nighbor and Roy Worters, faces of today's game like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and others who have had great seasons like Jose Theodore and Henrik Sedin.

Never in all that time has it gone to an American, not counting Brett Hull, who represented the United States in international competition even though he was born in Belleville, Ontario. But that could change with Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane at the 2016 NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, Sportsnet).

"If he does win, that would be great for American hockey," said Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler, who has played with Kane on two U.S. Olympic teams. "It would be a huge step. I'm pulling for him, that's for sure."

It could come the same day the NHL announces expansion to a new American market, Las Vegas, should the Board of Governors vote to approve a franchise. It could come the same week an American goes No. 1 in the NHL Draft, should the Toronto Maple Leafs select Auston Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., and a fan of the Arizona Coyotes.

"You want to keep kind of building the USA Hockey name and the brand, and I'm sure there's going to be players along the way that will do special things too," Kane said. "But USA Hockey's in a good place. You see it with all these young players coming in, players that are doing well in the League right now. I'm happy to be part of it."

Kane, a native of Buffalo and product of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, became the first U.S.-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring champion this season. With 106 points, he was the only one in the League to break 100. He was the only one in the League to break 90. He had 17 more points than Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, who ranked second, and 21 more than Crosby, who ranked third. Benn and Crosby are the other two Hart finalists.

Think of the top names in American hockey history: Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Pat Lafontaine, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Mullen … Where does Kane rank already? He has won the Stanley Cup three times. He has won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He has won an Olympic silver medal.

And he's only 27.

"I still feel like I'm in the prime of my career, so hopefully there's some better things to come," Kane said. "But there's been so many great American players that have played the game, it's actually surprising to believe I was the first this year to win the scoring title, especially with the amount of great American players that have played and been huge offensive producers. That was pretty special in its own regard."

If you know Kane, you know he loves the game, is a student of it and wants to be the best. He was upset with himself even though he was a point-a-game player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year. Despite his goal and six assists, he felt he could have taken control more at points of the Western Conference First Round when the Blackhawks lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games. Gone was a chance to win the Cup in back-to-back years and for the fourth time in seven seasons.

"It's always tough to lose in the playoffs, especially in the first round, when you feel you've got a team that has a chance to do some special things," Kane said.

Kane went on vacation for a couple of weeks. He said it was "kind of a weird feeling" when he came back and found other teams still playing. The Blackhawks hadn't been eliminated in the first round since they lost to the Coyotes in 2012. Kane would turn on games, if only to see what was going on, and feel frustrated.

The positive, though, is that after playing 11 playoff rounds from 2013-15, the Blackhawks will have had more time to rest, recover and rededicate themselves this offseason, especially important with the World Cup of Hockey coming up in September for Kane and others. Kane started working out with a trainer in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, at the same time he was still playing in the Stanley Cup Final last year. For now, he's in the gym, but eventually he will return to the ice to work on his shot, explosiveness and agility.

"I still think there's some ways I can improve, whether it's having more control every shift throughout a game or being able to capitalize in certain areas," Kane said. "I think as a competitive player, you always want to work on everything. You want to work on every part of your game and make sure it's getting better."

Hey, no American has ever won the Hart twice, either.

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