Patrick Polino thinks the final score was 9-5, or something like that. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with all the goals in Buffalo’s Fattey Hockey League – created by local player turned Harborcenter exec Nik Fattey – what with all the crazy rules and such. The puck is always in play, even when it hits the roof or the netting. Instead of penalties, teams are awarded penalty shots. And the buzzer goes off every 1:15 for a shift change to keep the shifts short.
Anyway, it was the summer of 2014 and Milli Vanilli was facing the Pet Shop Boys in Game 3 of the winner-take-all final for the Father Charles Cup. (That year, they decided to name all 12 teams after 1980s bands. We’re thinking Spandau Ballet likely struck as much fear into the hearts of its opponents as the Peoria Prancers of the defunct International League did.) Milli Vanilli had finished fourth in the Buffalo Sunday night hockey league that features every range of elite player, from high schoolers to pros, and faced the daunting task of knocking off the first-place Pet Shop Boys. And Girl You Know It’s True (couldn’t help it), Milli Vanilli, in its pink sweaters with the buffalo on the front, rode the coattails of No. 88, who registered a double hat trick and had a monster game. “He just took over,” recalled Polino, a former USHL player and now a 21-year-old freshman playing collegiate hockey at RPI. “He really got into it. He wanted to win, and he didn’t hold back. And when Patrick Kane turns it on like that, it’s pretty hard for a bunch of junior hockey players to stop him.”
The fact is, it’s a monumental challenge for the best players on the planet to stop Kane, particularly in a crucial playoff game. He is among the best clutch scorers in NHL history. Think of a game-changing, series-winning Chelsea Dagger to the heart that the Chicago Blackhawks have administered over their eight straight years in the playoffs and there’s a good chance Kane has delivered it. And like Teemu Selanne using his stick as a rifle, Theoren Fleury sliding across the ice on his back or Alex Ovechkin cooling off his stick, the celebrations have been almost as legendary as the goals. There’s the hyperactive finger point, the one-handed scoop and the fist-pump/archer while gliding along the ice on one knee. And, of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all, The Heartbreaker, a gesture he copied from the Miami Dolphins’ Hall of Fame defensive end Jason Taylor, who would outline a heart in the air and punch his fist through it to celebrate a big sack. Kane pulls that one out only for special occasions, like the double-overtime winner he scored against the Los Angeles that sent Chicago to the Stanley Cup final four years ago.
“I think I’ve only done it twice, and I don’t know if I’d ever do it again, to be honest with you,” Kane said. “It just comes to you in the moment. It’s not something you really want to plan.”
Going into this year’s playoffs, the Blackhawks were looking awfully familiar down the stretch, which means they’re locked and loaded for another Stanley Cup run. If they get there, Kane will likely add to the playoff lore that has him mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky, Rocket Richard and Claude Lemieux when it comes to scoring huge goals. Since Kane’s Blackhawks first made the playoffs in the spring of 2009, no active NHL player can match his 49 goals, 72 assists and 121 points. His next overtime-winner in the post-season will be his sixth, pulling him ahead of Glenn Anderson into a tie with Richard for second all-time, two behind Joe Sakic.
Sports psychologist Paul Dennis, who has counselled NHL teams and Olympic athletes, believes Kane’s domination at the most crucial times represents an intriguing confluence of skill, self-confidence and trust in his abilities. It’s also a combination of nature and nurture. Kane has obviously been blessed with an otherworldly skill set, but not only has that skill set been exploited with hours and hours of practice and sacrifice, but Kane has also been surrounded by people in his life – his family, coaches, teammates – who have validated those talents to the point where he is utterly unafraid to fail, where most players are wired to simply not make mistakes in those situations. “The notion of a player feeling he doesn’t want to let his teammates down and the fans down, that would never occur to (a player like) Patrick Kane,” Dennis said.
That’s what makes Kane so special. Whether it’s overtime in Game 7 of an NHL playoff series or a glorified beer league where players wear pink sweaters, it’s no different to Kane. “He’s the same going into Game 7 overtime as he is going into the third period of a pre-season game,” said Dallas Stars winger Patrick Sharp, who won three Stanley Cups in Chicago with Kane. “His attitude is the same. He wants the puck, he wants to score, he wants to make the play, and he wants to win the game. His body language is exactly the same. You look around the ice and there are guys out there trying not to make a mistake, and ‘Kaner’ is out there trying to make something happen. You can say that a lot of guys are like that, but the fact of the matter is most guys are out there trying to not make a mistake. But he wants that puck, he’s demanding it, in those huge situations.”
Kane has a theory that he and his teammates are so good in tense situations because they’re so accustomed to playing in them. There’s something to that logic, but then wouldn’t Kane’s hometown Buffalo Bills have won at least one of their four straight Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s? It also doesn’t explain why Kane has so often come through in critical situations, just as he did when he rescued the United States with an overtime goal against the Czech Republic in the semifinal of the 2006 Under-18 World Championship. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether Kane is on the right side with Jonathan Toews and Bryan Bickell, or with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, or running alongside Brad Richards. The result is usually the same. How many times have we seen him scream down the right side of the ice and bury a one-timer when his team needs it most? “In that moment, you want to do something special,” Kane said. “It’s almost like the more experience you get and the more you play, the more opportunity you have to do something special. If you look back, you can say all those guys, even the guys who aren’t with us anymore, they’ve all had big moments at some point in time. I’m pretty fortunate.”
Patrick KaneAuthor: Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images
Kane has a recurring nightmare. Not exactly one of those ones where you bolt upright in your bed panting in a cold sweat, but one serious and frequent enough to give him consternation. In this particular sequence, it’s a June night in 2010 in Philadelphia. Kane gathers the puck along the left wall, jukes around Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and shoots from a bad angle on Michael Leighton. Then he throws his gloves off and dances down the ice. That’s when everything goes sideways.
“I’ve actually had dreams where the puck doesn’t go in and I’m going down the ice celebrating and Philly comes back to win it,” Kane said. “Pretty embarrassing.”
Indeed. But even if that had happened, it would have set up Game 7 in Chicago and given Kane another chance at an even bigger moment, though it’s not as though he’s the only one. You don’t win three Stanley Cups by having players who squeeze the graphite out of their sticks. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are as good under pressure as any defensemen in hockey, and Toews has forged a career – in the World Junior Championship and in the NHL – as a player who can be counted upon in clutch situations. When the Blackhawks shocked the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the 2013 Cup final, it was Bickell who tied the game with 1:16 left and David Bolland who delivered the final blow 17 seconds later. The Hawks are this good because their most important players perform best at important times. And they are that way because no coach manages the season better than Joel Quenneville or has a better feel for his players, those who are playing well and those who aren’t. Quenneville’s ability to make adjustments, sometimes mid-game, are without peer. That’s part of the reason why in mid-March, the Blackhawks had seven goals with their goalie pulled, including two in one game.
But it often comes back to Kane, who grew up a hockey nerd along with his father, Patrick Sr., in a life that was almost singularly devoted to having an NHL career. Hockey is the most important thing to Kane. It’s that single-minded dedication, Sharp said, that has equipped Kane so well to this point in his career. Kane doesn’t always score – it’s happened to him in big games at the Olympics – and he doesn’t always win, but his teammates say that when they watch Kane prepare for a game, there is nothing in the world more important to him than being ready to play.
“Jonathan (Toews) gets the reputation of, ‘I’m Captain Serious, and I’m never going to laugh, and I’m never going to have fun, I’m business all the time,’ and Kaner is the frat boy, ‘I’m going to goof off and have fun and play,’ ” Sharp said. “I think with both reputations, they’re somewhere in the middle. Johnny likes to have a little more fun than you may think, and Kaner is more serious than you think.”
Ah, yes, Kaner the frat boy. It’s an enduring image of him that is every bit as indelible as anything he’s done on the ice. Kane could live the life of a choirboy off the ice for the rest of his career and there’s a good chance he’d never shake that reputation. It has been almost two years since his last public incident, a sexual-assault allegation that never resulted in charges being laid because, as the district attorney said, “this so-called ‘case’ is rife with reasonable doubt.”
The story of Kane having grown up has been written more than once before, only to be doused with an alcohol-infused exploit. It’s likely the statute of limitations on his off-ice reputation will never expire, not because Kane isn’t capable of changing his ways, but because people will always be wary. (For what it’s worth, those who cover the Blackhawks say they no longer receive anonymous emails from fans who have spotted Kane out late at any local establishments.)
“We’ve all dealt with it, not on his scale, because the Chicago Blackhawks are rock stars,” Sharp said. “I’ve heard more stories about myself, Duncan, Seabrook, Jonathan, all this stuff that’s out of control. No one is a bigger star in Chicago than Kaner and maybe in U.S. hockey. I don’t want to comment on anything that has happened, but all I’m saying is his image through his career hasn’t helped him.”
So, what exactly is it about players such as Kane that allows them to be so dominant and overpowering when the stakes are highest? As Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said, it’s difficult to quantify, and if there were any formula to it, coaches and researchers would have found a way to nurture and exploit it. There are a lot of great players in the NHL, but few elevate their games in pivotal situations the way Kane does. And when there is so little difference between players and teams, and the series are so close, an entire playoff can turn on one play. “You hear people say things like everything tends to slow down and they can see things happening at a different rate,” Bowman said. “That’s really what greatness is. You can’t necessarily explain or bottle it.”
It’s interesting because Kane said it’s easier for him to play the game than it was for him to deal with the agony of living and dying with every play the Buffalo Sabres made when he was cheering for them as a kid. Perhaps it’s an issue of control. As a fan, there’s nothing you can do aside from jumping out of your skin. As a player, what you do or don’t do has a direct effect on the outcome, and those who can process that and keep their wits about them are the ones who score big goals in front of 20,000 screaming people and get paid $10 million a year to do it.
Kane is just 28, and he has six more years remaining on his deal with Chicago. With a core of star players, deftly accompanied with a changing cast of really good players, there’s no telling what he’ll accomplish over that time. There are statues outside the United Center honoring Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, players whose Hawks won one Stanley Cup in a six-team league and then virtually had a free pass to the Stanley Cup final for a couple years in the early 1970s because it played in the same division as the expansion teams. Kane and Toews have already won three, and nobody would be surprised if more followed, even as early as this June. “You look at all the great athletes – every great athlete has had that trait over their careers,” Kane said. “Think of guys like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan. They all had that clutch trait, so that’s something that would be pretty cool to be remembered by.”