Patrick Kane dropped to his right knee and slid across the ice. With his stick held aloft in his left hand, he pumped his gloved right fist. It was time for the celebratory cry:
We’ve all watched it unfold before. Seen — maybe even heard — it up close if we were lucky. Kane after one of his 356 Blackhawks goals, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. There have been an additional 50 postseason goals; only Bobby Hull, Denis Savard and Stan Mikita had more of those.
But this goal celebration, well, it was only pretend — made for a future promotional spot on some network or another. NBC? NHL Network? Canada’s Sportsnet? All were in Chicago earlier this month to film a who’s-who of NHL stars, including the Hawks’ Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat, participating in the league’s annual Player Media Tour.
At Fifth Third Arena, the Hawks’ Near West Side training facility, Kane juggled pucks, deked cameramen on skates and went through the motions of stickhandling tricks. He repeated slogans and taglines until they echoed inside the heads of anyone within earshot. All of it undoubtedly will look and sound super-cool post-production, but was it fun?
“You’d rather be out there playing and enjoying the game,” he said, “but you’ve got to promote it in some way. Some of the stuff is really weird.”
Kane, 30, would know better than anyone. He’s the only NHL player who has participated in all 12 of these events. Toews, 31, has taken part in 11, starting with the first one in 2008. It’s probably inevitable, isn’t it, that the league someday will look past the longtime duo when it chooses the few dozen players to represent it in promotional ads and interviews for a coming season?
“It’s going to happen eventually, right?” Kane said. “My job is to make sure that happens as late in my career as possible. Can I tell you I’m going to be 40 years old and still playing the way I am now? I don’t know, but I hope so — and I think I can.”
Whoa. Everybody take a breath and focus for a moment. Did Kane just crank up the intensity to game level and try to put a one-timer by our collective ear? Was this a taste of what he was like during a sneaky-great 2018-19 season when — though the Hawks failed to make the playoffs — he set career highs in assists (66) and points (110)?
Did Kane just drop a bomb on us?
Seated now in a dress shirt and compression shorts in a private players’ lounge behind the Hawks’ dressing room at Fifth Third, a brand-new pair of skates molding to his feet, he elaborated.
“The way I train my body, the way I take care of myself, I think I can play [to 40] with a really successful style of play — the way I play — and still produce,” he said. “But I guess time will tell. It’s my job to get to each new season enjoying that time, and obviously you’ve got to stay healthy.”
Both Kane and Toews are signed through the 2022-23 season, after which they’ll be 34 and 35, respectively. The Hawks’ captain has little trouble envisioning Kane playing in the NHL at 40, a milestone only two players — Penguins center Matt Cullen (who has since retired) and Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara — had reached by the start of the 2018-19 campaign. (In fact, both Cullen and Chara were 41.)
“Yeah, absolutely. I don’t see why not,” Toews said. “He doesn’t get hit. Doesn’t backcheck.”
“I’m just kidding about that last part,” Toews said. “He’s a smart player. He just fends off checks, and he has stayed healthy for a long time. A big talk of this summer is his training and the way he’s taking care of his body. I think he’s really getting even more detailed with how he approaches the game. So, yeah, I don’t see why not.”
This is where the other skate dropped.
“I want to play until I’m 40, too,” Toews said. “For sure, I do. You take care of yourself. You come in in shape every year. I think the older I get, the more I realize how special it is to be able to do what we do. And I wouldn’t be very good at doing anything else, so might as well try to be the best I can be on the ice for as long as possible.”
The late Mikita made it to 39 before retiring from the Hawks. Hull played professionally into his 40s, though he was long gone from the Hawks by then. Chris Chelios played just about forever, but likewise rang in 40 with a different team.
It’s hardly unheard of — Kimmo Timmonen was 40, in his last of 20 NHL seasons, when he raised the Stanley Cup with the Hawks in 2015 — but with all the ice time Kane logs? With the pounding Toews, his partner in three Cup titles, dishes out and takes?
“I can see it, yes,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “You look around the league, and there are a handful of guys able to play that long and that well. The hardest part is physically, maintaining strength, trying to keep up with all these guys who are going to be 15 years younger than you. And the game is getting faster. Do you want to put the time and work into doing that?
“But Patrick and Jonathan are both very diligent about training and dedicated to their craft. Most people peak in their 20s, but these guys aren’t typical players. I wouldn’t put anything past them.”
So, then, the obvious question: If and when the time comes, would the Hawks let their forever-joined faces of the franchise ring in 40 in enemy sweaters?
Put another way: You gonna re-sign these guys again, pal?
“So much changes on a team year to year, you don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” Bowman said. “But certainly, if they’re going to keep playing, we’re going to want them to keep playing for us. But that’s down the road a while.”
Bowman calls looking too far down the road a “fool’s errand.” This one just might have to sneak up on all of us.
One of the questions players were asked during their Media Tour sessions: What will you do on your day with the Cup if you win it?
Kane gave this some thought. For him, it would be a fourth such experience. In 2010, 2013 and 2015, he brought it home to Buffalo, to his family and friends in the city where he grew up and spent his summers into his late-20s. Kane’s parents and three sisters still live there, a family so tightly knit that Mom and Dad famously travel to Chicago for most every game and the sisters — 29, 28 and 25 — all work for the same property management, leasing and development company.
“If we won it again?” Kane said. “Maybe celebrate more in Chicago.”
Kane has lived here year-round since the season that followed the Hawks’ last Cup win. His offseason of 2015 was tumultuous, to say the least. He was the subject of a three-months-long rape investigation in Buffalo, New York, in which charges ultimately were not filed, the Erie County district attorney concluding that the case was “rife with reasonable doubt.”
It’s a subject Kane — who calls the fallout a “media nightmare” — addresses carefully, but pointedly, now.
“It was a tough situation, no doubt, especially when you feel like you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “And then besides that, you never want to do something, whether it’s your fault of someone else’s fault, that could put in jeopardy your profession, right?
“But sometimes it’s kind of nice to leave that stone unturned and leave it where it is. To be honest with you, I don’t really care what people think about that situation. If you do your homework and do your due diligence, you can understand the situation. People can believe what they want to believe. No matter what I say about it, or what is even true about it, there’s going to be 50 percent of the people that hate me and 50 percent of the people that love me or believe me, so that’s the way it is no matter what I say about it.”
Kane had drinking-fueled escapades earlier in his career that made him infamous, something of a caricature or a living meme. In 2012, Deadspin ran a story titled “Reconstructing Patrick Kane’s Drunken Weekend in Madison.” Later came Bleacher Report’s “From Party Boy to Poster Boy: How Patrick Kane Became Hockey’s All-American Hero” and the Sun-Times’ “Patrick Kane’s Troubled Past” — both before the Buffalo accusations. All this long after Kane, then new to the league, was put through the wringer for assaulting a cabbie in Buffalo.
Rumors spread in those early years that the Hawks were looking to shed the Kane problem by trading him away. Bowman, who became GM in 2009, says they were never true, and that he regrets not addressing them clearly and definitively at the time. He calls that a “learning experience.”
“I can dispel that now — 100 percent false,” he said. “I never contemplated it, never had conversations with anybody about that. I knew him as a person. When you know somebody, nobody’s perfect but you kind of realize what their makeup is. He’s a good person with a family makeup. I knew what kind of person he was and his character deep down. There were so many rumors over the years. I didn’t comment because it was impossible to refute them all.”
Another rumor: that the Hawks told Kane after the 2015 offseason that he had to move to Chicago. Bowman says it’s just plain false. Kane does, too.
“I’d just thought when I was younger about maybe spending the summers in Chicago,” Kane said. “I kind of wish I always had. It’s so great of a city, especially in the summer, and it was time for a change. Buffalo was good to me for a long time, my hometown — I’ve got a lot of buddies there, and family — but I think it was important to be here, train here. It’s a lot better city, I think, for a professional athlete.”
Kane’s summers of training in the Hawks’ offseason program from afar — without their actual trainers — were over. It launched him into an offseason regimen that he believes just might sustain him awhile. Maybe even into his 40s.
It isn’t just about training, either. Kane likes to lie low, living the simple life with girlfriend Amanda in their downtown home.
“I think at this point in time in my career, you understand what you want to do in life, right?” he said. “Like, what I want to do on a daily basis and the things that I enjoy in life. I think when you’re younger, you might cater to people a little bit more. For me now, it’s like, this is what I want to do, this is how I want to enjoy my life.
“I enjoy training in the morning. I enjoy skating after that. I enjoy some days just doing nothing and sitting on the couch. I enjoy eating healthy and trying to take care of myself and gain any edge I can. That’s a full-time job even in the offseason. It’s important to do that on a daily basis just for me to get into that rhythm.”
Toews sees a teammate who has changed — improved — across the board.
“Kaner was full of confidence; that’s what made him such a great player,” he said. “He loved going out, loved enjoying himself, and socializing. He’s a social dude. But I think as he’s gotten older in his career, gotten more mature, he’s definitely thinking more about his preparation and picking his spots to have fun.
“Sometimes, when you’ve gone out there and you’ve enjoyed yourself when you’re young you don’t necessarily feel like doing as much. I think in his 30s, just his motivation level is on that level, too. He’s not wasting his time spinning his wheels in the mud. He knows what he wants to do and goes out and does it every day.”
Said Kane’s eldest sister, Erica: “He’s very focused on his health — very focused. His career is his No. 1 thing and his passion. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t try to be the best player he can be. And he wants to play the game for as long as he possibly can.”
Another Media Tour session, another question: Who are your top three players in the NHL?
Kane didn’t hesitate, ticking off the names of, in order, Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov — the league’s reigning scoring champion and MVP — Oilers center Connor McDavid and Penguins center Sidney Crosby.
A couple of hours later, Kane admitted he’d toyed with putting his own name in the top three.
“I was thinking about it,” he said. “I think I’m maybe right around there. I think Kucherov had an unbelievable year last year. McDavid, you could argue he’s the best player in the league the past three or four years. Crosby had another great season, helped lead that team to the playoffs. Maybe I’m in the 4, 5, 6 range, you know? But I feel like I’m pretty close to those guys.”
Last month, Kane participated in the prestigious, invitation-only Tactics and Tune-Up camp run by renowned skills coach Darryl Belfry in Florida. At least a half-dozen NHL All-Stars from last season were in the mix, among them a trio of forwards — the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, the Coyotes’ Clayton Keller and the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal — who are nearly a decade younger than Kane.
According to Belfry, 46, with whom Kane has trained since age 9, Kane’s greatest strengths — generating offense, playing creatively and making others better — once again set the bar at the annual offseason camp.
“At what he does,” Belfry said, “he might be the best in the league.”
Kane, whom the Hawks drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, is convinced he’s better than ever. Smarter than he was in 2009, when he scored a hat trick in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals to eliminate the Canucks, prompting ESPN to call him “one of the NHL’s brightest stars.” More intuitive than he was a year later, when he beat Flyers goalie Michael Leighton in overtime of Game 6 of the Cup finals to end a nearly half-century-long Hawks drought. Stronger than he was when he won the Conn Smythe in 2013, and more determined than he was when he took home the Hart and Art Ross trophies for the 2015-16 campaign.
“I’m just a better hockey player,” he said. “My body feels better, I’m more confident in myself, I know what I can do on the ice and what I can bring to a team. I feel like I’m better, no doubt.”
He’s a believer in where the Hawks are headed, too. A season ago, in the early weeks following coach Joel Quenneville’s firing in November, Kane was at a loss; he saw the team dropping, not rising. Ultimately, though, he was impressed by young coach Jeremy Colliton’s vision, and he has been encouraged by the offseason personnel moves orchestrated by Bowman.
“We’ve got another goaltender, picked up two defensive defensemen, got a good penalty-killing forward and got [Andrew Shaw] back,” he said. “I look at our team and think our team is going to be pretty good. I like the way we’re shaping up. I think everyone’s kind of counting us out as a team that might miss the playoffs again, but we could make a pretty good run.”
In the Hawks’ dressing room at Fifth Third, a pair of goaltenders Kane helped vanquish in those Cup years — the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and the Stars’ Ben Bishop, formerly of the Lightning — walked about in full gear like giants. In the locker stall next to Kane’s, the jersey of an on-ice bitter rival hung in glaring fashion: Vladimir Tarasenko’s of the defending Cup champion Blues.
Just how big is the gap between the Blues and Hawks these days?
“I don’t think it’s big at all,” Kane said. “I think we’re a lot closer than people think.”
For the Hawks to experience a resurgence, not-so-old guys Toews and Kane will have to lead the way. Which reminds us of the top three players in the NHL as listed by the Captain.
“I said McDavid, Crosby and Kaner,” Toews said. “I swallowed my pride on that one.”
By the time they’ve both hit 40, he’ll surely have lived it down.