CHICAGO - Long before he learned to skate, Patrick Kane appeared on a hockey poster. If the Blackhawks’ rookie keeps playing the way he has, he’ll wind up on plenty more.
The top pick in the NHL draft in June is playing a prominent role for Chicago, which is putting together a season that could lead to the playoffs after it missed eight of the previous nine postseasons. Led by the curly haired 19-year-old, who looks like he’s 14, the Original Six franchise is generating a buzz and starting to reconnect with its fans.
Kane had 25 points, more than any other rookie, heading into the Blackhawks’ game against Phoenix on Friday night.
Not bad for someone who just finished high school.
Then again, maybe he was meant to play in this league even if he’s just 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds. The images on his bedroom wall back home in Buffalo, N.Y., support the theory.
There’s a poster of Pat LaFontaine, and in the background is Patrick at age 2 or 3 sitting on his father’s lap at a Sabres game. One great American player who stood 5-10 and another who is being compared to him.
There’s a picture of Patrick at 5 or 6 adding his signature to the last piece of steel that went into the new arena the Sabres were building at the time. The boy is wearing the jersey of then-Sabre Dominik Hasek. Who knew that years later he would wind up scoring against the goalie in a shootout to lift the Blackhawks over the Detroit Red Wings?
The coincidences hit with the force of a hard check.
There’s a photo of Patrick at 7 or 8 with his favorite player, Joe Sakic. And another taken around the same time shows him in a Red Wings jersey with legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who was in town with his Stanley Cup.
Patrick’s first goal came against Sakic’s Colorado team, and he now lives with Bowman’s son Stan — one of the Blackhawks’ assistant general managers — and his family.
“I have the whole basement to myself,” Kane said.
He also has much of the weight of a franchise on his shoulders, though he is getting help carrying it.
With Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks boast the league’s two top rookie scorers and they just got a big boost with the return of All-Star right wing Martin Havlat. He scored two goals in Wednesday’s 5-1 win over Tampa Bay after missing 22 games because of a right shoulder he injured in the season opener.
The Blackhawks were 13-9-2 going into their game Friday with the Coyotes, and along with the improvement on the ice, they appear to be moving in the right direction away from it.
Chairman Rocky Wirtz has made numerous changes since the death in September of his father, William Wirtz. He shook up management, reassigning longtime vice president Bob Pulford and hiring president John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs. He also agreed to televise some home games, something his father vehemently opposed.
The pieces seem to be falling into place.
“To be a part of that puzzle, it’s awesome,” Kane said. “To hear people say that, it obviously makes you feel good.”
Coach Denis Savard said it’s easy to forget that he’s just a rookie. He marvels at Kane’s attitude, the playful spirit he has brought to the locker room, and those advanced skills.
Havlat is likewise impressed.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s got so much more skill than everybody else,” Havlat said. “He’s going to get only better. To be that small, you have to be good somewhere else to get in the league. ... He’s a creative player on the ice.”
Patrick Kane Sr. started seeing that cerebral side when he brought his son to Sabres games as a toddler. Rather than watching the mascot, Patrick Jr. seemed to study the players even when he was just 3.
His father taught him to skate when he was 6, put a stick in his hands when he was 7, and Patrick hasn’t let go of it since. It quickly became clear that he had the talent and drive to match his interest.
Patrick Sr. remembers hearing other parents at house league games predicting his son would stop scoring once he started getting checked. Never mind that opposing players were already doing that when he was 8 or 9, even though it was against the rules in Buffalo until age 10.
“Is there another league?” Patrick Sr. remembers asking.
The Kanes stayed to watch a league with older kids and Patrick Sr. asked his son what he thought. Patrick Jr. decided to play against them.
He continued to excel even though he was often taking on kids two or three years older than him. And prying Kane from the ice was as difficult as defending him.
He was at the rink six or seven days a week, sometimes practicing twice a day. His father estimates there were about 300 games a year for about five teams between the ages of 11 and 13, but his son seemed to embrace the hectic schedule.
“There were days when Patrick would have to get up at 6 o’clock and go to a practice, and I would say, ’Son, if you can’t do it, just stay in bed,”’ Donna Kane said.
Patrick’s response was always the same: No.
It was clear he was way ahead of the competition in Buffalo. And it was also becoming apparent that he needed another challenge.
Patrick had played against the Honeybaked AAA hockey club from the Detroit area at a tournament in Toronto and his team had won. After the game, the Honeybaked coach, Donnie Harkins, made his initial recruiting pitch to have Patrick Jr. join the program. The Kanes dismissed it at first, but Harkins persisted.
He invited them to tournaments in Detroit and Toronto, where they met longtime NHL player Pat Verbeek. An assistant coach with a son on the team, he all but clinched the decision for the Kanes when he said Patrick could live with his family.
Patrick went to a hockey camp in Michigan for a week and told his parents he wanted to make the move. So at 14, their only son, the oldest of four children, left home.
Donna Kane drove him to Michigan and visited for a while. Halfway back to Buffalo, she got a call from him asking her to pick him up.
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