Monday, August 17, 2009
Reputation on thin ice
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
Patrick Kane addressed the media Monday in Woodridge, Ill.
WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- Patrick Kane watched Michael Vick's NFL reinstatement news conference the other day with more interest than most. The guy his teammates nicknamed "The Miley Cyrus of Hockey" obviously never imagined he would be in this spot, worried about things like his reputation and future endorsements and jail.
He was lucky Monday, if the word "luck" can be applied at all to Kane. His first foray into public after his arrest last week amid police charges that Kane and his cousin robbed and beat up a Buffalo cab driver was in the relatively friendly environment of a Chicago-area hockey rink for the U.S. Olympic hockey orientation camp.
Keeping the Miley thing in mind, "The little kids in the stands are going to give you a good cheer," Kane said. "Sometimes that overrides the other people."
On Monday, the "other people" pretty much amounted to a few boos from one guy in a Dallas jersey. It's going to get worse for Kane, one way or another, and jeering fans are the best for which he can hope.
A week and two days ago, Kane had the proverbial world at his feet. Out on a Saturday night in his hometown, you have to figure that Kane -- if not treated like a king as an NHL star and local celebrity at age 20 -- at least was having a pretty good time until he climbed into a cab with his cousin sometime after 4 a.m.
It all gets fuzzy after that for those of us not inside the cab, and perhaps even for those who were. A Buffalo grand jury will sort it out this week, deciding whether Kane and his cousin will be charged with a felony or misdemeanors or not at all.
But the damage has been done.
The cameras captured his entrance into the makeshift press room of the Seven Bridges Ice Center in suburban Woodridge on Monday morning, a symphony of flashing and clicking and whirring focused on a young man coming through a door and sitting down on a folding chair.
It was not a perp walk, but it could have been.
Looking somehow smaller in a dark blue suit and slicked-down hair, not unlike a kid who has been forced to take a bath and dress up against his will, Kane read a prepared statement that sounded nothing like him. Nothing like anyone with half a personality.
Patrick Kane said people have been supportive during his ordeal, but the toughest part was his family's reaction.
Stiff and uncomfortable, he read a few sentences that expressed how lucky he was to be part of such a "great organization like the Chicago Blackhawks" and apologized for any pain he may have caused his family, his team, his hometown of Buffalo, Chicago and the fans.
And then he was gone, and you understood, as he said, that the pending legal proceedings prevented him from saying anything more. But you also wondered when he was going to look us in the eye and speak from his heart.
That's all most of us want, isn't it? Even from the most despicable fallen athletes, you want some sort of contrition. And in the absence of that, you want sincerity.
Kane watched on ESPN last week as Vick spoke from Philadelphia on the occasion of his return to the NFL after serving 18 months in prison for his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting operation.
Kane and Vick in the same sentence.
That's what happens when you're a rich and successful athlete. You get lumped in with a convicted felon. Heck, Kane lumped himself in Monday, after emerging from practice and allowing himself to respond to actual questions.
"After [Vick's speech], you hear people saying, 'He's not really sorry' and things like that," Kane said. "But going through something, obviously not as bad as that but something similar, you could tell he was sorry and you really realize how privileged you are at times like this.
"It was actually fun for me to watch and see how sorry he was and how happy he was to be back in the game of football. There are going to be ups and downs in life, and things like this are going to happen, but you don't want it to happen again."
Kane's attorney is no doubt cringing somewhere right now that his client has said this much, because his words are now open to analysis and interpretation, very possibly unfavorable, possibly incorrect.
But Kane kept going, and you were with him because you've seen phonies, and this wasn't one of them. You've heard prepared statements written by PR people, and these words weren't rehearsed.
He might not have wanted to rehash exactly what happened in that cab, but he wanted to say something to let people know he isn't the punk who has been portrayed.
He was asked if he felt the need to tell his story to coaches or officials with USA Hockey, if he was worried what they would think of him.
"I haven't really told anyone my side of the story, to be honest with you," Kane said. "The only one that really knows is my lawyer and my family, but that's about as far as it goes. At a time like this, obviously you're worried about different things, things that come into play -- being on the cover of a video game or coming to a camp like this or anything you're involved with.
"Everyone has been pretty supportive so far. I think they're tending to see that not all the facts are out, but you can't just judge on the first impression of a story."
An incident like Kane's has to send shivers down the spines of other athletes, those who have done nothing more than being out at 4 in the morning and those who have done worse. Dustin Byfuglien, Kane's Blackhawks teammate also attending this week's camp, said the fragility of upholding a reputation as a young star athlete in today's society is "huge."
"Everywhere you go, there's always going to be people watching no matter what you do," he said. "It might be a little thing, and you'll hear about it and you'll be like, 'Wow, that made it in.' It's just things we've got to live with and it's part of our lifestyle and you've just got to be careful.
"Everyone kind of steps back and thinks thank God it wasn't them, and that's all you can do."
Patrick Kane was not pure innocence a week and two days ago.
When he was in third grade, the man in charge of the Buffalo house league told his dad the other parents thought Patrick was scoring too much and wanted him out. These were the same parents who, talking just loudly enough for Patrick's parents to hear, predicted that all that scoring would stop as soon as the other boys were allowed to knock the Kane kid into next week.
At 10, playing with the older kids, he was being asked for his autograph.
When Kane was 14, he moved away from home for the first time, his mother and his aunt dropping him off in Detroit to play for a top junior team.
A couple of hours later, his mom heard a somewhat familiar voice on the phone.
"I remember I was crying," Kane recalled in an interview a year and a half ago, "and I called my mom and said, 'I don't think I can do this.'"
Donna Kane said she wanted to turn the car around and retrieve her son, but told him, "We all know it's hard, but we've never been quitters, and you made a commitment to the team. At least give it a chance and see what happens. If it's still bad, you can still come home, but it's something I think you need to do."
He never lived at home again, and we can all debate whether this is a good thing or a normal thing, without knowing what it's like to have a prodigy as a child. But observing him with his parents and his younger sisters who idolize him; hearing him talk this past season about how mad his mom was at him when he cracked his front teeth after colliding with Jonathan Toews, all because he didn't have his mouth guard in -- "I'm always playing with it," he said sheepishly -- was, well, revealing.
Hearing Kane on Monday did not bring you any closer to the inside of that Buffalo cab. But it did bring you closer to Kane than a prepared statement. And it allowed you to hear his voice catch when he was asked what was the "toughest part" about the last week or so.
"My family's reaction," he said, after an exaggerated exhale. "Just being in handcuffs and them seeing me in handcuffs. They said it's something they never want to see again, and my family didn't raise me that way, so it's tough letting them down, too."
It was easy to believe.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.