- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Donna Kane is taking a break from the sweltering closeness inside the West Seneca arena where thousands of people, many wearing Patrick Kane jerseys, have lined up for a glimpse of her son and a couple of trophies he's brought along with him for the day.
She brought young Patrick here regularly as he was growing up. While he was tearing it up on the ice, establishing himself as a true, rare hockey prodigy, his three younger sisters would be running amok, playing under the frigid metal stands, often tumbling down the steps with their dolls, refusing their mother's pleas to wear their jackets.
The three sisters -- Erica, Jessica and Jacqueline -- are more women than girls now and are on hand this day, as is Patrick Kane's father, Pat senior, other family members and a clutch of close friends, many of whom were part of Kane's entourage when he first enjoyed the singular excitement of hosting the Stanley Cup after Chicago's seminal win in 2010 over Philadelphia.
We are often reminded when we share these moments with Stanley Cup champions that these days represent a journey, not just a visit with the Cup.
The local hockey hero rode into the arena parking lot aboard a Zamboni with the Cup perched next to him as fans swarmed around him. And not to stretch the analogy too far, but it put one in mind of a conquering Roman hero returning from Crusades.
For the second time, Kane brought the Cup to Imperial Pizza, the local pizza joint known for its charitable work in the community. It's a reminder of the days Kane would stop there as a boy on the way home from practice or a game, still clad in his hockey gear.
But the journey often means something else a little less tangible, a chance to gauge the evolution of a young man who has somehow managed to cram a gaggle of noteworthy moments into his 24 years.
The first pick in the 2007 draft, Kane earned rookie of the year honors in his first season. He scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals a few months after being part of an American team that would fall to Canada in the gold medal game in the Vancouver Olympics.
Assuming good health, Kane is a lock to make the U.S. team that will compete in Sochi, Russia, next February.
Those are the kinds of accomplishments that whisper "Hall of Fame" and suggest that Kane is on a track to be the greatest of all Buffalo athletes.
That's assuming the most recent track is the true path for Kane, as opposed to the bumpier path he has also taken. In the summer of 2009, he had a scrape with the law in Buffalo over an incident with a cab driver, and last summer, he saw the Blackhawks organization embarrassed after an out of control weekend at the University of Wisconsin.
When Kane first celebrated with the Cup in his hometown three years ago, his maturity was just as much of a story. Maybe more.
But there was an undeniable change in the atmosphere around this day.
Kane recounted in a quiet moment with ESPN.com that he and his pals, many of whom he has been friends with since childhood, were joking about what they were doing three years ago at the same time. The implication is that three years ago, the focus would have been much more toward engaging in or planning for some whooping it up.
"I think a lot of us have grown up a lot, myself included," Kane said.
He also admitted that when he began contemplating his visit with the Cup (last time he had the Cup for two days, while this visit was just a single day), he pondered keeping it simple, out of the public eye. He has a gorgeous new lakefront home and lots of space for hosting an intimate gathering.
In the end, he said it didn't seem right to have the Cup in his possession and not share it. And so with much of the planning left again to his Aunt Bonnie, Kane spent most of the day traversing the city with the familiar silver trophy and its companion, the Conn Smythe Trophy -- given annually to the most valuable player in the playoffs.
The one thing Kane insisted on was somehow including the local military community. And so Kane found himself rolling into a giant hangar on the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station outside Buffalo aboard a Humvee, his trusty companion Lord Stanley at his side.
Inside, hundreds of military personnel and their families cheered Kane's arrival. Some will deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq in a matter of days. Many have already served tours of duty there.
Kane told a small group that initially greeted him that he gets celebrated for carrying around 30-something pounds of trophy and yet they carry an entire country on their shoulders. It was a message he would repeat to the larger group.
Goodness knows there are enough cynics that might roll their eyes, but the reaction of that group to Kane's visit was a reminder of the hold the game and the symbols that reflect the game's greatest achievements have on the public.
Donna Kane recalled recently being at Kane's house and coming into the living room to find Kane and one of his sisters sitting on the couch weeping as they watch a show on ESPN about wounded veterans returning to their families.
"I was like, what is going on," Donna recalled.
Kane shared the story with the military families, telling them that he watched the segment over and over with tears streaming down his face.
Standing outside a hulking C130 H2 Hercules transport aircraft, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Eoute explained the missions the aircraft has and will continue to fly. His son, Lucas, was nearby, thrilled at the chance to rub shoulders with Kane.
"It just made his world," said Eoute, who two summers ago did a four-month tour of duty in the war zone.
"He'd rather meet Patrick Kane than the President or the pope."
Big picture, he said, it means a lot to the families to have Kane share his day with them, to acknowledge the work they do and the sacrifices they make.
It's interesting to juxtapose the kind of emotion that Kane brings to these kinds of events -- he was similarly emotive during a trip to a local cancer clinic during his last visit -- against the perception many have based on a few pictures on the Internet.
Erica, the oldest of the Kane sisters, said the nice thing about her brother is that he remains among the most sincere of people she knows.
"It's my favorite thing about him," she said.
A leasing agent in the Buffalo area, Erica still lives at home, a mark of the closeness that defines the Kane family. Although Kane has his own place now, having purchased the lakefront property in March 2012, his family is frequent visitors.
At the end of the season, Kane took his sisters shopping, and the competitive siblings recently enjoyed a night of miniature golf.
Growing up, the family's comings and goings revolved around Patrick's hockey schedule and trips, and the family was always together. It's not so different now.
"He likes us to be involved in everything," Erica said. "He wants to know about us and our stories.
"I've always seen him as Patrick, nothing more, which I think is really cool. I wouldn't trade it for the world, to be honest."
Erica acknowledged it's been difficult when people have been critical of her brother. Still, she can't recall a single negative part of being the sister of an NHL star. "That's really hard for me. I think we're still really protective of Patrick," she said. "We know he's not like that at all." We have been making these visits every summer but one since the 2006 offseason. It's been a chance to share a special, often emotional, time with a variety of players and coaches.
We have enjoyed the graciousness of a young Eric Staal and his veteran teammate Bret Hedican, the Niedermayer brothers Scott and Rob, the incomparable Scotty Bowman, four-time Cup winner Darren McCarty, Sidney Crosby and last summer Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown.
This summer marks the first time we have returned to a Cup winner's repeat visit with the Cup.
In the world of sport, three years is a long time.
In the life of a young star, three years can seem even longer.
"I remember just how in awe he was of that hockey player," Donna Kane recalled.
Now he is that larger than life person to a new generation of young hockey fans.
But it's not just Patrick Kane that is a different person than three years ago, insisted his mother. It's the entire Blackhawks team that has grown up.
"When you get older, you learn more. You learn more about life," she said.
It's a fair assessment. The core of that team has gone from being single men or newly married men to players with wives and families.
On this trip, Kane has a female companion from Chicago along for the visit.
Ron Kelly is heading into his 16th year as a Chicago Blackhawks season ticketholder.
Standing in the back room of Imperial Pizza as workers shredded giant tubs of mozzarella cheese and Kane and his entourage sampled some of the familiar pies, Kelly talked about the nights he and 3,000 hardy souls were all that bothered to wander into the cavernous United Center.
Now, the Blackhawks sell out every game, the team's contests are on television and a championship is always a possibility. Apart from the rising ticket costs, Kelly jokes, what's not to like?
Kane is a big part of that renaissance.
Since Kane's arrival, Kelly has become good friends with the family. It's why he made the nine-hour drive to share Kane's day with the Cup, as he did three years ago.
"If they asked me to break down a brick wall, I'd probably do it," he said.
He wonders how he might have reacted as a man in his early 20s with all that Kane has.
"I didn't have 400 girls chasing me down the street," he said.
"He's learning on the job."
Almost on cue, "Chelsea Dagger," the Blackhawks' familiar goal celebration, could be heard blaring from the pizza place's crowded parking lot at the corner of Abbott Road and Eden Street.
Later that day, Kane returned to his house and played a little ball hockey on the fenced sports court with the Cup as a trophy. At one point, Kane took a ball in the face but hung in to score the winning goal.
For his friends, a day like this is a window onto the stage on which their longtime pal exists on a daily basis and a reminder of their shared past. Tom Vivian grew up on the same street. He can't imagine the spotlight that his friend has had shining on him since he was in his late teens and a projected No. 1 overall draft pick.
"I can't imagine being in that situation," he said.
While Kane has matured as a person, he is in many ways the same kid they have always known, said Vivian, who works at Merrill Lynch in the Buffalo area.
"In terms of our friendship, nothing has changed," he said.
Later, Kane hosted a gathering at a downtown hotel.
There he presented his grandfather, Donald Kane, with an autographed Blackhawks No. 88 jersey. His grandfather is turning 88 and has had some health issues. Kane admitted he'd never spent as much time signing any piece of memorabilia as this, writing on each line of the twin 8s on the back.
It was a special night for Kane and his grandfather.
Among the guests on hand were Darryl Belfry, who coached Kane when he was a youngster. Belfry now works with top-end talent, including Kane, helping them hone their offensive skills, find more space, and take advantage of specific teammates and situations to become more productive.
You can draw a line from Belfry's influence to Kane's increased goal production this season and his status as a clutch player in the postseason. Of course, no one gets better unless they want to, and Kane has clearly been motivated to prove that he is among the game's best players.
A second visit with Lord Stanley's Cup in three years should validate that effort.
"It's a process, but I think it's really coming together," Belfry said. "It's very exciting for him."
The best part, if Belfry is right in his assessment of the young man from South Buffalo, is that there is still more to accomplish and still challenges to be met.
"He's got a lot more in front of him, Belfry said. "I think there's so much more ahead of him. I think he's really turned the corner about how he's perceived."
12dScott Burnside and Craig Custance