Thank you, college football, for ceding New Year’s Day to the NHL, and even ceding the Big House in Ann Arbor for Maple Leafs-Red Wings.
Question was, would fans be familiar with the home team playing defense in that stadium?
After the game, the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey roster was announced, and Patrick Kane’s name was called the way you would expect when it comes to the best American hockey player going.
That’s a sentence I never expected to write as recently as two seasons ago.
I’m used to writing about a Hawk as the best U.S. player, but Chris Chelios is no longer part of the discussion unless there’s a Team USAARP I don’t know about.
Truth is, I ended up surprising myself as I was writing that line about Kane. Wait. Really. Kane’s the best American? That went through my head.
So, I ran the thought by Chris Kuc, who is all things Blackhawks for My Chicago Tribune. As he was writing a piece about Hawks captain Jonathan Toews’ potentially being named captain of Team Canada, Kuc seconded my thought on Kane.
Then I ran the idea by Eddie Olczyk, a fine American hockey player in his day and a former Olympian.
“No question’’ came Eddie O’s response.
You can keep Zach Parise, David Backes, Joe Pavelski and Bobby Ryan. Defensemen are not in the conversation. Goalies are a whole other thing unless we’re talking Dominik Hasek back in the day. Although centers do more, Kane’s the best.
I don’t know if that results in Kane’s being named captain of Team USA, but John McDonough would hit marketing’s Powerball if the Hawks end up with the captains of the North American teams.
Either way, Kane has become a better player because he has become noticeably better defensively. I might even offer to describe him as reliable.
OK, so he’s not Marian Hossa with a two-way game, but he has his learner’s permit. It has been coming since last season, but now it’s not a surprise when he’s on the ice when the Hawks are trying to protect a one-goal lead late.
Kane’s two long scoring streaks this season speak to some remarkable consistency and better decision-making with the puck. That consistency smacks of Toews from shift to shift and period to period.
I’ve been critical of Kane and his off-ice antics for several years. I believe his act reflected a lack of discipline and focus. I always contended he should’ve been better, and I lobbied for the Hawks to examine trading him if he wasn’t going to pay attention.
I know he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2010, but he never scored enough or made any attempt to play a complete game to match the hype, love and money.
Then came the “Mess in Madison.’’ Something happened. Maybe several things happened. Maybe the threat of a trade to a godforsaken place such as Winnipeg or Ottawa. Maybe a come-to-Jesus meeting with Hawks brass. Maybe some self-awareness while playing for a Swiss team during the lockout.
Whatever, Kane emerged from the lockout a more mature player and person, and the Hawks won another Stanley Cup. Then came more growth this season at both ends of the ice.
Kane began 2014 with 53 points, trailing only Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. That’s some accomplishment for a guy who never seemed certain who his linemates would be.
Kane’s 23 goals ranked third behind leader Alex Ovechkin of Washington and St. Louis’ Alexander Steen. One of the best stickhandlers and passers in the league, Kane ranked sixth in assists.
But most impressive is turning a bad plus-minus rating into a plus-11 by New Year’s Day. The ice is 200 feet and Kane is playing it.
Like that, he’s a contender for the Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.
This is the best he has ever been. Kane is the best American player right here, right now.