CHICAGO — Patrick Kane hasn't had one of his infamous incidents off the ice in three years. But that doesn't stop NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose job is to worry about the league's image, from getting a little jumpy at the mention of his name.
Kane is the NHL's most recognizable American star, which makes him one of Bettman's most valuable selling points. So I asked Bettman the other day if he thought Kane had cleaned up well.
"He's a terrific kid and he always has been since he came into the league," Bettman said.
And that's when the jumpiness kicked in. As I started to walk off, Bettman approached and said, "If you're going to use that, don't take it out of context."
What do you mean?
"No, I don't know," Bettman said. "If you're going to use it, he's been a terrific kid from the beginning. You phrased it in a way it could be positioned inconsistent with the way I said it. You know what I mean?"
I think so. Three years ago, Kane was in one embarrassing, apparently drunken incident after another. Yet last year, McDonald's used Kane—clean-shaven, smiling, hair slicked back out of his face—next to LeBron James and a couple of other sports stars in a campaign to kick off its Monopoly game.
And what a chance that was to take, matching a guy with Kane's past with a desire to sell Happy Meals.
Kane was the suspect poster child. And look how it has turned out:
He has cleaned up amazingly well. To risk taking things out of context, though, it is a sign of how serious Kane's issues were that a softball question about how well he has turned out would trip up the commissioner.
On the other hand, who can blame Bettman for being more careful than he is with the Canadian faces of the game—such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Kane's teammate Jonathan Toews—and their squeaky-clean images?
"If you ask 10 kids on the street who are huge hockey fans who their favorite player is, I guarantee you, nine will say Patrick Kane," said Chicago winger Kris Versteeg. "He was young and I think that [his off-ice troubles in 2012] was when the telephone cameras were coming of age.
"We were all kind of dumb not to realize that people will take pictures of us doing those things, especially when you're a high-profile athlete like Kaner."
On the ice, Kane has the best hands of anyone, and possibly the best vision and sixth sense of what's going on around him in the league. He also has a knack for scoring series-winning overtime goals in the playoffs, not to mention the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2010.
The Hawks have been this close to elimination before, and Kane has played a big part in their survival.
Down 2-1 in the series Saturday, the Blackhawks gave up three goals in 37 seconds in the third period to fall behind, 4-3. The Hawks were in a free fall. But Kane stopped the slide and scored to send the game to overtime. The Hawks went on to win.
As one of the team's leaders, is it your job to halt those skids?
"I think we have a lot of those players in here," Kane told Bleacher Report after the game. "You want to be the guy in those situations to step up and come through for your team. But you've seen tonight, so many different moments throughout the game, so many different plays where we had a lot of players step up.
"It was good to see. I mean, it wasn't just one guy."
Kane was always going to be a thrilling player. The question was whether his skill would outweigh his behavior.
When Antti Raanta came to the U.S. two years ago from Finland to play for the Blackhawks, the goalie knew that meant he was going to meet Kane. He had heard so much about Kane, all the fancy moves and wild action. And, yes, only most of that was on the ice.
"I was just thinking he's a superstar and it would be nice to meet him and shake his hand," Raanta said last week, sitting at his locker stall, which is next to Kane's.
But didn't you wonder, too, about Kane's reputation off the ice? The partying, the trail of cellphone photos posted on social media documenting his, well, wild action?
"Well, sure," Raanta said. "You never know how they're going to act, like 'I'm a superstar and I don't have to do anything else.'"
You never know. While Raanta said he learned that Kane is not like that at all, how well did he just describe the cliche of the American sports superstar?
This isn't just about Kane, but also about American star-making. It's about whom we choose. Kane is 26 now, and he came to the Blackhawks with Toews as rookies in 2007. They have been one of the great duos in sports, but Toews has been the reliable one while Kane is the flashy one.
The feeling always was that Kane would excite more people while Toews won championships.
But since Kane stopped making off-ice headlines over the past three years, his game has improved.
"He's an awesome player," Raanta said. "And I think he's starting to be more of a team player. People are thinking he's just doing fancy moves and scoring nice goals, but I think there's starting to be more and more things in his game helping the team."
The disconnect between Kane's play and behavior was expected. The league and marketers took a chance on one because the other was so good. Here was Kane—blond, flashy, fun, playing in a major market (McDonald's is based in suburban Chicago) and having scored the Cup-winning goal. Not to mention, he's an American.
But he also plays in a city in which hockey matters and on a team that has figured out how to market itself to the masses maybe better than any other club.
In the past five years, Chicago and Los Angeles have each won two Stanley Cups.
How many Kings players can a mainstream sports fan name? At most, one: goalie Jonathan Quick, whose quiet demeanor in a town that is not hockey-crazy ensures he is far less popular than Kane.
Look, Kane had issues.
In Buffalo, the headlines were that he had been arrested after an incident with a taxi driver. In Wisconsin, Kane had a party T-shirt made with an image of himself drinking and the word "Kaner" on his back, according to CBSChicago.com's Dan Bernstein. Pictures emerged with Kane in the shirt, presumably drunk, surrounded by women and at least 15 crushed beer cans.
After that apparent binge, Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times (h/t ProHockeyTalk) quoted an anonymous Blackhawks source as saying, "How many more times can these things happen? It's much bigger than some photographs in a 48-hour window."
But somewhere along the line, it appears that Kane changed. The Blackhawks took steps to help him or he just grew up or something. We don't get any more stories, or even rumors, about him anymore.
"It took a while," Versteeg said. "But he has always been a great guy. And he's the Pavel Bure of our time."
In the McDonald's commercial for the Monopoly game, an announcer says, "You're playing for more than $1 million. You're playing for greatness." Kane flips a pile of money on his hockey stick and LeBron says, "Let's play this game."
Hockey took a chance that Kane could turn from party boy to poster boy. Give him credit for making the change and making the most of himself. The game got a good-looking, colorful American with an edge to market.
And American hockey found the right guy to help it keep passing "Go."
A Chicago-based writer who also contributes to the New York Times, Greg Couch covers the sporting landscape for Bleacher Report.