BY COREY ERDMAN
BUFFALO - When Patrick Kane made his return to his hometown of Buffalo Saturday night, most things hadn't changed.
One thing, however, was very different: The Sabres “Hasek” jersey that Kane sported as a child when he was cheering for his favorite team had been traded in for a Hawks jersey with his own name and No. 88 sewn on the back.
“People like to say that it’s just another game, but the reality is that it isn’t,” said Blackhawks coach Denis Savard. "You dream about coming back to your hometown in the NHL your whole life."
And it wasn’t just Kane who was excited about the game. An elevator conversation between two reporters summarized the lead-up to the event.
Reporter 1: “The crowd for the morning skate this morning was almost playoff-esque.”
Reporter 2: “Well, if it weren’t for Patrick Kane, this would be another ‘nothing’ game.”
That’s exactly the effect that 19-year-old Kane has has had on the Hawks this season. Along with fellow rookie sensation Jonathan Toews, and veterans Robert Lang and Martin Havlat, the Hawks have made the turnaround from just last year being considered a ‘nothing’ team.
But the Hawks veterans weren't going to make Kane's big day easy on him.
"I put the (Buffalo) area code 716 on my stick, so all the guys put their area codes on their sticks," said Kane.
The friendly pranks didn’t end there.
"We were moving his car from parking lot to parking lot," said Hawks assistant captain Martin Lapointe, who enjoyed a similar homecoming in Montreal during his rookie year. "We're only a few games into the season, so I'm sure there'll be a lot more."
In front of around 1,000 vocal fans - many in red jerseys - who turned out for the morning skate, Kane was left on his lonesome to circle the ice and lead team stretching, making sure he was the center of attention. As if he needed the help.
"I think one (fan) said, 'you asked my sister out, do you still want to go out with her?' " said Kane.
Kane is quite used to being the center of attention this season, sitting atop the rookie-scoring race while leading the Hawks' first line and power play. Despite many question marks surrounding his size and ability to produce in the NHL at the time, the Hawks’ choice to make Kane the first overall selection in June's entry draft now looks like pure genius.
"He's a special kid, but he's not a kid, he's all grown up," said Savard. "His teammates love him."
The game began with a standing ovation for Kane, but it wouldn't take long for the Buffalo crowd to be forced into taking sides.
Three minutes into the opening period, Kane took a pass from linemate Jonathan Toews and one-timed it past Sabres netminder Ryan Miller. A delayed roar ensued, but Kane was decidedly excited, topping his goal off by celebrating like, well, a teenager.
Five minutes later, Kane made another memory - his first penalty in his hometown. The crowd unanimously cheered again, but this time it was for the Sabres upcoming power play.
Although the final score was 3-1 in favor of Buffalo, you wouldn't have known it judging by the smile on Kane's face after the game.
"I have to respect what (Sabres fans) did for me, how they opened up to me," said Kane. "It's a moment I'll never forget."