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On the ice, Patrick Kane is so good and still has so far to go

Patrick Kane has arrived as the NHL's best player, but he still has far to go after his troubled summer.

This story appears in the Mar. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

The hating began when they introduced the hometown boy. Boos erupted in the noontime air at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center on Dec. 19, mixed with cheers. Patrick Kane’s parents and relatives and lawyer and old teammates and not a few drinking buddies were present, after all, not to mention hundreds of loving fans sporting Blackhawks jerseys with his name and number 88. But the jeering only got louder as the periods passed, and soon that was all you heard. Each time Kane touched the puck, each time he made his presence felt, the sound of censure rose and chased him.

He heard. “That,” Kane says, “hadn’t happened previous.” No, the first time the South Buffalo native returned, as a rookie in 2007, the city couldn’t have been nicer. His dad, Pat Sr., and grandpa Don had dropped the ceremonial first puck and kids held up adoring signs, and the crowd couldn’t stop cheering Kane even when he scored, even when he was called for hooking. “You can’t go wrong tonight,” the penalty box attendant said, opening the door.

That’s how it went, too, the next three times Chicago’s All-Star winger came home. Once the novelty wore off, sure, Kane heard “maybe a little bit” of booing, but who understood better than he? Kane grew up on Sabres hockey. His family had season tickets in hallowed Memorial Auditorium, front row; you can see him, blond and tiny and cute, sitting on his dad’s lap in the background of a Sylvain Turgeon trading card, a Pat LaFontaine poster. When they built the new arena in 1995, six-year-old Pat Kane, swimming in a Dominik Hasek jersey, signed his name on the last steel beam to go in. It’s in the rafters still.

And year after year, in the family’s seats behind the opposing bench, young Pat heckled visiting stars without mercy: Such is Buffalo tradition. He never forgot the time Philly’s Eric Lindros got tossed and all energy drained out of the stands. “The game wasn’t fun anymore,” Kane says. “No one was watching him or booing him.”

But though Buffalonians are famously loyal, though the First Niagara crowd knew his bona fides intimately (forget six, locals love to say; only two degrees of separation pertain here), the line on Pat Kane had grown increasingly dark. Last August a 21-year-old woman accused Kane, then 26, of raping her in his home outside Buffalo. Kane insisted that he did “nothing wrong”; both DNA evidence and testimony from secondary witnesses seemed to strongly corroborate him. After a three-month interlude speckled by accusations of evidence tampering and what Erie County district attorney Frank Sedita called “an elaborate hoax” by the alleged victim’s mother, the DA ended his investigation without charge.

That Nov. 5 announcement seemed as close to an exoneration of Patrick Kane as the criminal justice system can provide. Yet when the Blackhawks made their lone visit of the season to Buffalo six weeks later, Kane received almost no benefit of the doubt. “It was disheartening,” says Kevin Kerr, Kane’s youth travel team coach. Finally, after enduring the booing from a man a few seats over for a bit, Kerr turned and said, “What is wrong with you people?”

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Envy, some say. Four years out of the playoffs, with a fifth on the way, have left Sabres fans numb. Meanwhile, here was Kane starring for the defending Stanley Cup champions, having the time of his life—the NHL’s leading scorer, just off a historic 26-game points streak, on track to make 2015–16 the best season ever by an American-born player. But Kane had won before. Kane had been great before. Every other year Buffalo had been proud.

Now, it seemed, a line had been crossed. Kane’s reputation, dinged by years of relatively minor public scrapes and savaged by the newest accusation, appeared to have achieved a critical mass—and critical masses—-seemingly resistant to legal argument and strict definitions of sexual assault. Despite a lack of forensic evidence, the thinking seemed to go, something happened there. At the very least, Kane had placed himself in a position to taint his name, and embarrass their city. Again.

“I think a lot of that was in the building at that time—a lot of resentment,” says Brett Bennett, who played with Kane for a decade growing up. “Like, This kid is given the world, and it seems like every six months to a year something new comes up where he’s doing something. Have some respect. Respect your town, respect yourself, respect your family. Buffalo’s a small town, there’s only so many athletes, and it just seems repetitive. Whether it’s true or not, it keeps happening.”

But if the cacophony bothered Kane, it didn’t show. Friends, family and hockey types all describe Kane as quick to cry, but the afternoon in Buffalo showcased his impervious core. With Chicago down 2–1 with 35.9 seconds left to play, Kane, lurking outside the right post, took a pass from Artemi Panarin and rammed the puck in to tie the score. He wheeled away, twice pumping his fist at the crowd and screaming. The boos came down in waves, of course; Kane stood waiting for play to resume, showing his teeth.

“He pounded the nail in,” says Paul Cambria, Kane’s lawyer, “and then he countersunk it.” The game went to a shootout. Kane hit the ice (“Listen to the reaction as the Buffalo native steps over the boards!” WGN broadcaster Pat Foley yelled) and drifted toward Sabres goalie Chad Johnson. He dangled the puck to and fro, halted, gave a slight head fake; Johnson bit. Kane sliced his signature backhand nearly vertical, top shelf: Game-winner. The building went dead.

Bennett texted him after: “What did you think of all that booing?” Kane gave the same answer that he gives now.

“I love it,