The Mullet That Ate Chicago

June 06, 2010

There's more to the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane than a bad haircut. The baby-faced scorer is one of the main reasons his team is on the verge of its first title since 1961

On any given day in the city of Chicago, a stream of out-of-towners—sometimes alone, sometimes by the busload—make the 10-minute detour west from the city center to Madison Street, where they marvel at a statue that salutes the world's most famous basketball player. But last week, on the eve of the first Stanley Cup finals in the city since 1992, what the visitors beheld was Michael Jordan, frozen in the midst of one of his signature leaps, outfitted in a hockey helmet and sweater, with skate blades affixed to his Air Jordans, joining Chicago in Blackhawks Fever.

His Airness was not alone. Just outside the Field Museum, the enormous bronze cast of a brachiosaur was wearing a Blackhawks jersey, and a few blocks north the lions on guard at the Art Institute of Chicago had been fitted with black helmets. All around town, the team's iconic Indian-head crest appeared in storefront windows and on banners hanging from balconies, serving as a beacon of hope that a championship is on the horizon. In the middle of all this exhilaration is a 21-year-old winger who just may inherit the title of prince of the Windy City—perhaps the hair apparent.

It's a testament to the height of the toddlin' town's delirium that the NHL is offering for sale official MULLET MANIA T-shirts—emblazoned with the visage of Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks' baby-faced right wing—for the bargain price of $19.99. In hockey's grand tradition of bad haircuts, Kane's playoff mullet is merely one in a long line. With steps shaved into the sides of his head and tufts of curls covering the nape of his neck, the throwback 'do isn't as egregious an affront to fashion as the mullet worn by Jaromir Jagr during the 1990s, but certainly no other awesomely bad coif has generated as much Stanley Cup buzz. Kane estimates he's fielded around a hundred questions about the cut he describes as "Billy Ray Cyrus with a touch of Vanilla Ice."

But for Kane, the cheeky first-liner who maneuvers over the ice like a Maserati, "business in the front, party in the back" doesn't just describe his hair these days. It's always been his head-to-toe style. He's as determined a scorer as there is in the NHL. He's also one of the flashiest. He led the Blackhawks with 30 goals and 88 points this season, and in his second playoffs his 20 points ranks fourth best in the league. Since he arrived as the first pick in the 2007 draft, he's won over the city with his skills and youthful approachability. More importantly, Kane is the Hawks razzle-dazzle counterpoint to the gritty, earnest leadership of captain Jonathan Toews—a vital piece of a deep and dynamic team that has a chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time in 49 years.

It should come as no surprise that Kane would sport a look that hasn't been in vogue since the last time Chicago played for a championship. He's as playful as he is self-confident, and despite a disappointing personal performance in Game 1 last Saturday night, a whirlwind 6--5 Blackhawks win in which his biggest contribution may have been taking a slashing penalty that led to a shorthanded goal, he still knows he's had more good days than bad during these playoffs. "He's just a big kid," veteran center John Madden says. "He's out there having fun. He doesn't feel the pressures of the game."

The 5'10" Kane may still be a child at heart, but seeing how easily he shook off 6-foot, 205-pound Flyers defenseman Matt Carle in the corners early in the first period last Saturday, it's apparent he is a player beyond his years. Known to his teammates as the Doctor for his skilled precision with a hockey stick, Kane is so fast and nifty on the ice that he often leaves defensemen on their heels. In Chicago's clinching 5--1 win over the Canucks in Game 6 of the second round, he took a cross-ice pass from Toews on his right skate just outside the offensive zone, and in one move kicked the puck onto his stick and cut inside, blowing past befuddled Vancouver blueliner Kevin Bieksa and flipping a wrister past goaltender Roberto Luongo. "The puck seems to be glued to his stick," said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk two days before Game 1. "He's a tough guy to [check] or make a good play against, just because when the puck's on his stick he can do a lot of great things with it."

Kane is so good that he has been able to shine while playing on one of the NHL's most deeply talented teams, one that boasts no fewer than six 20-goal scorers. With Chicago's top line—Kane, Toews and playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien—struggling on Saturday, chasing the attacking Flyers more than owning the puck, the Blackhawks got timely goals from role players like Troy Brouwer, who buried a pair, and Dave Bolland, who extended his scoring streak to three games in the first period. Tomas Kopecky, who was scheduled to be a healthy scratch until coach Joel Quenneville inserted him at the last minute to replace the ailing Andrew Ladd, came up with the game-winner. "I've been saying it all year, our depth is unbelievable," Kane said after Game 1. "It's good to see those lines clicking. We've got to step up now and play better."

Kane's best moments in the opener may have come toward the end of warmups, when he twice lifted a puck onto the blade of his stick and flipped it over the glass to a couple of lucky fans. It was a quiet gesture of appreciation from a young man who can still remember what it was like to be on the other side of the glass, just a face in the crowd at a Buffalo Sabres game. It's that same memory that led him to seek out the little girl who wore his jersey to the Team USA announcement at Fenway Park on New Year's Day to make sure he autographed it.

"He is a superstar in town, but he still just hangs out," teammate Adam Burish says. "He's accessible; he's not bigger than life. He doesn't carry himself that way. He has dinner in a normal restaurant, and he doesn't go and sit in the back room or whatever." For all his skill and bravado, a part of Kane is still that kid in the Buffalo stands. And as kids are prone to do, he makes mistakes.

On a bright summer day last Aug. 17, Kane's swagger had all but disappeared. In front of 50 reporters gathered at a suburban Chicago ice rink to watch the U.S. Olympic orientation camp, Kane walked to a podium wearing a black suit and a solemn expression. In a 51-second statement, his first public words after the incident that tarnished his All-American-boy image, he apologized for "being in the wrong position at the wrong time."

Eight days earlier Kane and his cousin James had been arrested by Buffalo police at 5 a.m. for allegedly roughing up a cab driver who said he couldn't produce proper change—in this case, 20 cents. They eventually pleaded guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and were ordered to write an apology to the cabbie.

"Everyone was telling me, you know, you can't say anything to the media," Kane recalls. "Just lay low. Don't say anything. Don't tell them the whole incident and everything."

But it wasn't easy to stay quiet when he saw his mug shot popping up on gossip websites and the Internet peanut gallery began calling him 20 Cent. "I just wanted to tell my side of the story, which I never really have and probably never will," he says. Then he pauses before saying, "But it's over now."

"It's funny. People ask me [if Kane has matured this year] all the time, but I think he's always been a pretty mature kid," Burish says. "He had an incident this summer, but you know what? There's always more to the story, and he was pretty mature to not go out and talk about it.... To go out and spout off to the media—Well, this isn't what happened. This is what happened—it wouldn't do any good, and he understood that."

In the weeks following the incident Kane found release at the gym. "I remember right after, I was just like, I've got to work off some steam," he says. He followed his preseason exercise program, but tacked on an extra hour just to "pump things out of my body," he says. "And to be honest with you, it kind of helped me because when I came back for the season, I was just like, ready to go."

Kane put on about 15 pounds during the off-season, weighing in at 178 at the beginning of training camp, and teammates immediately noticed his improved power. "He's stronger and a better skater this year than he was last year," defenseman Brian Campbell says. "His strength in getting away from guys is better."

"His game has become more well-rounded," says third-line winger Kris Versteeg. "Last year you never really quite knew at times if he was going to get his butt back, but he definitely does it now. He knows what it takes to be good at both ends."

The new and improved Kane enjoyed a breakout performance at the Olympics in February. Despite being the youngest member of Team USA, he swaggered into Vancouver and had a tournament to remember, scoring two goals in the 6--1 semifinal win over Finland and assisting on Zach Parise's tying goal in the waning seconds of the gold medal match against Canada.

Before each game in Vancouver he would skate to the bench during pregame warmups, lay his gloves along the dasher boards and squirt water on his face. From the bench, Team USA equipment manager Derek Settlemyre, whose day job is with the Flyers, would ask him, "You ready, big boy?"

Looking up with a grin as he slid on his gloves, Kane would answer, "Showtime!"

Though undersized, Kane never seems to get caught with his head down or fall victim to a crushing check. "He's greasy," says Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs general manager, who filled the same role with Team USA. "Even when he's in the corner, he manages to sidestep most of the impact when guys go to hit him.... [But] I think his single biggest gift is that he has no panic threshold at all with the puck. Most guys, when a player from the opposing team gets close to him, they think, O.K., I've got to do something now.... This kid waits until he can feel their breath on his neck, and then he makes a move. It's uncanny."

Kane probably can't feel much on his neck at the moment, what with the mullet hanging in the way. But if the Blackhawks eventually take a turn with the Stanley Cup, there's no way he'll be able to miss the love of Chicago's long-suffering hockey fans. He jokes that if his 'do proves successful as a championship talisman, the hairstyle may become permanent. "I might have to keep it for the summer," he says. "I could grow it out to a full Jagr, long enough to cover the name on the back [of my jersey]."

Mullet or not, Kane's play—if not his hair—remains a cut above the rest.

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Kane is the razzle-dazzle counterpoint to the gritty, earnest leadership of Toews.

"[Kane's] biggest gift," Burke says, "is that he has no panic threshold with the puck."

PHOTOPhotograph by LOU CAPOZZOLALOCAL HEROES Kane (88) has Jordan's flair for one-on-one play, even though the jersey adorning the statue of MJ belongs to Toews. PHOTOROB GRABOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLALOW POINTS While the Flyers blanked Kane in Game 1, they couldn't contain lower liners like forward Kris Versteeg. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWILD WINGER Kane (above, on May 27) didn't have his mullet in Vancouver, but still played lights-out for Team USA. PHOTONAM Y. HUH/AP[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)