SOCHI, Russia – Patrick Kane has done a lot of growing up in the last four years, much of it in public. He admits he took a lot of things for granted when he was younger. A year ago, during the NHL lockout, he gained a deeper appreciation for just how much hockey meant to him.
Now, in his second time representing the United States at a Winter Olympics, Kane is taking more time to step back, look around and soak in the entire experience.
“Going through it the first time, I was 21 years old,” said Kane. “I was just happy to be there. I was young and naive to what the whole thing meant at the time, not realizing how big it was.”
Kane, who had an uneventful day for the U.S. in a 5-1 win over Slovenia on Sunday, certainly understands how big the Games are back home in Buffalo, where some of the most avid hockey fans in the nation are making the Olympics an essential part of their breakfast routine.
“There’s a lot of people watching,” Kane said. “People are waking up at 6 or 7 a.m. to watch the games. My buddies tell me people are going to watch in Buffalo bars that are opening at 7 a.m., or going to someone’s house to watch it. They’re all excited.”
Kane’s best buddy won’t be watching this time, though. Donald Kane, his beloved grandfather, died Feb. 3. Don Kane, who lived his entire life in South Buffalo – right next door to Pat’s family the last 17 years – was 87 years old.
Don Kane spent most of his life in city government. He was recreation director and parks commissioner under Mayor Frank Sedita. He was director of the housing authority, executive secretary of the water authority. He founded the South Side Men’s Democratic Club.
He was a big man, and his grandson will be the first to tell you that Don was a typical South Buffalo guy: Tough and occasionally sarcastic on the outside, but loyal and big-hearted on the inside.
“Yeah, he was one of the greatest gentlemen I’ve ever known,” Kane said. “Not too many bad words have been said about him. He was a nice guy. Oh, he got mad at certain points in his life, and mad at his grandchildren.
“But his main slogan, at least to his grandchildren, was to be a good person. Now that he’s gone, I think about that a lot more.”
Kane said his grandpa is very much in his thoughts here. Family means everything to him. His mother, sister and girlfriend made the trip to Russia. His father, Tiki, didn’t make the trip. But the two-time Stanley Cup winner still talks to his dad by phone every day.
“It’s funny, he always says he’s coming to these events and then at the last second he backs out,” Kane said. “I don’t think he wanted to get on that plane, which is unfortunate, especially since the flight here was so easy. You go to sleep and you’re here.”
His eyes are a little wider nowadays. When you lose a close family member, it sharpens your perspective. The world seems more alive, the little things more precious. He and his grandfather were very close.
Patrick got the news of Don’s death two hours before the Blackhawks played the Kings in Los Angeles. Kane didn’t tell his teammates before the game. He imagined his grandfather looking down that night. Just 1:02 into the game, the first time he touched the puck, Kane scored.
He pointed to the sky after scoring the goal. Afterwards, he cried in the locker room when he talked about Don’s passing. His father told him it would be OK if he stayed with the Blackhawks, rather than miss Chicago’s next game. He had done enough for Don.
That night, Kane took a red-eye back home to Buffalo for the funeral.
“I’m happy I went home,” he said, “and having it not on my mind as much as it would have been, say, if it happened during the tournament.
“My mind’s completely on hockey now and I want to try to do the best for my country.”
Kane said his grandfather had left personal keepsakes for his 14 grandchildren. Pat wouldn’t say what Don left for him, but he brought it with him to Russia. You don’t hear it that often from a grandchild, but he considered Don one of his “great friends.”
“Yeah, we were close,” Kane said. “He moved next door when I was 8 years old, and he’s been there ever since. So any time I go home for the summer, especially in the last 10 years, we’ve gotten really close – either from him watching hockey or us playing outside together, cards outside or by the pool or whatever.
“I can remember being at the cottage when I was younger. He was always teaching me how to play catch, different card games or checkers, or hanging out on the beach with him. A lot of good memories.”
Did he let you win at cards, Kane was asked?
“Maybe in the beginning,” he said with a smile. “But when I started getting cocky (Kane, cocky?) and thinking I was good, he toughed up on me. He was a great man.”
Don Kane’s first love was baseball, and the Yankees. In 1957, he managed South Buffalo Post 721 to the American Legion title in Cooperstown. But late in life, he was the biggest fan of the best hockey player ever to come out of Buffalo.
He was at the draft in Columbus, months after heart surgery, to see Patrick go first overall to Chicago. He helped drop the puck at his grandson’s first game against the Sabres in Buffalo in December 2007.
Kane has won an Olympic silver medal and two Stanley Cups. He scored the Cup-winning goal in the first one and won the Conn Smythe as MVP last June in the second one. But his finest moment as a young man came last summer when he returned home to celebrate.
Several hundred of Kane’s friends and family gathered at his house to celebrate the Cup win. Kane got up in front of the crowd and acknowledged his best buddy, a man he looked up to as a little boy and knew would always be there for him in a pinch.
His grandfather rolled up in his wheelchair and Patrick presented him with a No. 88 jersey. Kane knew Don would turn 88 years old the next year, and suspected that he might not make it.
It was an emotional moment, the kind that becomes especially resonant during an Olympics, when the world family gets together every four years and is reminded, through sports, how we’re all the same and how brief and precious our time on this planet can be.
“I’m here to try and represent my country, my family and him the best I can,” Kane said. “If there’s any way his memory can live on, it’s through his grandchildren and children. I want to keep that going.”
So if Kane scores a huge goal for the U.S. team this week, and points up toward the sky, you’ll know who it’s meant for.