South by Midwest

If you live in Buffalo and the Cup is in the building, you watch a champion get crowned on CBC.

In a league where American cities win titles and American players now routinely win the Conn Smythe, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation focuses on the game’s roots in the championship afterglow. Parades may held in Chicago and Boston and Pittsburgh, but their heroes are born in Bowmanville and Belleville and Richmond.

The ponds and backyard rinks of Canada are traditionally the breeding grounds of the game. Even with Swedes and Russians and Americans making hockey international, the small towns scattered throughout the provinces get their moment when CBC has each winning team’s player read off his name, hometown and favorite player growing up.

The end-of-season montage is great, but this is just as interesting to me. Brian Bickell—who tied the game for the Hawks with 1:16 left in the third—Bowmanville. Andrew Shaw—who raised the Cup with a still-bleeding gash on his cheek—Belleville. Brent Seabrook? Richmond. Population 3,301.

Watching in a basement in Niagara Falls, the headshot that stood out featured with a ridiculous mullet and an undeniable attitude. Patrick Kane. South Buffalo, New York. Favorite player: Pat LaFontaine. The playoff MVP is not from Buffalo. Population 261,025. He’s from South Buffalo. Population 55,011.

Patrick Kane went pointless in Game Six and still won the Conn Smythe because he was brilliant throughout the playoffs. He had 10 goals and 19 points in 23 games for Chicago. Game Five was a virtuoso performance from No. 88. A loose puck in front to give the Hawks the lead. A blistering backhand from in tight for the game-winner. Kane no longer scores goals like LaFontaine or some other childhood hero. He scores goals like Patrick Kane. He’s become the player kids in driveways imitate.

That’s the importance of Patrick Kane to a place like Buffalo. How can you blame anyone around here for rooting for the kid? For buying his jersey? In a city where the hockey’s been junk since the summer of 2007, we’ve watched Kane win the Calder, net 424 points and win a pair of Stanley Cups with another team. He grew up down the street and he’s five weeks younger than I am.

At 24, Kane is already in the discussion for the greatest athlete in Buffalo’s history. The next decade of his career will decide that, I suppose, but the “best in Buffalo history” thing doesn’t really matter. It’s a sportswriter’s argument, fodder for a column and a day of talk radio. Go read Warren Spahn’s wiki page and get back to me, I guess.

Kane’s second Cup doesn’t have to mean anything for the Buffalo Sabres or its fans, but it is significant to hockey in Western New York. Where Kane comes from matters to Buffalo because that’s what we do with local interest things, but more and more it happens in other American communities. Oswego had its moment with Erik Cole in 2006. It will happen with Kane in Buffalo again this summer. The kid from South Buffalo gives people something to enjoy about hockey in a community frustrated by the mediocrity of its hometown team.

Pat Kane isn’t going to save the Buffalo Sabres. He will come here with the Cup for a day. The local news will cover his return, then we will go back to being a city that defines itself with heartbreak and woe. It won’t exactly be my favorite thing, but I appreciate the impact Kane has had. More than anything the playoffs were a chance to actually enjoy hockey for once, and Kane played a big part of that. All six games of this year’s Finals were beautiful reminders of why we watch this game in the first place. High drama, tense crowds and two teams bringing out the best in their respective styles.

The hockey was great and it didn’t matter where anyone playing it was from, but it sure was nice that a kid from Buffalo played a major part in it. If it got a few people to forget about the Sabres and just enjoy the game for once, good. We already know how hard it’s become to enjoy watching the hometown teams. I’ll take individual success as a positive right now.