It took scoring two goals against a sprawling Chad Johnson for the city of Buffalo to finally turn on Patrick Kane.
Eight years ago, Kane was warmly welcomed to First Niagara Center. He scored minutes into his first game in Buffalo, drawing huge cheers from Sabres fans long before cheering opposing goals made sense. Over the years, a sexual assault investigation, assault of a cab driver, and stories of alcohol-fueled incidents have marred his hometown legacy.
On Saturday afternoon, with two Sabres in the penalty box and six Chicago Blackhawks on the ice, the crowd turned on Kane for good when he tied the game at 2 with 35 seconds left in the third.
The boos rained down in Buffalo because of frustration with Kane but also the system that allowed him to succeed. Kane netted an Artemi Panarin cross-crease pass with a second left in a pair of Sabres penalties called on a single play. An iffy holding call on Josh Gorges put the official’s hand in the air and Rasmus Ristolainen high-sticked Panarin to pick up the second penalty before the whistle blew.
After the game, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma politely stressed his dislike of the sequence—twice mentioning they were just the second and third penalties of the entire game. He admitted, however, that after calling the first penalty the officials didn’t have much of a choice in calling the second. Sometimes the system creates unfortunate circumstances you just have to life with, I suppose.
Kane’s goal in the shootout was arguably more impressive, effortlessly backhanding the puck past Johnson in a way few people in the hockey can. Coming nearly to a stop, he faked a forehand shot and instead flicked his wrist to lift the puck just under the crossbar behind the Sabres goaltender.
Moments like that are the reason so many people supported Kane over the summer and continue to support him today. His utility to the Blackhawks and their fans is undeniable. He’s an asset worth protecting, and so in a very real way his skills on the ice have provided cover for his shortcomings off it.
Kane is having a remarkable season for Chicago on the heels of embarrassing Western New York with a very public and dubiously executed rape investigation. Information was leaked to the media, wild press conferences seemed to happen daily and no one handled the matter with grace. Each development was more troubling than the last until the investigation finally fell apart shortly before the NHL season began.
A short list of those complicit in the mishandling of the investigation: everyone. The local media routinely embarrassed itself in countless ways. The Hamburg police department took on a public persona of a corrupt fiefdom under siege. The National Hockey League invited upon itself a public relations disaster and damaged its credibility among countless fans, particularly women. Lawyers on both sides acted foolish and, perhaps worst of all, ordinary people chose to ignore an ordinary woman’s words accusing someone with a troubled past of an incredibly serious crime.
Regardless of the veracity of these accusations or the end result of the investigation, all of Western New York was at its worst this summer. It was and still is an embarrassing moment in the national spotlight for the City of Good Neighbors. The circus exposed some very dark aspects of local culture, the shortcomings of our government, and unsettling truths about the people who live in Western New York. Pat Kane will likely be the greatest athlete to ever call Buffalo home, and that seemed to matter more than finding out what actually happened on a drunken night in August.
Booing Patrick Kane is the least Buffalo can do after years of aiding him in his various misdeeds. Even so, he continues to have supporters here, and plenty voiced their support while wearing his jersey on Saturday. They put Kane’s name on the backs of their children and attack those critical of him online and in print. Blame and shame the victim, attack those that believe the accuser, and close ranks to protect a millionaire at all costs.
Kane winning on Saturday means little, really. What made many—myself included—leave First Niagara Center feeling uneasy is the sense that the real game was rigged long ago. Kane had already won in August and it’s likely he will win no matter what troubles find him in the future. Sure, the rules were followed. But privilege has its perks, and both those with and without such benefits are familiar with that power.
Hockey superstar Pat Kane gets to come and go from Buffalo as he pleases. His life continues uninterrupted, while the rest of us deal with the remnants of his actions in Western New York. The human cost of retaining Patrick Kane’s status as favorite son is great, and perhaps after Saturday that status is forever changed.
Or maybe, sadly, the boos or cheers don’t matter nearly as much as we think. It’s easy to feel helpless as a spectator. Especially when looking the other way only makes it worse.