Mike Margerum said it was pretty quiet when he and his son, Nick, arrived in the parking lot at Imperial Pizza in South Buffalo just before 8 a.m. Saturday. It was, after all, a little early to be eating pizza.
“Nobody was here,” Mike said. “Oh, they were cleaning the grounds, squirting everything down and making it nice. We were reading the newspaper. Yeah, we were reading the sports page.”
They had plenty of time to peruse the standings and box scores. The Margerums showed up four hours before Patrick Kane was scheduled to show up in his native South Buffalo for the second stop on a day-long journey through Western New York with the Stanley Cup.
No matter. They were determined to be first in line to have their photos taken next to the most recognizable trophy in sports, the Cup. Ten minutes later, Richard O’Donnell joined the line, and it continued to grow for the next four hours.
By 11 a.m., it had wrapped around to the corner of Eden and Abbott and was extended all the way down to Whitehall. Everywhere you looked, there were people in red No. 88 Kane jerseys. Women pushed babies in strollers with pizza boxes resting on top. There were Kane fans waiting in wheelchairs.
About a thousand came to celebrate the return of Kane, who two months ago led the Chicago Blackhawks to a second Cup and won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. At the tender age of 24, Kane has won two Cups and established himself as one of the best players in hockey.
Many of the fans at Imperial were natives of South Buffalo, which is more a state of mind than a place on a map. The elder Margerum was born and raised there. He looked out at the crowd and scoffed at the notion that Kane had somehow grown too big for his roots.
“I grew up right off South Park Avenue,” Margerum said. “All the guys I grew up with, the 40-and-ups, are really proud of him, because it’s a South Buffalo boy and that’s the way we roll. I mean, we’re happy. I think there is a lot of jealousy because kids strive so hard in sports to make it, and here’s a kid who’s just a phenomenal athlete with phenomenal hands.”
It all happened so fast for Kane. First overall pick and rookie of the year at 19. Olympic silver medal and Cup-winning goal at 21. Yes, there were indiscretions along the way. The incident with the cabbie in Buffalo. The videos of boorish, drunken behavior at a Wisconsin frat party last year.
News flash, a South Buffalo kid has a little party in him. For a lot of the locals, it was like seeing your own son embarrass himself in public.
“Hey, we all have,” said Terry Corbran, South Buffalo born and raised. “Just because he’s a celebrity, it’s blown out of proportion or it has to be in the news. Hopefully, he learned. He grew from it and moved forward, became an outstanding young man.
“I think this is a wonderful thing for this city,” Corbran said. “I’m very proud of Pat and the family. I know, having grand-kids that play hockey, how difficult it is and the sacrifices that the parents make.”
Kane is 24, and it seems like there’s been a story about him maturing every year of his career. It’s a little early to turn him into some monkish homebody. But something in him clicked before the 2012-13 season. He felt he wasn’t realizing his potential. The lockout made him more keenly aware of what it meant to be a player in the NHL.
He went to Switzerland to play during the lockout, more for the hockey than the nominal compensation. Kane, the wild man of South Buffalo, even took his mother along to keep him company.
“I think you might appreciate the NHL and what you have over here in North America a little bit more, that’s for sure,” Kane said. “It was a great year. It was an up-and-down year the whole time. Winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years is something you can look back on and shake your head when you realize everything that happened.”
The fans here seem to appreciate it more, too. The crowds were much bigger than when Kane brought the Cup back in ’10. It was more widely advertised, for one thing. But when a local boy brings the Cup home for a second time – and has the Conn Smythe in tow, too – it resonates that this guy is hockey royalty, someone on his way to the Hall of Fame.
People aren’t simply rooting for a kid who made it to the big leagues. Kane is now in the conversation for the best athlete to come from the Buffalo area, right up there with Bob Lanier, Ron Jaworski, Jenn Suhr and that other scion of South Buffalo – Warren Spahn.
South Buffalo embraces Kane as its own, as part of the family. It’s silly when people complain that he’s gotten “too big” for his hometown. You wouldn’t have known it Saturday, when Kane squeezed in visits to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, his local pizzeria, and the West Seneca town rink, where he played hockey for five years as a boy.
Kane left town at 14 to pursue his hockey dream in Detroit. He was barely into adolescence. How many people in Buffalo can really say they know him? Still, he has always said he’s just “a kid playing hockey,” and the kid in him was on display Saturday.
He wore a big smile when he arrived at Imperial shortly after noon. He held the Stanley Cup aloft. He told the crowd that he went to school down on Abbott Road, and that he grew up four or five blocks away.
“It means a lot to me,” Kane said.
“It was awesome that he stuck to his roots and didn’t forget where he came from,” said Nick Margerum, 16, who was the first one to get his picture taken with the Cup (Dad snapped the photo). “That’s really big in sports. If I was a professional athlete, I’d be sure I gave my hometown recognition.”
An hour later, Kane was at the town rink in West Seneca, where close to 2,000 people snaked through the park, waiting to see Kane and the Cup. Kane rode atop a Zamboni, holding the Cup. Kids from the West Seneca program followed in a parade, then rushed into the rink to see their hero.
Like so many famous athletes, Kane seems most comfortable in the company of children. His face brightened when he saw dozens of smiling faces looking up at him. No doubt, many of them looked the way he did at various stages of his West Seneca career. Maybe he saw himself.
The cynics who feel Kane has gotten too big should have seen it. In the eyes of those kids, Kane was just the right size. A giant.