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Kane creates camp conundrum for Blackhawks

When you walk around Chicago’s United Center, you’re struck by the greatness in bronze frozen in time just outside the doors. There’s Michael Jordan, of course. But there’s also Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, resplendent in their classic red Blackhawks sweaters.

When the Hawks wrapped up their third Stanley Cup in six years in June, it seemed pretty much a sure bet that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane would someday join Hull and Mikita – both in the rafters and on the arena plaza. These are the glory days of the franchise and they were the best days for any player ever produced in Buffalo.

How long ago it seems. It took just two months for Kane to go from future statue subject to pretty clear pariah in the hockey world.

Losing endorsements like being on the cover of a video game is one thing. Getting held off the ice is something else entirely. And that’s where the Blackhawks and the NHL are going to be left with no choice.

The case of the sexual assault allegations against Kane looks like it could be going to a grand jury, although chatter about settlement talks surfaced some last week. Justice is on one schedule and it has to be followed. But hockey has its own schedule and that has to be followed, too.

The Hawks are slated to train for three days at the University of Notre Dame beginning Friday. Their annual Training Camp Festival is Sept. 21 in the United Center, featuring a scrimmage. The crowd is easily expected to be more than 10,000.

Kane can’t be there.

The NHL is already smartly distancing itself from one of its most prominent players. Kane wasn’t part of Tuesday’s kickoff media tour in Toronto, held annually by the league with national outlets and rights holders. The official word, of course, was that players are rotated and this year’s Chicago representatives were Toews and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Riiiiight.

But this year’s tour was moved from New York to Toronto to accommodate Wednesday’s World Cup of Hockey unveiling in Air Canada Centre. No offense to former Chicago teammate Brandon Saad of Columbus, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk or New York Rangers defense standout Ryan McDonagh, but they’re not remotely close to being faces of USA Hockey.

A guy with three Cup rings is. But that aforementioned trio represented Team USA. No Kane. His absence was plainly obvious and chatter in Toronto was that the league and the team could be meeting with Kane as soon as Monday to make a preliminary decision about camp.

A Chicago Sun-Times column last week said Blackhawks President John McDonough was “volcanically outraged” when news of Kane’s latest misstep surfaced. It also said the team immediately dispatched a high-ranking member of its security corps to Buffalo to do its own investigation.

Here’s hoping the team knows the kind of backlash and distractions it would be up against and says to Kane he’s done for now. And if the team doesn’t, Gary Bettman certainly can.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement gives him the power to suspend players for an indefinite period if they’re involved in criminal investigations “where the failure to suspend the Player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.”

Yes, Kane has not been charged with anything. Innocent until proven guilty is the rule of the courts, but not a private business entity. Think having someone involved in a rape case damages the league’s interests and reputation? You bet it does. Bettman spouted the usual lawyer-speak Wednesday when I asked him about Kane and said the league will make decisions at “the appropriate time.” That time is now.

In a separate story, the Sun-Times also reported that at least five teams contacted the Hawks about Kane’s status if the team ever decided to cut the cord with No. 88. After signing Kane to an eight-year, $84 million extension – and excising players such as Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg to make it fit under the cap – you wonder if the Hawks have buyer’s remorse and would just like to be rid of the whole situation.

But how can any team trade for Kane with his cap hit and not knowing if he can play? For his part, Kane has a full no-trade clause and reports out of Chicago are that he has not been approached about dropping it.

Is Kane worth the Hawks’ trouble anymore? They might not have to ultimately decide for a long time, based on the result of the legal situation. But their first real statement in this situation is ominously looming. And it should be an easy call.

Sabres in Stamkos talks?

Bet you got grabbed by that subhead.

Elliotte Friedman, one of the most plugged-in guys you’ll find in the business, reported last week on Sportsnet.ca about rumors that the Lightning were shopping Steven Stamkos prior to the June draft in Sunrise, Fla. Stamkos, the former 60-goal scorer who led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup final, is entering the last year of his deal and has yet to sign an extension that’s expected to be in the Kane-Toews neighborhood.

According to Friedman, some sources suspected the Sabres were involved because of General Manager Tim Murray’s boldness in making moves such as the Evander Kane deal and the draft-night trade for Ryan O’Reilly.

“I think that there are some people who believe that the talks with Buffalo went far. I don’t know if far is the right word, but they went somewhere,” Friedman said last week while appearing on a Sportsnet-owned radio station in Calgary. “And there’s other people who believe very strongly, including a guy who’s been a really excellent source of mine, that … it didn’t get that far.”

When I asked Murray about this story on Thursday, he understandably wasn’t interested in getting into many details. He did admit the Lightning were one of many teams who inquired about the No. 2 pick in the draft – but that all teams were told not to bother mentioning players in possible return because Murray wasn’t interested. And that would have included a deal for Stamkos. Murray was taking Jack Eichel at No. 2. Period.

After all, what would have been the point of the entire season – and the daily arguments among Sabres fans and media about the merits of tanking – if Murray was just going to turn around and deal the pick?

Still, there are other sources who insist the Sabres were likely pondering what else it might have taken to get Stamkos but wondered about his signability going forward.

Stamkos remains upbeat, however, about an extension with the Lightning. He said last week in Toronto he was in the “middle stages” of talks and reiterated that when he arrived in Tampa on Thursday for informal skates with teammates.

Young Guns need a goalie

While the concept of Team North America, the under-24 entry, is an intriguing one for the World Cup, most observers in Toronto don’t give the team much of a chance of success. The reason? No goaltenders of note. While other teams are expected to play the likes of Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist, the young stars’ best choices at this point appear to be Anaheim backup John Gibson and Boston minor leaguer Malcolm Subban.

It takes goaltenders a long time to develop in the NHL, and few are making an impact before age 24. The Hockey News reported organizers considered allowing a wild-card spot for a goaltender for Team North America but ultimately decided against it. Initial rosters aren’t due until March and that decision should be revisited.

Around the boards

• The Penguins are giving Phil Kessel every opportunity to break in with his new organization. The current plan is for Kessel to start the season on Sidney Crosby’s wing.

• Former captain Daniel Alfredsson met with the Senators last week about a part-time front office role. Still living in Detroit this year.

• Bettman said the league is hoping to restart preseason and regular-season games in Europe in the future. The Sabres played in Germany and Finland to open the 2011-12 season.

• Stamkos on Team Europe: “Whose anthem will they play if they win the tournament?” A smiling Bettman’s response: “We’ll get to it.”

• Conspicuous by his role as the co-host of the NHL’s World Cup unveiling was ESPN’s Steve Levy. American rights for all the games were won by the network, which will use ESPN and ESPN2 for the telecasts in its return to the hockey forefront. Will be great to see ESPN back in the hockey business even if it’s only for two weeks.

A final, personal note

With this column, I’m taking over what I consider some pretty sacred space in this newspaper (and, in later years, on Buffalonews.com). Inside the NHL started in the 1980s under the auspices of our late beloved Hall of Famer Jim Kelley, and the outstanding caretakers of this corner for the last 15 years have been Bucky Gleason and John Vogl. Now it’s my turn.

Some patience is requested from those of you who might be looking for Inside Baseball this week or in October, or those who might be looking for an Inside the NHL column in, say, April and May. The editors and I will be taking care each week to determine the best decision for those crossover times. We’ll be in full drop-the-puck mode each Sunday come November.

I’m humbled by the opportunity to follow in my esteemed colleagues’ footsteps and bring you chatter from around the hockey world. Every so often, I might even have a thought on the poutine in my travels to places like Winnipeg. It should be fun.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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