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For Evander Kane, a stunning turnaround after months of good feelings

Evander Kane has met things head-on from the day he arrived in Buffalo in February. He rehabbed feverishly to come back from shoulder surgery that ended last season, and from an October knee injury, to become a power forward the Sabres needed. He’s also skillfully reshaped his image to try to move on from the disastrous climax to his career in Winnipeg, which had turned him into a pariah in the eyes of many around the NHL.

Since the start of training camp, I’ve been waiting for the Evil Ogre of Winnipeg to arrive. It hasn’t happened. Kane has been a solid representative for the Sabres franchise, a strong newcomer on the community scene among Buffalo athletes and a consummate professional when dealing with the media.

So it was stunning and disappointing when the news came out Sunday that Kane is involved in a sexual assault investigation stemming from an alleged incident at the HarborCenter Marriott downtown, where the Vancouver native is living this season. It’s a major setback for the 24-year-old, particularly at a time when the city is ultra-sensitive to such matters in the wake of the Patrick Kane affair.

When the Sabres took their gameday skate Monday morning in preparation for tonight’s game against Washington in First Niagara Center, there was initially no sign of Evander Kane. But just before the workout began, he hopped the closed bench door and took the ice. He’ll be there tonight too, in his normal spot on left wing with Jack Eichel and Tyler Ennis.

So as much as he was trying to go about business as normal, there was no way to ignore the situation. Staying silent would have been the easy road here. Instead, the Sabres and Kane did the right thing.

After the skate, Evander Kane met reporters and spoke for just 22 seconds. But his words were measured and direct: “There’s not a whole lot I can say. I just want to say I’ve done nothing wrong. I look forward to clearing my name. I respect the legal process and unfortunately at this time there’s not much more I can talk about.”

A question was starting to be asked, but a team spokesman said there would be no further comment and Kane walked away. Fair enough. Asked and answered. There would be questioners every day until he said something. And saying he’s done “nothing wrong” was pretty definitive.

A grim-faced coach Dan Bylsma didn’t have much more to offer, referring to the team’s statement Sunday that it was aware of the allegations. Bylsma confirmed Evander Kane spoke to the team today but declined to discuss what was said. So did captain Brian Gionta.

“It stays within the room,” Gionta said. “It’s a serious accusation, but at the same time that’s what it is at this point in time until things change. He’s our teammate.”

Bylsma admitted he’s worried how Kane’s focus will be on the ice tonight and going forward, but added, “I think he was happy to be on the ice with his team.”

“It’s part of being a professional, trying to separate things,” Gionta said.

Overall, this was a pretty solid job of damage control by the Sabres. It wasn’t the circus the Chicago Blackhawks created when Patrick Kane spoke on the opening day of training camp in September at Notre Dame. That day, he fumbled through a prepared statement that read as if he actually had committed a crime and then foolishly said “I appreciate the question” to a multitude of inquiries. It got to the point where the whole thing became a parody reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch’s Super Bowl media sessions.

Hawks president John McDonough, meanwhile, issued a tone-deaf statement simply moving on from his star’s situation and throwing opening-of-the-season platitudes across his organization. Then he actually said he wasn’t tone deaf.

There were no such embarrassments for Evander Kane or the Sabres on Monday. Sexual assault is obviously a serious allegation and the rink may have to serve as his oasis for the immediate future. Determining charges in these situations is not a quick process, as everyone in Western New York has learned the last three months.

There’s already plenty of chatter on social media about whether Kane should be on the ice tonight against the Capitals but the bottom line is that he has not been charged with a crime. Sitting him out would be a slippery slope.

There’s another game Wednesday in Washington, a New Year’s Eve game here against the New York Islanders, a Saturday matinee here against Detroit. Where do you draw the line? What if the team makes Kane sit for, say, a month and then no charges are filed? If the time comes where an actual charge is placed, that would be an entirely different story.

For now, letting Kane play seems reasonable. Less certain is how he goes forward with his community initiatives.

He has become a fixture with the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo, taking several dozen kids to dinner and a trip to the Dave and Buster’s arcade at the Walden Galleria last month. A week before Christmas, he took a group of 50 to dinner at Chef’s and then boarded a bus to the Target in Cheektowaga, where he presented each child with a $200 gift card and was congratulated by Mayor Byron Brown.

That trip was featured on the MSG pregame show prior to Saturday’s game in Boston, just hours before the alleged incident is said to have taken place. Kane has made trips to Women & Children’s Hospital and to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Earlier this month, he sent a handwritten note and autographed memorabilia to a 14-year-old Williamsville girl who plays hockey but was headed to New York City for cancer surgery.

“There’s a lot of energy in Buffalo, and I find the people here are very positive and very welcoming,” Kane told John Vogl of The News last week. “When you feel good about the community you live in, it makes you want to give back and do positive things for the people that you play for and the community that you live in.”

Months worth of good feelings suddenly jeopardized in one night. It’s a shame.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com