TORONTO -- It's been more than nine years since he was selected No. 1 overall in the NHL Draft in Columbus. Chicago Blackhawks star and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane is suddenly entering his 10th season in the NHL. Seemingly out of nowhere, he's closer to age 30 than 20 and has another birthday coming Nov. 19.
But Kane is nowhere near the twilight of his career. He's coming off a Hart Trophy season as the league's most valuable player and is one of the leaders for Team USA as it heads into the World Cup of Hockey.
"It's a little scary for sure," Kane said this week in Air Canada Centre in advance of Saturday's tourney opener against Team Europe (3:30, ESPN2). "I'm going into my 10th year but feel like I'm a young kid at heart, like I'm still on my front nine here in the league.
"But I'm going to be 28 later this year. It's amazing how time flies by. There's still a lot left in the tank, still a great team in front of us with the Blackhawks, still great opportunities like this World Cup event. You really want to take advantage of them and play well because you don't know how many opportunities you have left. Hopefully a few more."
Kane had his best season as a pro in 2015-16, setting career highs in goals, assists and points (46-60-106) while becoming the first U.S.-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's regular-season scoring champion. But the Blackhawks couldn't defend their third Stanley Cup title in five seasons, dropping Game Seven in St. Louis and getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in five years. Kane scored just one goal in the series.
Chicago has 12 players in this tournament and it would be 13 were it not for the knee injury that has shelved star defenseman Duncan Keith. Kane feels the Hawks' first extended offseason in a few years will have them refreshed and ready to go. He spent most of it in Chicago in the wake of last summer's sexual assault allegation in Hamburg that was later dropped, although he says he made the choice apart from any influence by the Blackhawks. In addition to plenty of golf, Kane skated with teammates and Blackhawks prospects.
At the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in June, Kane told reporters he understood his career now needed more offseason preparation and said he was particularly interested in how Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James gets ready for a new season. Kane and James met while filming a McDonald's commercial a few years ago and Kane has made it clear he can keep working on his explosiveness and flexibility like James does. The 2015-16 season was the first time in five years he played all 82 games.
"I feel good, feel excited about starting the season," Kane said here. "I took a little bit more time away from the rink than I usually would. Did a lot of different things off the ice to get my body ready and feeling well. You never want to lose out in the first round and have that long of an offseason but when it happens, you've got to take advantage of it."
Kane came to camp prepared and said he was particularly honored to be named an alternate captain for this team. San Jose's Joe Pavelski is the captain.
Said coach John Tortorella during Team USA's training camp in Columbus: "I don't coach him, but I watch him during our year, and I listen to him and I see maturity about him. I want him to take more responsibility now. He’s ready for more responsibility as a leader of a U.S. team, where before it was ‘Kaner, go play.’ And don't get me wrong, he’s really good at it. But I think he’s ready for more responsibility and I’m ready to give to give it to him because he deserves it."
Kane's family and friends from Buffalo have followed his career all over the world, as far away as the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. So he's particularly thrilled to have a major world-class event just up the Queen Elizabeth Way.
"It's going to be great to have family and friends coming up. It's an easy commute for them and they'll be at all the games and enjoying practices too I imagine," he said. "I'll be able to go out and eat with them and hang out. It will be fun to hang out with my family and friends but at the same time you're here on business, here to take care of a job and hang out with your teammates and bond with them as well It's just nice it's close to home and in Toronto. I"m sure they'll have fun."
The Americans weren't given much hope during the buildup to the tournament. Roster construction was controversial as Team USA went for grit-type players built in the Tortorella mode such as Detroit's Justin Abdelkader and Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky while leaving home the likes of Pittsburgh scoring star Phil Kessel. As it turned out, Kessel had hand surgery and his snub became moot but the prevailing wisdom was that the USA was going to struggle to get out of its group.
That may have changed some during exhibition play. The Americans handed it to Team Canada, 4-2, in their first exhibition game last week in Columbus and beat Finland, 3-2, on Tuesday to finish pretournament play at 2-1. The wins were sandwiched around a 5-2 loss to Canada in Ottawa.
The opening win against Team Canada was an eye-opener around the hockey world, both for the result and the high-intensity and chippiness of what was supposed to be an exhibition.
"I'm not really sure what any of us expected," Kane said. "I think we all went in there to feel it out but there wasn't much of a feeling-out process, that's for sure. It was 100 mph, very intense. Both teams were proving they were better than the other one. ... For a lot of us, it's a great way to start the season, get into it right away with Canada-USA a couple exhibition games right away. We all had the same reaction, how fast it was, how intense it was with some of the hits and extracurriculars after the whistle."
As far as nationalistic pride and flag waving, no team has come as close to Team USA thus far. There was the celebrated flap with Tortorella telling ESPN anyone who sits on the bench during the national anthem would stay there for the game. The coach had an Army member speak to the team during its camp in Columbus and stand behind the bench for the first exhibition against Canada, and the entire group visited the Marine base at Quantico, Va., earlier this week.
During a news conference here Thursday, Team USA General Manager Dean Lombardi of the Los Angeles Kings brought up war veterans and even quoted John F. Kennedy's famous passage from his 1961 inaugural address of "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
"It definitely has that Olympic-type of feel, playing for your country, that's for sure," Kane said. "Especially when it's in Toronto, the hockey hotbed, the mecca of the hockey world. It's going to be exciting to be a hockey player and be at this tournament. What a great way to start the season and what a great way to continue international play."