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Kane's night sends ripples across WNY

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They were seated in Section 116 of the Nationwide Arena, the three of them, all wearing London Knights jerseys with "Kane" stitched across the back. And one can only wonder, given their young ages, if they truly comprehended the significance of what they were about to experience.

Across the way sat their cousin, Pat Kane, who by all indications was about to become the first player selected in the NHL entry draft, although the family had its fears. Don Kane, Pat's uncle, said rumors were flying around the local hotels throughout the day. Maybe the Chicago Blackhawks would trade the No. 1 pick (the Buffalo Sabres inquired). Maybe they'd bypass Kane and select someone else. Only with the announcement of a name would there be a certainty to embrace or lament.

"My kids were on pins and needles that last 24 hours," said Don Kane.

Western New York has produced a number of fine NHL players over the years, going back, in my memory, to Amherst's Jack Brownschidle, drafted in the sixth round in 1975. The names of Buffalo-area players have been engraved on the Stanley Cup each of the past two years, Carolina's Kevyn Adams in '06 and Anaheim's Todd Marchant this time around. What the area never has had is a player selected higher than seventh overall in the entry draft. Then again, how many have made it their goal?

Kids all over the country dream of becoming pro athletes, fantasize over winning championships, dare to think they might even evolve into Hall of Fame material. But how many of those kids have the audacity to envision themselves as the first overall selection in their sport of choice? Kane did, from, oh, about the age of 5, striding to the imaginary podium and reveling in the moment before snapping to and once again picking up the hockey stick that would be his omnipresent possession.

For Western New York, a new standard has been set. You can imagine hockey moms and dads throughout the area setting their alarm clocks a little earlier next season at the request of Kane-inspired kids aching for just a little more ice time. Backyard rinks will be popping up in greater numbers than ever. The hotbed of Western New York hockey just became a little hotter.

"I hope so," said Larry Playfair, the former Sabre who helps coach the Buffalo Junior Sabres. "Buffalo has a kid who's gone No. 1 overall. That's huge. It's something the town should be very proud of."

Think about it. Patty Kane, that little runt who outgrew the Cazenovia house league in a blink and excelled at every level thereafter, undeterred by his lack of formidable size, on Friday night was deemed the best draft-eligible hockey player in the world. In the world. And in an era when the sport has never been more global.

Kane's cousins -- Cullen, 9, and Noah, 7 -- leapt from their seats when Dale Tallon made the call on behalf of the Blackhawks. But no one was more tickled than their sister, 6-year-old Lily, who's quick to tell girls everywhere that Pat's already spoken for -- by her. As for their father, Uncle Don said the reality of it all "probably won't sink in until tomorrow. It's been a little nerve-wracking."

What a ride. Who could have known that little Patty Kane was not just good for his age but a certifiable prodigy? Who could have envisioned his resiliency, his ability to use his slight frame as a motivational tool when coaches and opponents questioned his physical stamina? He was going to be left out of the U.S. junior program because of his size until his wish was granted on the final selection day. Then he proceeded to dominate the World Junior Tournament, shooting up the draft rankings with a bullet. Surely Daniel Briere can relate to the trial of it all.

Coincidence abounded on this steamy night that played out before a full house at Nationwide. The selection was announced by Tallon, who was selected second overall by Vancouver in the 1970 entry draft. The first pick that year was Gilbert Perreault, who would become the foundation of the Buffalo franchise.

The last Buffalo athlete taken first overall in one of the four major team sports? That would be Bob Lanier, whose size was never an issue as he employed his 6-foot-11 frame to rule the basketball courts at Bennett and St. Bonaventure before being drafted by the Detroit Pistons.

Could there be another Kane down the road, another homegrown hockey player who rates near or at the top of the draft board? It's a possibility. Playfair said the state of developmental hockey in Western New York has never been more robust. There are solid college programs at Niagara and Canisius. The Sabres franchise has strengthened its commitment to the Junior Sabres. And Canada's Junior A teams, such as Kane's London Knights, continue to beckon.

"Hockey in Western New York is alive and well," Playfair said.

Has it ever been better?

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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