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Still a superstar as he turns 30, Patrick Kane stays focused on bringing Blackhawks back

"It's 30, sure," Kane said. "But nobody should worry. I've got a lot of hockey left."

CHICAGO — Patrick Kane insists he still feels like the same kid who dangled all the way from South Buffalo to become the NHL's No. 1 overall draft pick by the time he was 18. But the time has sure flown by.

Come Monday, Kane hits The Big 3-0.

He'll join a group of NHL superstars now on the other side of 30, a list that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Carey Price and longtime friend/Chicago Blackhawks teammate Jonathan Toews.

"That's crazy, absolutely crazy," a laughing Kane told The Buffalo News on Thursday at the Blackhawks' glittering new practice facility, MB Ice Arena. "What is this, my 12th year in the league? You have to keep up with all these young guys now, right? But I still feel pretty good, maybe as good as I've ever felt. I still have fun playing the game. I love it. It's 30, sure. But nobody should worry. I've got a lot of hockey left."

Indeed, Kane remains at the top of his game even as the Blackhawks' dynasty is in transition. Longtime coach Joel Quenneville, who directed the bench during the three Stanley Cup title runs from 2010-2015, was fired Nov. 6 and replaced by AHL Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton, now the NHL's youngest bench boss at 33.

The Hawks had lost eight consecutive games until Wednesday's 1-0 win against St. Louis, a game that saw Kane and Toews assist veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook on the only goal. The Hawks suffered a shootout loss Friday to Los Angeles but improved to 8-8-5 with Sunday's 3-1 win over Minnesota as Kane collected two assists.

Kane is aging well. He remains one of the NHL's elite players and you can only imagine how buried the Hawks would be without him. He's currently tied for 6th in the NHL in both goals (12) and points (25), and actually entered the weekend third in goals behind only Boston's David Pastrňák and the Sabres' Jeff Skinner.

"Everyone seems to be asking me what's special about his start, but it just seems like it's business as usual for him," Toews said. "He's so consistent at being one of the best, still puts up numbers even when our team is struggling to score. It's like he's pretty immune to whatever is going on with us. That could be one of the most impressive things about him."

Kane is on a pace for a career-high 49 goals and 101 points. It would be one of the best seasons of his career. But after missing the playoffs last year and seeing his longtime coach sent packing this month, he's not focused on his own numbers.

"We can turn this around," Kane said of the Hawks, who are one point out of a playoff spot after Sunday's win. "It never looks good for your chances if you lose eight in a row, but we had a nine-gamer once under Joel and made the playoffs (in 2012). You have to take it game by game. It's still early."

Reaching the top

For a kid from South Buffalo, the career resume is mind-boggling.

There's 324 goals and 853 points in 843 games. Top five in Chicago history in every major offensive category, right up there with legends Denis Savard, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Three Stanley Cups,  including scoring the 2010 overtime goal in Philadelphia that won the Hawks' first title in 49 years. A Conn Smythe Trophy as 2013 playoff MVP, the Hart Trophy as 2016 league MVP, the 2008 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Two Olympics, a World Cup berth, MVP of the 2018 World Championships.

But doing a full rewind in his mind, Kane thinks back to that night in Columbus nearly 11 1/2 years ago when he became the No. 1 pick, fresh off a 62-goal, 145-point season with the OHL's London Knights.

"This has been a pretty wild ride you never would have imagined," he said. "Looking back at it at times, a lot of the experiences I've had almost don't feel like reality. You're thinking it's a dream you've had, something along the way you dreamed up and don't remember. It was just yesterday I was in Columbus looking at my phone the night before the draft checking to see if there were any trades."

None was forthcoming, but there was chatter. The Blackhawks had already given Kane and his family the word they were taking him No. 1 when Kane got wind of a rumor a few minutes before the pick was made that the Phoenix Coyotes had swung a deal for the top slot, likely to take Kyle Turris.

"I was thinking, 'Oh man, Phoenix wants Kyle Turris. That's why they want the pick and I'm not going to get taken first,''' Kane said. "And my dad is sitting there all white because you know he's thinking that if that happens, 'I'm going to have to figure out how to drive to Phoenix all the time to watch his games.' We both had different thoughts. Obviously, you're glad it went this way.

"I had a hundred people there, a big celebration in the hotel lobby. I must have gone to the bathroom four or five times in the hour before. I was so nervous. It's funny the little things you remember."

When Kane arrived in Chicago, of course, the Blackhawks were nowhere. The United Center was half-full. The Stanley Cup had not been won since 1961. Kane and Toews have changed all that and you wonder if they're headed together to join Hull and Mikita with statues outside the UC someday. Kane's red No. 88 jersey is everywhere in the building, and his face is one of the most prominent in the practice facility.

Patrick Kane's image is among the most prominent at the Blackhawks' new practice facility (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

Kane loves the history of the game, and having a relationship with past greats of the franchise. He reveled in the first goal he scored in an NHL game back in 2007 being a shootout winner against Detroit — with former Sabres hero Dominik Hasek in net.

"One thing you learn is how much hockey knowledge he has, the awareness of other games and players in the league," said four-time Cup champion Chris Kunitz, who joined the Hawks this year. "He's obviously a great player and you don't expect him to be kind of the 'hockey nerd' that he is. You get to sit down and talk about other guys you've played with and you're amazed at the things he's seen and guys he's worked with. It's just interesting to see his passion for the game."

Sweet home Chicago: Blackhawks win Stanley Cup

Fast start, then big change

Kane wasn't happy with his 2017-18 season. The Blackhawks didn't make the playoffs for the first time since his rookie campaign and his production had dropped for the second consecutive year. His 2015-16 Hart Trophy season saw him post career highs in goals, assists and points (46-60-106). By '17-18, he was down to 27-49-76 and he had a minus-20 rating after combining for a plus-38 over the previous three seasons.

Kane recommitted to his training during the summer, spending much of it in Tampa with renowned performance coach Ian Mack. He lost weight and focused on regaining some of the speed and agility that was a hallmark of his game earlier in his 20s. The Blackhawks noticed a difference immediately in training camp and Kane saw instant results once the season started.

"He doesn't look like he's slowing down to me at all," St. Louis coach Mike Yeo said before Wednesday's game. "He looks like he's very much on top of his game. He's playing a lot of minutes right now so you can't just give him one player defensively and try to match up, especially on the road. It's got to be by committee and it's a real tough task. He's dangerous off the rush, in transition and in your defensive zone."

Kane had four goals and six points in the season's first three games, and posted 11 goals and 17 points in the season's first 11 games. Kane has cooled some in November with one goal and six assists in the month's first eight games.

"Every time he touches the puck, he impacts the game and you're forced to think about what he's going to do," said St. Louis center and former Sabre Ryan O'Reilly.  "He's one of the few elite players in the game you have to approach that way. You always have to be 'on' when you're against him. You can't have a casual moment, or he's putting it in the back of the net."

Despite Kane's fast start and the Hawks' 6-2-2 run from the gate, a litany of woes followed. Kane can recite them off the top of his head.

"You're 6-2-2 and going well and then there's a bunch of weird things going on," Kane said. "We lose a game to St. Louis, 7-3, that was 4-3 until late. You lose to Edmonton, 2-1. I'm sick and I miss a game at Vancouver and we lose, 4-2, and I think I could have helped. We lose at Edmonton (4-0) and we outshoot them, 40-29. We're up, 3-1, going into the last five minutes of the second in Calgary and then we get dominated in the third and lose that one (5-3).

"I don't want to say it didn't feel like five straight, but it just piled up quickly and all of a sudden, you're in a bad streak."

The Western Canada disaster put the move in motion two days after the Hawks returned home from Calgary. GM Stan Bowman was scrambling that morning to call players and leave them text messages to give them the news. Kane woke up to missed calls and texts from the GM on his phone. His longtime girlfriend, Amanda Grahovec, gave him the word she had stumbled upon as well.

"I woke up and it's one of those things I'll never forget," he said. "She told me right away, 'Your coach got fired.' You're just shocked. It was a pretty crazy feeling.

"You feel bad, but it's a tough situation. You know it's a business and that things happen. You have to look at it that maybe it can be for the best. Jeremy has a good pulse on the way we need to play and hopefully we can turn it around."

Colliton started 0-2-1 before Wednesday's win and is now 2-2-2. Toews presented him the puck after the St. Louis victory, with Corey Crawford collecting the shutout.

"Very encouraging," Kane said. "It was a complete team effort and a lot of our younger guys really did a lot of good things in the game. You see the signs the last three, four games that we've started to look a little better."

Looking ahead

Now an older player, Kane is routinely on the ice with the Hawks' young guns after practice. He's always been a rink rat and nothing has changed.

"He's always a guy I always liked to watch, just the way he handles the puck and sees so much on the ice," said 20-year-old Hawks winger Alex DeBrincat, a 28-goal scorer last year as a rookie. "Playing with him is pretty incredible. To be able to watch him that closely is definitely something that's good for me and good for my game.

"You watch him sometimes and you're in awe at what he can do. It's cool to see the way he thinks and the way his mind goes throughout the game. Once he gets it down in practice, he's able to do things in a game. He can do everything at top speed, but then he can slow things down to his pace, too. He does it all. Scores goals, passes it, can dangle guys. It's amazing to watch."

What's next for Kane? Getting to 1,000 NHL games and 1,000 points will be on his horizon in the next couple of years. His contract with the Blackhawks runs through 2023 when he will be 34, but it's hard to imagine that would be an endpoint for him. A spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame seems like a certainty someday.

A big point in the latter stages of his career could be the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. If the league decides to make a deal and let NHL players go, Kane would be in line to be captain of Team USA, just as he was at the World Championships earlier this year in Copenhagen.

"Getting another chance at the Olympics would be amazing," he said. "That first Olympics in Vancouver (in 2010) was something where you're 21 years old and taking it all in and enjoying it. We had a good chance to win and you don't realize that's an opportunity you only get every four years.

"We lost in the semis in '14 in Sochi and then you lose the chance in '18 and don't even get to play. It's why I went to the Worlds after last season to take advantage of every chance I can to play for my country."

Patrick Kane celebrates by hoisting the Stanley Cup after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-0, in Game Six to win the 2015 Stanley Cup Final (Getty Images).

Love remains for hometown

As he hits 30, Kane's relationship with his hometown is a complicated one. He doesn't spend nearly as much time in Buffalo as he used to. He lives in Chicago and spent much of last summer training in Florida. His mother, father and three sisters have stood by him through the triumphs and the troubles and are regulars at Hawks games.

Kane got a standing ovation before his first game in Buffalo against the Sabres in 2007. Now, there's a lot of boos for him when the Hawks visit (they come to town this season Feb. 1). Some of it is that superstar respect. Some of it, of course, is a reflection of the troubled times he's had, notably the dustup with a Buffalo cab driver in 2009 and the investigation of an alleged sexual assault at his former home in Hamburg in 2015 that did not result in any charges being filed.

"I still feel like the same kid at heart but obviously as you grow older, you have to change and mature in different situations and in the way you live your life," he said. "The relationships you have evolve. You might have friends then you're not as close to now. People come into your life that you didn't have in your life before. What's never changed is I've remained close to my family. As you mature, your priorities change. It's all part of the maturation process."

Kane emerges from seclusion but expresses very little

And Kane has never stopped loving his hometown, even if doesn't love him back nearly as much as it used to.

"I was pretty blessed to grow up to Buffalo and to have the access to all the ice time I did," he said. "Your childhood and where you grow up has a lot to do with where you end up and how your life turns out. I still have a lot of friends there I talk to all the time and they come visit regularly to Chicago. It's fun to go home in the summer and see them, see my family and relatives. Buffalo is always going to be special. Totally."

On the pantheon of greatest athletes from Buffalo for all-time, you can easily make the case Kane belongs in the group that includes legends such as Warren Spahn, Bob Lanier, Christian Laettner and Ron Jaworski.

But he's not thinking about legacies just yet. He shook his head and laughed again when that list was suggested to him, just as he did when the topic of turning 30 was first brought up.

"First off, I would put 'Gronk' in there too the way he's played," Kane said, referring to current New England Patriots tight end and Williamsville native Rob Gronkowski. "You see those names and it's pretty special, no doubt.

"I've been lucky to have a special career so far. But I've got a lot more to give."

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