Why you should care
Because it’s not the sport, it’s the player.
There’s a special kind of narrative that goes along with how we understand sports figures: It’s not that deep, nor that wide, but it’s a handy shorthand for saying what’ll stick before it moves on. For 6-foot-2, 212-pound forward Evander Kane, a Black Canadian, you can see it coming before the descriptors start to accrue from past press reports. The 26-year-old is “selfish,” “distracting” and the word that really says it all without knowing what it’s saying: “cocky.”
Maybe it’s just the nature of team sports and a collective desire to hammer down the nail that’s risen higher than the others, but we’re going to call this a meritocracy and give Kane credit where credit is due and skate right by all of that racial dogwhistling. Because No. 9 on the San Jose Sharks is, like his namesake Evander Holyfield, the real deal.
“This was the first thing I ever really wanted to do,” says Kane, after a practice in San Jose, California, two days after dispatching the Anaheim Ducks to their collective couches to watch the rest of the playoffs. “I was 3 and I think I may have even said, ‘I want to play in the NHL.’ ” He laughs and we laugh with him, since being able to use the potty is how far most people’s ambitions stretch at the age of 3.
It underscores the chafing that happens when you’re a star, and a relatively young one at that, in a team sport. Haters are going to hate.
But just this past March, Kane, despite a few occupational health issues — specifically: injuries — scored his first-ever hat trick against the Calgary Flames. It was quickly followed by another goal and a 7–4 Sharks win. Like it wasn’t any big thing. Which is, in total, not at all surprising for a fourth overall pick who three years into his nine-year pro career was having the Winnipeg Jets drop $31.5 million on him. Not bad at all for a kid who grew up in an unremarkable part of Burnaby, British Columbia, without major means at his disposal.
What he did have at his disposal, though, was a family of athletes, including parents who were firm believers in the transformative powers of getting your ass out of bed early and putting in the work. Which not only included starting to skate at age 3, but starting hockey at 8. His father wanted to wait until Evander was 10, but his mother, a formidable athlete in her own right, decided 8 was enough of a wait and put him in a league anyway.
But it was the father who blessed Kane with the name of a former world heavyweight boxing champion and the genes of an amateur boxer. In addition to making sure his son was a hockey demon, Perry Kane had him box — “up at 6 in the morning and then two hours of boxing practice,” says Kane — and learn martial arts, a background that’s sprinkled a bit of magic on the legend of Kane.
“Well, in pro hockey there are three types of players when it comes to fighting,” says Kevin Conahan, lifelong player and amateur league coach. “Those who don’t fight, those who protect those who don’t fight and those who don’t fight because no one is crazy enough to risk fighting them. I’d put Kane in that last group.”
And indeed, in a sport widely considered to have suffered a softening, courtesy of (depending on who you talk to) ill-advised rule changes, this is more significant than it might seem. It means no on-ice beefs fueled by micro, or macro, racial aggressions. Even though there was a brouhaha when he showed up on game day in violation of league rules on dress because his teammates had thrown his clothing in the shower, this wasn’t a full-frontal assault.
But it underscores the chafing that happens when you’re a star, and a relatively young one at that, in a team sport. Haters are going to hate. And Kane is force-feeding them stuff to hate. To wit: shirtless Instagram pics with him doing push-ups with cash stacked up on his back, expensive suits and nice jewelry. Even buying a house for his family. It’s the same sort of things done by sports celebrities like the recently arrested MMA fighter Conor McGregor to whiter, er, wider acclaim. “That’s what sports is,” Kane says. “It’s an entertainment business.”
Which is probably just another way to say: No sweat. It’s something that can’t be said for the legal problems that he refuses to comment on, something just a little short of a barroom brawl in 2016 in Buffalo, for which the charges were later dropped. Hockey great and enforcer Tie Domi explains: “Guys get a little high and resent the attention that’s being paid to you,” he says in a phone call from Toronto. “And they want to test you. You never going to leave the house?”
While Kane has shown brilliant flashes, he has not yet become an elite scorer. And for him to end up one of the greats, in the estimation of the hockey commentariat, he will have to secure at least one Stanley Cup title — battling past both doubters and the ever-present specter of injury. “This is a contact sport, really, with a lot of moving parts — speed, strength, skill and toughness,” Kane says, almost rolling his eyes against any assumption that over 82 games in a season is any kind of easy. “But being here in the playoffs? That’s great.” And in the midst of a locker room of players visibly geeked up over the postseason prospects dangled in front of them, you don’t doubt it for a second.