Buffalo Sabres' Evander Kane. Source: Getty Images
Evander Kane's star-crossed NHL career has had its share of ups, downs and run-ins. But just as he finds his comfort zone with the Buffalo Sabres, it might be time to move on.
“It wasn’t just any cognac. It was Louis XIII.”
It’s a crucial distinction for Evander Kane, relaxing in his dressing room stall, airing out his equipment after practice at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center on a cold, damp November morning. He’s eager to stress how much the gift meant to him.
Ever try to buy a bottle of Louis XIII? Don’t, unless you’ve recently won the lottery. It will set you back $3,000, give or take. So when Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Zach Bogosian pooled their (admittedly considerable) funds and presented the bottle to Kane, commemorating his 500th NHL game, he was beyond touched. It came in a fire-engine-red case, signed, Congrats on 500, Kaner! Reino, Eichs, Bogo.
That bottle of exquisite booze is a microcosm of Kane’s career to date.
First of all, it highlights his famously debonair taste. Kane is known for living a glamorous lifestyle. He got into trouble during the 2012 lockout when he posted an Instagram photo of himself using a huge stack of cash as a phone to “call” superstar boxer Floyd Mayweather. In 2015, Kane bought a billboard in an effort to win back his then-girlfriend, model Mara Teigen. And this past August, minutes before Mayweather threw down with UFC multi-weight champion Conor McGregor in The Money Fight in Las Vegas, Kane got his hands on Mayweather’s championship belt and posed with it for some dream-come-true photos.
That’s the persona many hockey fans and media types associate with Kane. A $3,000 bottle of cognac feels very “him,” doesn’t it? But there’s much more to it than that. It’s not like Kane purchased it for himself. It was given to him by a group of teammates who have forged a meaningful bond with him. “I’m going to go into battle for him, and he’s going to do the same for me,” said Reinhart, Kane’s frequent linemate over the past couple seasons. “I full well know that. The media is going to say what they want, and he’s got a personality with him, and you’ve got to embrace that. I enjoy being around it. It’s fun.”
Imagine hearing praise like that from Kane’s Winnipeg Jets teammates in February 2015. That’s when Kane wore a tracksuit to a team meeting, violating a policy, and big blueliner Dustin Byfuglien may or may not have hurled Kane’s clothes into a shower. When he ended up traded to Buffalo along with Bogosian in a blockbuster days later, the sentiment coming from Manitoba was very much, “Don’t let the door smack you on the way out.” Jets coach Paul Maurice referred to Kane’s relationship with the team as a “difficult marriage.” Kane later told THN he never felt the team “had his back,” especially as he played through injuries. He couldn’t seem to avoid controversy in those days, whether it was CashGate or TracksuitGate or accusations of not paying restaurant bills. Kane and Winnipeg jived about as well as Sean Avery and Martin Brodeur.
So a friendly gesture from Kane’s Sabres teammates, then, really means something. The cognac has the flash we know Kane for, but it also tells us he’s finally found a city and group of people who like him for who he is. Kane actually belongs.
It has to feel good, as Kane has always been different. Growing up half black in Vancouver, he obviously didn’t fit the mold of typical Canadian hockey player. Kane’s father, Perry, a junior hockey player and amateur boxer, prepared his son for that reality early. “My dad always made me aware that I’m not going to always be looked at the same as every other kid and I’m going to have to be that much better than everyone else to get the same opportunity,” Kane said.
Kane's on pace for his best NHL season and he has found a fit with the Sabres. But Buffalo continues to struggle and, as a pending UFA, he's their biggest trade chip.
And Kane wasn’t physically different solely because of his race. He sculpted his body unconventionally, too. Perry, who played a dual role of dad and lifelong trainer, decided to incorporate boxing into his son’s workouts when he was 13. Kane greatly admires the sweet science, living up to his first name, which comes from legendary heavyweight Evander Holyfield. Kane calls boxing the toughest sport to train for, pointing out McGregor’s superfight with Mayweather slipped away in the later rounds when the mixed martial artist’s gas tank couldn’t match the true boxer’s. Training with that conditioning work in mind developed Kane’s tremendous strength and stamina and helped give him the ripped, intimidating physique he still possesses today. Learning boxing had other benefits, too. “I was hoping to go into junior hockey, and there’s fighting, so I wanted to help defend myself,” Kane said. “I don’t do that much anymore, because of injuries and the body needing more rest and relaxation. I stopped doing all that when I was 21, 22. Once in a blue moon, it’s good to sharpen those skills. Fighting is still part of the game, and I think it should be.”
Maybe he also doesn’t drop his mitts because it’s not his choice, as other players might be scared to tangle with him. This is the guy who, as an 18-year-old rookie, knocked out Matt Cooke with one punch in 2010. Per hockeyfights.com, where fans can watch bouts and vote on the winner, Kane’s NHL fisticuffs record is 10-3-1. He’s also riding a five-fight winning streak and hasn’t lost since Luke Schenn got the better of him almost five years ago.
There’s a boogeyman factor in fighting Kane, and it’s just one of the many reasons he breaks the mold. Kane has never been afraid to say or do something controversial. His response to the 2012 incident with the stack of cash in Vegas? Post another photo, two years later, around the anniversary of it, this time with him doing pushups carrying more cash stacks on his back. When visiting New York in 2013, he staged a photo of himself getting arrested by a New York police officer. (Three years later, he actually did get arrested for alleged harassment in a Buffalo bar, though the charges were dropped.)
Sure, Kane might be a little tone deaf with his jokes, but they are jokes nonetheless. Any time he gets into trouble with the media, the common denominator is that he’s trying to have F.U.N., a word the NHL is allergic to sometimes. As the NFL’s TV ratings nosedive, the electric NBA surges in popularity, on track to become king of the four major North American sports, and a big reason why is the fun factor. Pro basketball welcomes a star system in which rival superstar players can tweet taunts at each other leading up to games. It celebrates when LeBron James decides to ride the New York subway before a game and films a video of his experience with his smartphone. It lauds him and Steph Curry for trashing U.S. president Donald Trump online. It lets coaches like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr voice strong, potentially polarizing political opinions.
The NHL has worked to become more socially conscious with initiatives like You Can Play and Hockey is for Everyone, designed to promote equality, but the sport remains light years behind the NBA in its progressiveness. Hockey still shies away from individuality and personalities who like to stand out from a crowd instead of fall in line with the soldiers, subscribing to what Don Cherry calls The Canadian Way. “Part of selling your game is selling your players,” Kane said. “Fans and kids growing up want to see different personalities from players. It’s boring to hear the same thing over and over again. If you look at the reasons why the NBA is so successful, it’s because their best players speak out and show personality and do things outside the sport that are entertaining. That showcases them in a different way. People can be a fan of the sport just because of seeing something else outside of it.”
And Kane’s otherness is of course doubled when he’s outspoken and a visible minority. In a sport where it’s rare to find more than one black player on a team, Kane and P.K. Subban attract more attention than white players whenever they do something for fun. Coverage of either athlete is often laced with micro-aggressive terms like “flamboyant.” Kane tries not to carry that notion around with him, but it’s difficult to ignore. He sees a double standard when it comes to how the media treats his extracurricular activities. “Something outside of the rink, like me holding stacks of cash in Vegas, was just me having a fun time, trying to give a little insight as to what I’m doing when hockey isn’t even going on,” he said. “You’ve got guys like (now-retired wide receiver) Wes Welker throwing money in the air at the Kentucky Derby, $100 bills. He plays in the NFL, and it’s just another day in the life. For me, being a Canadian hockey player in a Canadian market, it was looked at as a selfish, poor thing to do.”
Kane doesn’t want to accuse anyone of outright racism. He says he can’t confidently pinpoint if his media treatment is rooted in that but says he’s absolutely felt it “in people’s underlying thoughts” throughout his career. It helps that, in light of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem kneeling and the NFL’s ensuing war with Trump, the entire world is becoming more comfortable talking about race in sports. “There’s a lot going on in the world that doesn’t have to do with sports,” Kane said. “It has gotten better, but it hasn’t fully gone away.”
Despite knowing he’ll never blend in physically or figuratively, that he’ll never resist speaking his mind, Kane has found in Buffalo an environment where he seems to thrive. Reinhart summarizes the team’s attitude toward Kane best by explaining that it’s not Kane’s fault most of the hockey world doesn’t act the way he does toward the media or in public. Just because he’s different doesn’t mean what he does is wrong, and the Sabres have decided to embrace him for it.
Coincidence or not, Kane is playing the best hockey of his career. His physical style of play tears away at his body – he admits he returned far too early from four broken ribs and a collapsed lung last season – but as the Sabres cleared the 30-game mark, Kane was healthy and on pace to easily beat his career highs of 30 goals and 57 points…just in time for him to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. Oh, the irony. The moment Kane finds real friendship with the likes of Eichel and Reinhart, the moment he realizes his potential as a prototypical power forward, an important career crossroads threatens to change everything.
Kane’s fate between now and July 1 isn’t exclusively in his hands, of course. His current contract, a six-year deal carrying a $5.25-million annual cap hit, has no clauses or limitations in it. If GM Jason Botterill wants to trade Kane, he can and will. The Sabres have finished dead last in the Atlantic Division three times in the past four seasons (that one-year “reprieve” was a seventh-place finish), and they occupied the No. 8 spot again through mid-December. The odds of rallying to join the playoff race looks very unlikely, especially with Buffalo sharing a division with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, the Eastern Conference’s winningest teams. That positions Botterill to be a definite seller in his first year as Sabres GM. With Matt Duchene now donning an Ottawa Senators uniform and John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Michael Backlund and James Neal all playing for teams in playoff positions, Kane looks like the No. 1 available rental forward this winter. Teams will line up in hopes of bolstering their top-six with his combination of speed, strength, nastiness and goal-scoring ability, all of which combine to trump any concern that he brings potential dressing-room distraction with him. It’s probable the bidding war will allow Botterill to demand a first-round pick plus a good prospect for Kane, whose trade value has never been higher given the fact he’s stayed healthy and productive so far this season.
But maybe he’s become too important to this franchise, especially given the chemistry he’s found with Eichel. Maybe trading Kane just leaves the Sabres searching for another Kane. He’s only 26, so he has several peak seasons left in him. It’s possible, then, that Botterill wants to re-sign Kane, though the Sabres and Kane’s camp at Newport Sports had reportedly not yet engaged in any contract talks.
And there’s no guarantee Kane wants to return. If the Sabres decide not to trade him, he’ll have to decide between the names scrawled on the cognac bottle and starting again somewhere else. Re-signing with Buffalo would mean digging roots into a team culture where he fits and has played his best hockey. It would also mean staying in a market known for its frigid weather and loyal fans but not for its swanky nightlife. And is Kane willing to walk way from the biggest financial opportunity of his life? You only get to be a first-time UFA once. He’ll stare down a mammoth payday this July, with the chance to sign wherever he wants. Given his playboy ways, would a California team like the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks tempt him? What about the bright lights of Manhattan? The New York Rangers will clear Rick Nash’s $7.8-million cap hit off their books, after all. Even Kane can’t deny the allure of going to market just to experience free agency for the first time. “You’ve got to live in reality,” he said. “This is my ninth year in the league. I’m very aware that, as much as it’s a game, No. 1, it’s always a business. It’s always about money. You see that with lockouts and CBA negotiations and player holdouts. That’s why you have an agent, to make you aware of your options, your possibilities that may happen and what goes on during or after a season.”
That’s an uncharacteristically diplomatic answer for Kane. And maybe it’s a telling one, spoken like someone who doesn’t want to turn his back on his new friends just yet. If his GM doesn’t make the decision for him with a trade this season, Kane must choose between the lifestyle he adores – and a group of people who adore him.