Given that some of the silliness that the comments after posts on this blog can be was the inspiration for the column that ran in last night's Indian, I figured I should post it here. Hope you enjoy it after the jump.
As Sam has pointed out on a few occasions in the past in his editorials, this is sometimes a confounding sports town in the way many of the fans lionize mediocre players, and place a premium on working hard with limited talent. It’s the reason Kyle Orton was a borderline folk hero here, sometimes ridiculously compared to Johnny Unitas. It’s the reason that many of my fellow White Sox fans have convinced themselves that the 2005 World Series was won with "small ball", even though the numbers show the team slugged its way to the title.
And it’s also the reason that Jonathan Toews is the worst teammate Patrick Kane could ever have.
Now before you immediately start to wipe your ass with this page of the program, please hear me out on this one. Given the way that a vocal portion of Chicago sports fans demand that their athletic heroes be as "blue-collar" as they perceive themselves as being, as well as the respective personalities and skill sets of both Toews and Kane, there is no one in hockey that Patrick Kane could have that could paint him in a less favorable light to those fans than Jonathan Toews.
If you’ve purchased this program, chances are you’re quite familiar with the player profiles of the Blackhawks two young stars, so I won’t waste much space comparing and contrasting what it is they do on the ice. There is Toews cast as the humble, highly-skilled, do-everything centerman and emerging young captain with a borderline-maniacal fixation on winning, Kane as the flashy playmaker with an occasional propensity for off-ice antics.
Fans have given Kane a rough ride throughout a good portion of his two-and-a-quarter seasons with the Blackhawks for various reasons. He’s soft. He’s too small. He’s a whiner. He’s immature. He doesn’t backcheck. He showboats. He doesn’t try hard enough. Of all of those statements, the dig on immaturity might be the only one that has ever held any water, but keep in mind that he is still ONLY 20 years old, and into his third NHL season. This particular criticism is brought into even sharper contrast having Jonathan Toews as a teammate; one who is less than a year older than Kane and an absolute freak of maturity and competitive desire. Toews was the third youngest player in the history of the league to be named captain of his team, and arguably the greatest captain in league history, Steve Yzerman, has nothing but effusive praise for his fellow #19 in the leadership department. This is just not normal for a 21-year old NHLer.
On the ice, Toews continues to make Kane look like nothing more than a primadonna wide receiver to those who need their athletes to be working class with his competitive will and ability to answer the bell in any situation his coach asks him to perform in any phase of the game. Whereas Kane is simply asked to make the offense cook while being defensively responsible, he is then in turn villified for the appearance of so-called soft play. Even as Kane has progressively grown into one of the NHL’s premiere offensive talents by adding strength and size to his frame as well as a now lethal shot to compliment his puck handling wizardry and pinpoint passing, there are still those who believe that when the Cap Apocalypse arrives at the conclusion of this season, Kane will be the one who the Hawks can afford to let walk. Bluntly speaking, anyone who believes that is putting aesthetic over production far more than they project Kane and his alleged showboating to do on and off the ice. While he might not serve the same purpose on the ice as Toews, Kane is just as valuable a piece of the puzzle.
While it may not appear that Kane is "trying" as hard when on the ice to some fans out there, often times it’s because he’s so good, he’s making things look easy. The reality of the situation is that Kane has been told his entire career since being a bantam that he’s been too small. Call it a Napoleon Complex if you will, but in spite of what you perceive to be a will to win as compared to Jonathan Toews, that little shit has the heart of a lion, and will do anything to let you know just how much you’ll pay if you ever doubt his abilities.Witness the goal in game 5 against Detroit last year, where he scored a clutch goal on an individual effort that possibly only two other people in the world could have accomplished. Even now this season, he’s showing up you, the fan who demands he be more blue collar, by controlling the puck in the hard, dirty, nasty areas of the ice where so-called runts often fear to tread. Yet still the perception remains that he floats, because Jonathan Toews commands the boards like few in the game do.
Because I was too young to remember the general opinion of him during the height of his talent, it makes me wonder if Denis Savard, the last truly elite puck handler and playmaker the Hawks possessed, was subject to these criticisms. While the past is certainly now viewed through rose colored glasses regarding Savvy's career, punctuated by every pregame highlight montage, hertiage night, and road watch appearance, did Hawks fans at the time want him to get his own nose a little dirtier rather than letting Al Secord take care of that department? Additionally, do fans of other teams who have now, or had in the past a flashy offensive talent, demand that player appear to be something they're not? While I'm certainly not comparing the accomplishments of the two, I'm curious if fans of the Canucks in the mid-90s wanted Pavel Bure to look like he was trying harder, or this this an exclusively Chicago thing?
All that being said, there are bigger issues to worry about at present, namely the power play and injuries to key players. By virtue of the fact that this discussion is even being had, it means that the Blackhawks have two of the top young talents in the game, which is always a good thing. But, until that vocal sect of fans who demand the appearance of blue collar work ethic from elite white collar talent learn to appreciate what incredible hockey they’re witnessing from both Toews and Kane, Kane will continue to suffer through the unjust criticisms. However, if the past is any indication, it will only fuel him to greater successes.