WINNIPEG—It was right there for the taking for Evander Kane.
The dagger. The I-told-you-so dagger. Or the screw-you, I’m-just-fine-without-you exclamation point, from the heart.
And he passed it up. Or, at least, he changed the narrative, undoubtedly endeared himself to his teammates and demonstrated the way in which some perceive him may not be correct.
With seconds left in Sunday’s triumphant return to this Manitoba capital as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Kane was presented with an empty net, with the hometown Jets pressing for the equalizer.
But he passed, allowing Reinhart to complete his first career hat trick, ending the Sabres’ six-game losing slide. Everybody, from every fan in the building, to his teammates, to head coach Dan Bylsma, knew Kane wanted that goal.
But he passed.
“I’ve never scored a hat trick in this league yet,” he smiled. “So when you get an opportunity to get one... he’s a young kid, wide open, I might as well hit him with a pass, get him his hat trick.”
Just like that, Kane brilliantly undercut all the nasty storylines that have been written about him. Like a savvy diplomat, he instinctively knew a better way to end this story, or at least this chapter in his story, and he chose the right path. Not the most flamboyant, not the one that might please his social media followers, but the right one.
“It says a lot about him,” said Reinhart, who is quietly having a very effective season. “For him to handle this “welcome back” the way he did, and then make the play he did, it shows he’s unselfish, and will do anything for this team.”
The Sabres sure needed that moment, and probably so did Kane. He hasn’t been able to light it up in Buffalo, not yet, and so he didn’t come back to Winnipeg in a position to crow, to boast that he was in a far better place than he would be if he’d stayed a Jet.
Jets fans undoubtedly imagined a different script, certainly one in which their team won, and Kane was either made to look like a fool or beaten to a pulp.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Kane’s team won, and he came out looking like the team player.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is probably that.
Any dislike this hockey town had or may have had for Kane, the young man who didn’t want to be a Manitoban hockey hero, seemed to dissipate on a frigid, clear day like hot breath into the wind. One suspects this won’t linger further, that the next time Kane shows up in town with the Sabres or another NHL outfit, it won’t be much of an event at all.
Why was Sunday’s return to Winnipeg for Kane so, well, uneventful? Oh, a bunch of reasons, probably. In a season where Jets fans seem still passionate but somewhat perplexed by the state of their underachieving hockey club, it may have been difficult to rouse the requisite emotions to care too much about a player who no longer can help their team.
So this was no hate-on. There wasn’t an angry mob waiting for Kane, anxious to pile invective on top of insult at a player who was never the most popular Jet when he was here, and when he left brought a pretty good package of talent in return.
“Best Trade EV-ER” went the chant in the second period, and while that’s an exaggeration, certainly Winnipeggers haven’t been burnt (yet) by the impact Kane has made in Western New York State, either. So while they didn’t play a video tribute for him, one suspects Kane left town thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”
It was, as these much-anticipated games are so often, rather anti-climatic. The audience seemed oddly disengaged, as though the hype about Kane’s return had fallen on deaf or uninterested ears. Usually, these kinds of stories develop from on-ice incidents, and perhaps that’s why it failed to stir the passions of Winnipeg hockey fans like a white-out or a even a night when St. Louis is in town.
Kane’s dispute with the Jets was really based on him not wanting to play in this city, to some degree a business decision. Winnipeggers live every day with the knowledge some aren’t hardy or imaginative enough to thrive in this place, and minus-26 temperatures outside the MTS Centre at gametime were certainly evidence of a place that can be a challenge to live in.
It was nothing at all like the charged atmosphere of last spring’s playoff games against Anaheim. The building was largely empty for the warmup, which meant the vast majority of the sold out audience missed seeing Kane take two strides, step on a puck, fall on his face and then pop up like he’d tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and hoped no one had noticed.
“All part of the plan,” he said afterwards. “I was looking to get some cheers out of the crowd. I thought that would do it.”
All the players involved had gone out of their way to make this game seem unimportant, or just another game, which seems to be the way of the modern NHL. Quiet professionalism, no showmanship, no Tie Domi making a main event out of his next game with Bob Probert.
It was billed as #tracksuitnight, and there were a smattering of such outfits, intended as a living reference to Kane’s dress code violation that immediately preceded his departure from the Jets last winter. But many more fans wore dark blue Jets jerseys. Like it was any other game.
Indeed, this may have been the day Winnipeg joined the other Canadian teams as being knowledgable about the sport, but happy to sit and watch quietly and wait for either something to cheer for or the video board to urge them on. Same kiss-cam, same mugging for the video board, same yelling and yelping when the scoreboard urged them to “Get Loud” or “Get Louder.”
Much of the time, the rink was eerily quiet. You know - like the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
“Most buildings are about the same,” said Kane, about as close to a hurtful thing as he could have said to a Winnipeg devotee. “If you come out early, get a goal, it usually quiets things down.”
Early, there were unenthusiastic “Kane You Suck” chants. By the second, there was a little more imagination to it, with “In The Shower” - another track suit reference. Kane was booed whenever he touched the puck, but so often it was on his stick and then off a moment later, it hardly offered the opportunity for sustained jeers.
It never looked like he was a player on a particular mission, or with something special to prove in this particular game.
He almost scored on his first shift of the game, but for the most part was a central figure in the plot but not in the actual competition. Dustin Byfuglien sent him sprawling in the second period with a well-timed hip check in the neutral zone, and Drew Stafford backchecked hard later in the period to thwart Kane’s attempt to get to a rebound of a Jamie McGinn shot.
Kane drew a penalty on Tyler Myers, along with Stafford the key players that went to Winnipeg in last February’s blockbuster trade, and Reinhart scored on the subsequent powerplay. When Marcus Foligno put Buffalo ahead 3-2 in the third, it was for good.
“I’m glad we got two points and we got off this slide,” said Kane, desperately trying to play down his featured role on this day. “This is Game 42 for us, start of the second half. We needed to get back on the winning side of things.”
He declined to delve too deeply into his feelings, or perhaps he was sick of being asked about how he perceived his treatment at the hands of Winnipeg fans.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It really had no bearing on what I thought or how I played. I didn’t really have a reaction to it,” he said.
He can now move on - eight goals in 32 games means he’s got more pressing matters to focus on - and do so with the Winnipeg chapter of his career closed.
One pass at the end did the trick.