Why ‘fiercely independent’ Kane must change ways

Evander Kane. (John Woods/CP)

There are a ton of questions about Evander Kane. None of them involve his game.

“He can do everything necessary to be a prototypical modern-day power forward,” said an executive from a potential trade partner. “You name it, he can do it.”

“This guy is one hell of a player,” added another.

“You watch that kid his first two years in the league, there was nothing about him that said third-line player,” said a third. “How is he in that role at 23, six years into his NHL career?”

The answer is complicated. Since Kane’s benching last Tuesday in Vancouver, everyone’s been trying to find out exactly what happened between him, his teammates and the Winnipeg organization. Through dozens of interviews, a complex picture emerges.

A note about methodology: There were many people (including his junior coach, Don Hay) who politely refused to talk. No current members of the Jets on- or off-ice were willing to speak. Most who did declined to go on-record, mostly because they work for opposing teams and did not want to risk tampering accusations. Three who did agree to be quoted were John Anderson (who coached his rookie season in Atlanta), Claude Noel (his bench boss in Winnipeg from 2011-14) and Don Waddell, President of Gale Force Sports & Entertainment, which runs the Carolina Hurricanes. Waddell was general manager, and later, president of the Atlanta Thrashers.

In fairness to them, none of the anonymous quotes are theirs.

One of the things you learn about Kane? He is fiercely independent. It is a major reason he made it to the NHL. But, like many of us, your best characteristic can also be your worst. One former teammate said, “He refuses to conform, and that’s a problem in a team dynamic.”

“He’s got a huge ego, but you know what? You need that to do well,” Anderson said Monday.
“Wayne Gretzky has a huge ego, but you’d never know it. Rick Vaive had one, that 50-goal mentality. But you have to learn to control it, handle it a little bit.”

“Evander can be an impact player,” Noel said. “He can help a hockey team. He has to find a middle ground, a way to be part of a group. Maturity is a factor, but not in the way that he is immature. I’m talking about maturity being an understanding of what you can be and how you can get there.”

“He has a tremendous will to succeed. He’s driven, but needs to learn how to focus that correctly. His will to win is sincere. Some things need to change, but Evander can be an elite player in the end. He has to want to invest to get there.”

Kane was drafted fourth overall in 2009, and immediately made the Thrashers. He rose to the challenge, with 14 goals, 26 points and 62 penalty minutes in 66 games. Plus/minus is a flawed stat, but he was a positive player on a team with lots of minuses. He lived for about a month with Colby Armstrong, then moved into his own apartment, although his parents spent considerable time there. (Armstrong, who now works at Sportsnet, didn’t want to contribute, saying, “It’s almost piling-on now.”)

“Anytime you bring young players to your team, you have to assess what their makeup is,” Waddell says now. “Evander Kane, as an 18-year-old, was ready to play in the NHL.”

He was young, with money, in a city where a hockey player can be anonymous. Before he played even one regular-season game, the team set up a meeting between Kane and the man he was named after, former World Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield. It was all over local television in an effort to sell tickets — a big ask for a young player.

It was a hard season with a fractured group. Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen were traded. Slava Kozlov publicly complained about ice-time. They were 12th in goals for, 24th in goals against. Anderson was fired as they missed the playoffs by five points.

Even off the record, several sources agreed with Waddell. Kane was not the problem. There was, however, one moment that, with the events of the past week, really stands out. He wore a track suit to a practice in Toronto.

His teammates cut them into short shorts. Kane had to wear them on the team bus back to the hotel. But this did not escalate into any kind of confrontation.

“At our year-end meeting, I told him I thought he had a very good year,” Anderson said. “He said he didn’t think I played him enough, that he could have been better with more ice-time. I told him that if I played him more, he might not have developed as well as he did.”

Was that a terse exchange? “No, it was very respectful,” the coach replied.

But one then-Thrasher admits that team could teach bad habits: “It wasn’t the best environment for him to learn. He could certainly get the impression bad behaviour would be tolerated.”

Waddell bristles at that, but admits Scott Mellanby’s retirement two years before Kane’s arrival changed things — and not for the better.

“Did we have a strong locker room?” he asks rhetorically. “When Mellanby retired… you can’t make up for what he brought.”

Following Kane’s rookie season, Atlanta made three major trades to improve the team and culture. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks faced a massive salary cap crunch. GM Stan Bowman made two separate deals with the Thrashers, sending Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel southeast. Seven months later, the Boston Bruins dealt Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler to Georgia.

They became the dominant personalities. Some think it was for the better, others say it created different issues. Whatever the case, Kane and the newcomers mixed like gunpowder and liquid nitrogen. In retrospect, it’s amazing it took this long to boil over.

When the franchise moved to Winnipeg, the new organization was told there were fissures. Noel wouldn’t discuss that, but did say the relationship “needs to work both ways.”

“Evander needs to do his part and his teammates need to do theirs. In Winnipeg, both have tried that,” he said.

Obviously, it didn’t work.

This won’t be the first time Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff holds serious talks about trading Evander Kane. Other teams believe Winnipeg’s come close at least twice, although good luck trying to get Cheveldayoff to confirm that. What it means is due diligence has been done before.

Despite that, information will be updated.

“It’s not in the Jets’ best interests to tell you everything, because they want to trade him,” one rival exec says. “You can’t leave any stone unturned.”

“You’re going to have to trust your network, really dig to see what you can find,” said another. “Because they are going to ask for a lot.”

None of the opposing executives voiced any concern about Kane’s bold social-media moments. The famous Floyd Mayweather money-phone picture? It was almost like, “Who cares?”

Here’s what they will investigate:

THE INJURY

By far, the biggest criticism of Kane is he had the shoulder surgery after being punished, sure making it look like he pulled the chute in a huff — not because he needed to.

“It stinks,” said one of the executives quoted above. “Even if not on-purpose, good luck trying to convince anybody.”

But, one former NHLer (who now works for a team) reached out unsolicited to defend Kane. This retiree had the same injury.

“First of all, if you haven’t had that injury, it is painful,” he said. “And the surgery was even more painful. For me, it’s commendable that he tried to play. I understand there is more to the story, a buildup between him and the team, but it’s ridiculous to hear people jumping on his character when the tried to play through that.”

“I was playing at 50 per cent, maybe,” he continued. “I couldn’t handle the puck. There are two ways to look at it. You can see someone who is young, selfish, and immature who overreacted, but empathize with how it feels to play with that injury on a daily basis. You’re expected to score, be a shooter and be physical. You expect yourself to perform and produce. When you don’t because you’re hurt, you’re thinking, ‘I’m useless.’”

“Tough thing to accept.”

There is no doubt these feelings played into Kane’s anger. He definitely feels his efforts were unappreciated, especially as the Jets battled an injury plague.

HIS LATENESS

Full confession: Not long after joining Hockey Night In Canada, Harry Neale nicknamed me “five-to-seven,” because I’m five to seven minutes late for everything. During my time at The FAN radio in Toronto (1994-97), I was suspended one week for being 15 minutes late for an on-air shift.

And, at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Kelly Hrudey blasted me in front of about 15 co-workers for continually being late. He apologized for it later, but I told him he had nothing to apologize for. He wasn’t wrong. So, I am uniquely qualified to comment.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that, in Vancouver, Kane answered his phone shortly before game time and told the Jets he wouldn’t play. That’s the same story I heard, but others have denied that, saying he was on the way to the game when Cheveldayoff told him not to bother.

Whatever the case, Kane wasn’t there when he should have been for a game the team desperately needed. There is a long list of stories like this, of being late or cutting it way too close. My co-workers don’t accept it from me, and his shouldn’t accept it from him.

No defence for this, and he’s going to have to explain how he’ll change. (It’s not easy.)

IF MY PLAYERS MAKE THE EFFORT, WILL HE?

There are a few teams who indicated they are not in the least bit concerned about this.

“From the previous research I’ve done,” one GM said, “I’d trade for him, no problem.”

Another said his biggest issue might be the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the current CBA, players are entitled to their own road hotel room once they sign their second contract.

“Can I force him to room with someone?” he asked. “If he’s not rooming together, not socializing together with my strongest players, can we do it?”

Apparently, Kane doesn’t go out for dinner with his teammates too often. Considering what we know now about their relationship, that’s not a shock. But, there have been complaints that friends meet him on road trips too often.

“He may not be an easy guy to like, but that doesn’t stop him from being a good player,” another exec added. “Chris Pronger could be miserable, but he was a good player.”

It’s an interesting comparison because Pronger grew into someone dedicated to his craft. He worked hard and studied harder. What’s losing traction is the idea Kane’s still young and will do that, too. Next year will be his seventh season. Some players do change. But, every GM will tell you they’ve been burned by a guy who didn’t. And, in a suddenly tight cap world, every mistake leaves a deeper scar.

“You’re going to ask yourself a tough question,” one exec said. “What if this is who he is?”

IS THIS JUST ABOUT WINNIPEG?

It’s no secret Kane feels he’s trapped in a fishbowl. Rumours are magnified in such a small, hockey-mad market. He will definitely tell interested teams a change of scenery equals a changed man.

That’s why teams will be interested. If true, you’re the proud owner of an effective, powerful forward.

“Jeff Carter is a talented guy who needed direction, to be shown the way,” one scout said. “Now he’s a different player on and off the ice, a real leader on that team. You wouldn’t have said that previously. I see real similarities between those guys.”

Can Evander Kane convince teams he can do it, too?