ON ANY GIVEN DAY IN THE CITY OF CHICAGO, A STREAM OF out-of-towners—sometimes by the busload—makes a 10-minute detour west from the city center to Madison Street in order to marvel at a statue that salutes the world's most famous basketball player. In late May of 2010, however, as the city prepared to host its first Stanley Cup finals in 18 years, those visitors arrived to behold Michael Jordan, frozen as ever in one of his signature leaps, outfitted in a hockey helmet and sweater, with skate blades affixed to his Air Jordans.
The gussied-up statue was emblematic of the Blackhawks fever that gripped Chicago and served as a reminder that the closest thing the city has to an heir apparent—or make that hair apparent—to MJ may be a Blackhawk, specifically 21-year-old winger Patrick Kane, who just might inherit the title of prince of the Windy City. During the playoffs the NHL sold (for $19.99) official MULLET MANIA T-shirts emblazoned with Kane's youthful visage. In hockey's grand tradition of bad haircuts, Kane's playoff mullet is merely one in a long line. With steps shaved into the sides of his head and tufts of curls covering the nape of his neck, the throwback 'do isn't as egregious as the mullet worn by Jaromir Jagr during the 1990s, but certainly no other awesomely bad coif has generated as much Stanley Cup buzz. Kane estimates he has fielded around 100 media questions about the cut he describes as "Billy Ray Cyrus with a touch of Vanilla Ice."
But for Kane, the cheeky first-liner who maneuvers over the ice like a Maserati, "business in the front, party in the back" doesn't describe just his hair; it's always been his head-to-toe style. Kane is as determined a scorer as there is in the NHL. He's also one of the flashiest. He led Chicago with 30 goals and 88 points this season and finished second on the team to captain Jonathan Toews in postseason-point scoring. Since Kane arrived as the first pick in the 2007 draft, the Buffalo native has won over the city with his skills and approachability. He is the razzle-dazzle counterpoint to the gritty, earnest leadership of Toews, forming a pair that not only led the way to the Blackhawks' first Stanley Cup in 49 years but also should be the foundation for years to come. In December, Kane and Toews were signed to identical five-year, $31.5 million contract extensions that could keep them in Chicago through the 2014-15 season.
"HE'S JUST A BIG KID," VETERAN CENTER JOHN MADDEN says. "He's out there having fun. He doesn't feel the pressures of the game." The 5' 10" Kane may still be a child at heart—he is as playful as he is self-confident—but seeing how easily he shakes off defensemen, such as the Flyers' 6-foot, 205-pound Matt Carle during the finals, it's apparent he is a player beyond his years. Fast and nifty, he's known to his teammates as the Doctor for his precision with a hockey stick. In Chicago's clinching 5-1 win over the Canucks in Game 6 of the second round, he took a cross-ice pass from Toews on his right skate just outside the offensive zone and in one move kicked the puck onto his stick and cut inside, blowing past befuddled Vancouver blueliner Kevin Bieksa and wristing a shot past goaltender Roberto Luongo. "The puck seems to be glued to his stick," said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk two days before Game 1 of the finals. "He's a tough guy to [check] or make a good play against, just because when the puck's on his stick, he can do a lot of great things with it."
Sometimes those great things happen even before a game has begun. Near the end of warmups before the finals opener, he twice lifted a puck with the blade of his stick and flipped it over the glass to a couple of lucky fans. It was a quiet gesture of appreciation from a young man who remembers what it was like to be on the other side of the glass, just a face in the crowd at a Sabres game. It's that same memory that led him to seek out the little girl who wore his jersey to the Team USA announcement at Fenway Park on New Year's Day to make sure he autographed it.
"He is a superstar in town, but he still just hangs out," teammate Adam Burish says. "He's accessible; he's not bigger than life. He doesn't carry himself that way. He has dinner in a normal restaurant, and he doesn't go and sit in the back room or whatever." For all Kane's skill and bravado, a part of him is still that kid in the stands. And as kids are prone to do, he makes mistakes.
ON A BRIGHT SUMMER DAY LAST AUG. 17, KANE'S swagger had all but disappeared. In front of 50 reporters gathered at a suburban Chicago ice rink to watch the U.S. Olympic orientation camp, Kane walked to a podium wearing a black suit and a solemn expression. In a 51-second statement, his first public words after the incident that tarnished his all-American-boy image, he apologized for "being in the wrong position at the wrong time."
Eight days earlier Kane and his cousin James Kane had been arrested by Buffalo police at 5 a.m. for allegedly roughing up a cab driver who said he couldn't produce 20 cents in change. They eventually pleaded guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and were ordered to write an apology to the cabbie. "Everyone was telling me, you know, you can't say anything to the media," Patrick recalls. "Just lay low. Don't say anything. Don't tell them the whole incident and everything."
But it wasn't easy to stay quiet when he saw his mug shot popping up on gossip websites, and the Internet peanut gallery began calling him 20 Cent. "I just wanted to tell my side of the story, which I never really have and probably never will," he says. Then he pauses before saying, "But it's over now."
In the weeks after the incident Kane found release at the gym. "Right after I was just like, I've got to work off some steam," he says. He followed his preseason exercise program but tacked on an extra hour just to "pump things out of my body," he says. "When I came back for the season, I was just, like, ready to go."