It is not really all that surprising that Patrick Kane is in trouble again. I’m not going to go into the details of the trouble, because the details are as yet all gossip and hearsay, but the gist is that, just like the last time, and the time before that, and the time before, Patrick Kane got very drunk, told everyone who he was, and let them take pictures to send to Deadspin. He committed one of the most scandalous acts a man can commit in a hockey culture that considers the dull stoicism of Jonathan Toews to be normal behavior for a 20-something guy: he partied publicly.
As with every time Kane gets into trouble, there was a round of shocked responses followed by a round of snarkily unshocked responses. For every writer who is concerned about the children in a world with such role models, there is another ready to tell them that every 23-year old guy on the continent does exactly the same thing, and when the precious children grow up they’re going to do it too. This is modern hockey’s relationship with drunken partying: we reflexively condemn it, then question our own condemnation.
Where alcohol is concerned, hockey has a deep puritanical streak. Far more than in other walks of life, hockey people are apt to see drinking as a character flaw and the abstention from drinking as an emblem of strength. Teams will routinely ask players to limit or give up drinking in order to demonstrate their commitment to winning. The NHL carefully promotes the image of its young players as the kind who sit home on a Saturday nights, playing X-Box and sipping Cokes. And, as we have learned again, media will immediately connect any non-Stanley-related incident of public drinking to words like embarrassment, distraction, problem, immature, selfish. Hockey has an uncomfortable relationship with alcohol.
But it comes by it honestly. The game is famous for its gods, but it has its demons too, and drinking is one of the most familiar. There have been players whose careers and lives have ended prematurely due to alcohol virtually since the beginning of the game. Howie Morenz was a massive drinker, and although it didn’t kill him, it was almost certainly a contributing factor to the precipitous drop-off in play in his final years. Busher Jackson drank himself off the Maple Leafs and into an early grave. Doug Harvey drank so heavily he rendered himself unemployable and lived out of a rail car for a time, ultimately dying of cirrhosis. Bryan Fogarty’s entire career was a cycle of failed attempts to go sober that killed him at 32. Derek Sanderson, Bob Probert… hell, I don’t even know all the names, but I bet together we could come up with a list of at least fifty players who battled serious alcohol problems, a lot of whom lost. There is a horrific legacy here that must be acknowledged.
Some of these guys would likely have ended up alcoholics no matter what profession they’d chosen. There are genetic and temperamental factors that predispose certain people to addictive behavior more than others, and some of those people are inevitably going to end up in hockey. However, hockey (especially in the early days when both pay and medical treatment were poor) does push a number of psychological drinking-buttons. It forces shy men into the spotlight and introverts into the public eye. It makes its practitioners live with both the nagging pain of old injuries and the tense anticipation of pain from future ones. It takes people away from their families and homes for large chunks of the season, spinning them through a cycle of time zones and airports and hotel rooms in a destabilizing, irregular pattern. It’s a stressful, painful job, and alcohol is a great balm for frayed nerves.
Which is why, from the earliest days, there has been a strong prohibitionist streak in the game. As much as we like to think of the history of hockey as full of raucous, drunken hijinks, if anything the anti-drinking movement was stronger back then. Three of the great architects of the Original Six dynasties- Jack Adams, Conn Smythe, and Frank Selke- were committed non-drinkers. They were all three aware of how quickly drinking could ruin a career, and Smythe had a distinct preference for players who stayed away from the vice. Syl Apps was a great player, but his captaincy of the Leafs was given as much on his reputation for clean living- non-smoking and non-drinking- as on his talent. Under Smythe the Elder’s tenure, there was no alcohol sold in Maple Leaf Gardens, and when he was called upon to select the first rounds of candidates for the Hall of Fame, he assiduously blocked players- even Leafs- who he felt had embarrassed hockey with their drinking problems. Modern coaches who use anti-drinking measures in their locker rooms, from Laviolette’s Dry Island to the Trotz’s outsized moral outrage at the Radulov bender, are the heirs of Smythe’s philosophy of team-building: that alcohol has no place in hockey unless it is drunk from the Cup.
It’s a difficult balance for the game. Alcoholism is a real problem. It’s been a real problem for a very long time, and has laid low too many of our heroes for us to claim otherwise. The shocked brigade who worry that Patrick Kane is heading down that dark path may be overreacting, but it’s not as if there’s no precedent for their concerns, and they’re absolutely right to say that the Blackhawks need to be keeping an eye on the issue. On the other hand, alcohol is the drug of choice in Western society. It is the foundation upon which many of our social interactions are built, and it is a key part of how we define the wild, reckless, boundary-breaking fun that we insist, time and again, is a necessary part of youth. We didn’t just make it legal, we made it essential. We’re a drinking culture. People in a drinking culture gonna drink. When Frank Selke quit Smythe’s tyrannical organization with it’s military discipline, he did it with a single sentence, “Lincoln freed the slaves.” Hockey players aren’t indentured servants any more and we can’t expect them to submit to unreasonably draconian team cultures. We’re past the point of being able to blame them for having the same vices as the rest of us.
What hockey occasionally forgets and what, in the case of Patrick Kane, it needs to remember is this: partying and alcoholism aren’t the same thing. They do overlap, sometimes, but often they don’t. Partiers pick a time and a place and go wild. Wild enough to make for melodramatic, hilarious, awful stories full of fistfights and vomit and ill-advised hook-ups that they can tell their envious friends for years. But then they pass out, wake up, and go through most of the week pretty much sober, until the next partying weekend. Alcoholism is different. Alcoholism is a long, slow drowning. It’s not sexy and exciting. It’s not obvious. Nobody snaps cell phone pictures of it or sends salacious emails to Deadspin. I will bet you any amount of money I have to bet that there are players in the NHL with far more severe, dangerous alcohol problems than Patrick Kane who none of us have heard a thing about, because when they drink, they drink alone.
The fact that Kane gets drunk in spectacular fashion from time to time, in a culture where binge drinking is the defining experience of the early 20s, in itself is not a sign of anything. Maybe he’s an asshole, maybe he’s a misogynist, maybe he’s not a very good leader, who knows, maybe someday he will have an alcohol problem. All these things are matters of gossip, opinion, and conjecture. His public partying habits, however, are not evidence for any of them. As far as I can tell, he’s not violating team rules. He’s not doing his drinking on company time, he’s not neglecting his conditioning, missing buses, trashing curfew. He’s keeping his drinking within the confines of what his job specifically designates as his off-hours. We have no evidence that it’s controlling his life. We have no evidence that it’s alcoholism. It’s just partying.
We’ve all been there. A less wealthy, less famous, less six-packy version, of course, but the same general place. If he’s like most of us, he’ll grow out of it. Maybe, someday, he’ll even grow into the Great Leader some reporters apparently think he ought to be already. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll always be a good-time guy, a talented player who doesn’t take it quite as seriously as people would like, the raucous American twist on the skilled-but-disinterested Russian stereotype. Point is, like every other 23-year old on the continent, where he is now does not define who he will be forever. He deserves the time, the time we all got, to get tired of the bar/club/frat party scene, grow up, and move on. We’ve gotten too comfortable expecting young players to show up in the NHL as fully formed adults, with all the manliness and maturity and stoicism and dullness we expect of veteran leaders. Maybe Patrick Kane is our reminder that, hockey players, like every other kind of people, aren’t born adults. Some of them need a bit of time to become adults.