Patrick Kane, caught in the vile act of cheating on hockey with another sport.

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.

Comments (15)

  1. I think you captured the situation very nicely

  2. Just want to thank you for your incredibly well written and researched post! I really enjoyed that in depth look at hockey’s relationship with drinking. As a young fan and a fairly new one, I wasn’t aware all of that existed but it does explains some things I’ve noticed myself.

    I agree the speculation of Kaner’s alcoholism and condemnation of him for that is premature. If anything his partying is an indication that it’s not alcoholism. I certainly agree that what he needs is time to *learn* to grow up, but given he’s been “learning to grow up” since his underage incident 3 yrs ago, followed by various image hiccups, I’m more concerned that he doesn’t know what “grow up and move on” really is. In fact, I’d venture the guess that because he parties in these over zealous but short bursts, it’s going to take him a lot longer to tire of the scene. Especially when so few real consequences come with it.

    But that’s besides the point for me. My problem is the /HOW/ of his partying. You’re right, we’ve all had that age but this is not getting up on table tops and doing your rendition of coyote ugly (thanks Tyler Seguin); this isn’t even sloppy “dude i was so drunk, I…” wasted stories you tell your friends. As you said “Maybe he’s an asshole, maybe he’s a misogynist… All these things are matters of gossip, opinion, and conjecture.” But there’s a reason why those things pop up and it’s not because “everybody is out to get Kaner!” If anything, his partying behavior IS evidence for whether he’s an asshole/misogynist sober because his version of partying is apparently just the public display of every entitled mindset he could possible have.

    Anyways. Those are my thinky thoughts. Thanks again for writing the post. It was interesting and informative.

  3. Just want to point out that “the dull stoicism of Jonathan Toews” we see now may be quite different than the Jonathan Toews who attended/played for UND for 2 years. Maybe he got all of his party out prior to hitting the NHL. Kane didn’t have that same “opportunity”.

  4. Great post again. What might also be interesting is a look at the other side–the superserious, stoic and mature figure of manliness that hockey (and moms everywhere) idolizes. One of the things that’s always bothered me about Crosby is that he’s so serious to the point that you can’t actually imagine him having fun–he probably does crunches while watching TV–but I wonder if he acts that way simply because he’s doing what a guy like him is *supposed* to do? I haven’t done the research into this, but does that all come from Conn Smythe as well, or is it something of a reaction to the Slapshot 70s?

  5. Wow, that was stated quite succinctly. Couldn’t have put it any better myself.

  6. Great article! I agree with pretty much all of it. Just wanted to add that it took me a LONG time to grow out of that phase, and I didn’t have millions of dollars, limos, or women throwing themselves at me to add fuel to the fire. (Nor was I in a frat). I still party from time to time, but it’s with my friends, their wives, and my wife. Once Kaner finds a soulmate, female or otherwise, he’ll settle down in a hurry. It worked for me, and I love my wife more every day for that!

  7. IIn my experience as a youth hockey coach of a 16U team I can attest to the difficulties involved in educating teen age athletes about the importance of making healthy choices to remain free from adverse effects of drinking and partying on their athleticism, academics ,and general well being. As long as they remain in my stewardship I tell my players that drinking and playing hockey at a high level are incompatible,in other words a zero tolerance policy governs. The initiation into a culture of drinking & partying typically begins in adolescence when peer pressure is at its strongest and youth most impressionable. The negative impact of Kane’s bad boy behavior upon young hockey players as role model for todays youth cannot be understated .In my constant struggle to positively stimulate their hearts and minds I must compete with the temptation to emulate bad boy antics of a seemingly successful rule breaker

    My teaching players self respect and respect for the incredible game they play comes across with a hollow ring of stale authoritarianism in the face of the seductive social medias explicit coverage of Kane’s awkward drunken stumbling toward deferred manhood’. Todays youth hockey player witnessing Kane’s shameful displays of inappropriate behavior might mistakenly infer that you can still win and have it all without having to follow the following the “rules” advocated by their coaches ,teachers and parents .

  8. Great, well-written piece that puts the real lives of professional athletes in perspective

  9. Good post Ellen! I particularly think that your point about the worst cases of alcoholism in hockey being the ones we never hear about. Anyone who’s seen the new Theoren Fleury documentary will certainly attest to that.

    I feel like an elephant in the room in this conversation is the massive amounts of money that the NHL pulls in from alcohol sponsorship. It seems hypocritical for the league to attach its name to multinational beer companies and to condone/encourage significant alcohol consumption at its arenas, yet for the culture of the NHL to condemn an athlete for partaking in the same excesses in which it (tacitly) encourages its own consumers to revel. This is not to say that the NHL should enter some sort of neo-temperance phase (I can certainly attest that beer enters significantly in to my own consumption of the sport), but simply to point out what seems to me like a giant contradiction in the internal criticism that is directed at players who drink.

  10. I agree that we have no evidence that Kane’s partying has turned into alcoholism. The only thing in your piece I would challenge would be the paragraph contrasting partying and alcoholism. I disagree that a person has characteristics of one or the other. I would suggest that someone could embody both (although again, it’s irresponsible to put Kane in this category w/o evidence).

    Thanks for a great piece,
    Lynsey

  11. Word down Nashville way is Rads and AK were not drunk, just an hour late.

  12. There was no Radulov bender.

  13. Kudos to the writer. Good understanding of the issue. It’s a youth thing. Give them a chance to outgrow it.

  14. Ellen,
    Your research and discussion of players suffering from drinking issues and alcoholism was very good. Your narrow views on what type of behavior makes one an alcoholic, however, are based on incorrect stereotypes.
    There are many variations of alcoholism, not every alcohilic drinks every day. The central issue of alcoholics is that they can’t control their drinking; once they start, under most conditions, they can’t stop. Maybe they drink everyday or maybe they only drink once a month but in either case, one drink is never enough and twenty is not too many. Mr. Kane’s more reported behavior seems to indicate an inability to control his drinking and that does raise red flags. No alcoholic starts drinking a dozen beers a day, every day. It starts with one drink and progresses.
    For his sake, I hope Mr. Kane is just showing immaturity and poor judgement.

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