Kane can rehab image on ice

As long as Patrick Kane performs on the ice, none of this will really matter. Luc Leclerc/US Presswire

Did you hear the one about Patrick Kane?

Well, he's off the cover of EA Sports' "NHL '10." Yup, now he's going to be on "Grand Theft Auto: Buffalo Nights."

Maybe the problem was that he's been taking tipping lessons from Scottie Pippen. And charm school from Albert Belle. With this kind of fiscal rectitude, he would've fit right in with the late "Dollar" Bill Wirtz.

Of course, the allegations against the Blackhawks star forward are no laughing matter.

Kane's bizarre arrest for allegedly assaulting a cab driver over a 20-cent discrepancy, not to mention the retrieval of a whopping $13.80 fare (which in Chicago, wouldn't get you from the United Center to the Billy Goat Tavern just down Madison St.), is big news in Buffalo, where the 20-year-old is a hometown hero, and it is a major, unexpected turn of events in Chicago, where Kane is at the forefront of the Blackhawks revolution.

So far all we have is the cabbie's word and shots of his bruised face, an arrest report and a not-guilty plea from Kane. His 21-year-old cousin, James Kane, who is the main defendant, is the wild card in this case. James Kane is alleged to have instigated the altercation, but it's the more famous Kane who will bear the brunt of the fallout.

The Kane boys, certainly no threat in criminal reputation to the James Gang or even the Canseco brothers, are charged with felony robbery and a couple misdemeanors. Patrick Kane isn't a tough-guy kind of hockey player, and allegations of beating up a cabbie over two dimes aren't likely to burnish that image. Someone sit this kid down and tell him as a millionaire pro athlete, you can get away with fighting with strip club bouncers, would-be bar room heroes, and slashing defensemen from Saskatoon, but not pummeling cab drivers when you're making a few million dollars a year.

The last Blackhawk to sully the Indian Head so publicly was wild man Theo Fleury, who got into a highly publicized fight at a strip club in 2003. Fleury has struggled with substance abuse for years.

What Kane is accused of is a mind-blowingly stupid act, one that combines the hubris of youth with the self-entitlement of celebrity. It's an ugly story, and since few of us know Kane, it's really impossible to tell if the alleged incident represents a one-time mistake, a young kid acting dumb, or a red alert of problems to come.

Again, we don't know if the allegations are true. But they don't sound good and they cast a pall over an already awful offseason for Chicago's fastest-growing franchise.

It's not as if Kane doesn't have company in present-day Chicago jockocracy, but wrecking your $900,000 car on the side of the highway and mysteriously abandoning it (Lance Briggs), reportedly having someone take your SATs for you (Derrick Rose), or sending lewd text messages to the mother of your young child during a heated custody battle (Brian Urlacher) are all pretty tame, compared with allegedly beating up a cabbie.

But Kane, the former No. 1 pick and rookie of the year, doesn't look like a stereotypical alpha meathead, and he doesn't play like one in comparison to his rough-and-tumble peers in the NHL. The lightning-bug scorer is more of a finesse player who thrilled fans with a hat trick to help the Hawks advance to the Western Conference finals this spring. He was billed as the fresh face of hockey, which is why he was tabbed to be the face for EA Sports' popular hockey game. If the allegations are true, he just looks like another drunken college-aged idiot, another athlete with a reckless case of privilege.

On Monday, the cab driver's lawyer told a Chicago radio station the arrest has been "blown out of proportion," which seems a curious way to make your case, unless a settlement is on the horizon or the cabbie was being less than truthful. In any event, a first-time offender like Kane wasn't going to get five years in Sing-Sing anyway.

But what does this arrest mean to the budding star? It won't help him land any more endorsements, and it is likely to cost him a pretty penny and possibly a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that he's supposed to join in practice coming up. But maybe there is a positive or two.

For starters, his national profile has received a major boost. Outside of Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago and our neighbors to the north in Canada, how many sports fans knew anything about Kane, other than his name? Even opposing players doubted the slight kid could be an every shift kind of scorer, wondering aloud if he was the kind of guy who can't always hack it 5-on-5.

All of a sudden, the kid has a Q rating. Sure, it's a negative one, but hey, you gotta get on the board somehow, right? We all don't watch Versus and play video games.

Maybe like a celebrity leaking a sex tape, this news will endear him to the bad boy-loving American sports fans. Maybe his jersey will become a top seller for the irony crowd.

For some reason, I'm guessing that's not the silver lining the Blackhawks' organization is looking for. I don't see how the John McDonough marketing machine is going to put this kid in front of the cameras as the baby face of the franchise for a while. (Get ready for your close-up Jonathan Toews!) He'll be licking envelopes for season-ticket renewals as punishment.

This news is another test for the Blackhawks, who have endured an embarrassing summer after their rebirth as a national franchise by winning two playoff series.

You can't pick up a newspaper (assuming you still do that, and if you don't, you should) without seeing the Hawks embroiled in some kind of mess, from screwing up offer sheets to the team's restricted free agent, which led to millions in extra salary and the reassignment of general manager Dale Tallon, to the signing of an injured Marian Hossa to a pricey long-term deal that may or may not be a violation of NHL salary-cap rules. Former scorer Martin Havlat ripped the team, and team president McDonough was booed at the team's fan convention, which is akin to President Obama getting booed at a Democratic congressional breakfast.

These stories prove that the Blackhawks are a real, functioning sports team now, just as vulnerable to making dumb moves and falling prey to simple bad luck. You could've predicted that Tallon was on his way out, or that a player would disparage the team after leaving. But no matter what kind of private side young Mr. Kane has previously revealed in his brief adult life, I don't think anybody saw this one coming.

Of course, we in the media, and the public, tend to judge athletes we don't really know based on superficialities like looks and the brief snippets of personalities we see in interviews. Kane just didn't come across like the type of guy who'd lose it like that; though it's not tough to think of friends of mine who have committed stupid acts, or even my own youthful indiscretions.

Kane's story has an obvious companion in Bulls guard Derrick Rose's awkward turn this summer, though, perhaps, a lot more serious.

Rose recently revealed to the media how tough his summer has been. After wowing the NBA last season, Rose's path to superstardom took a familiar media hit in the past few months. First he got implicated in a cheating scandal at the University of Memphis, where word leaked out that he was alleged to have not taken his SATs, and that his brother Reggie got improper benefits during Derrick's one season under former coach John Calipari. Then, there was the picture that came out of Rose throwing up what appeared to be a gang sign in a goof of a college photo.

Rose flatly denied the cheating -- the photo flap was just idiotic -- and admitted he now knows he can't skate by as a normal 20-year-old kid. Because of his standing and his salary, he's going to be judged differently and he has to act accordingly. Kane knows that now too. Even if he's innocent, his good name and his Wikipedia page are going to be marred forever.

But, truthfully, as long as Kane performs on the ice, none of this will really matter to Blackhawks fans. Because in the end, all they care about is performance. Not Dale Tallon or Marty Havlat's Twitter updates or how many ambassadors the team can stuff into sweaters.

Kane will be mocked by opposing fans for the rest of the season, and if he doesn't continue to play to his reputation, Chicago fans will turn on him as well. So my advice to you, Patrick: Keep quiet, pay your restitution and practice, practice, practice.

Also, you might want to get some comfortable shoes. Even if you're found innocent, it might be tough hailing a cab for a while.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.