BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was hot as Hades in the back room of the South Buffalo pizza joint that Patrick Kane has visited since his parents would stop by with their young son in sneakers and full hockey gear on the way home from practice or a game.
Not that any of the dozens of family, friends and Imperial Pizza staff seemed to mind as they ate chicken wings out of a foil-lined bowl of the Stanley Cup at Imperial Pizza at the corner of Abbott and Eden. Neither did the dozens of curious onlookers who stopped by this past Saturday morning, the final of a whirlwind two-day visit by Kane and the Cup to his hometown.
It's a scene that reminded us of the talismanlike power of the trophy. The Cup remains sports' most identifiable emblem of success -- a shiny, substantial reminder of hockey's ultimate reward. The fact that such a reminder is made portable, that every member of the winning team is given a chance to take that trophy for a day or two during the offseason, adds a unique layer of intimacy to being part of that rare club to which Cup winners belong.
Those individual moments with the Cup (and we've seen many since we started making these annual summer pilgrimages five years ago) are poignant reminders of on-the-ice success and help define, or redefine, the bond between a person and his family and community.
In the case of the 21-year-old Kane, who scored the winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals to deliver the Chicago Blackhawks their first championship since 1961, it is that and more. In the case of Kane, whose life already has seen fantastic highs and some improbable lows, the Cup has turned out to be a window onto the maturation of a young man whose maturity has been called into question on more than one occasion.
A year ago, Kane was front-page news in his beloved hometown after he and his cousin were involved in a dustup with a local cab driver over what amounted to less than a dollar on a late-night fare. Criminal charges of second-degree robbery, fourth-degree criminal mischief and theft of services ultimately evaporated into a conditional discharge, yet the stain of that incident remained.
During this past season, pictures of a number of Blackhawks players partying sans shirts in a limousine surfaced on the Internet. The fact that Kane was among them merely reinforced the notion he was a party machine. This summer, with Chicago and the Blackhawks in full party mode and Kane clearly enjoying the moment, there were concerns about what might happen when Kane got his turn with the Cup, concerns that reached the NHL offices in New York. And his celebration this past weekend didn't go without viral fanfare, as various Internet sites posted, and questioned, videos and photos from Kane's tour.
It seems unfair, perhaps, to gauge whether a young man is growing into his own skin by how he handles a big trophy for a couple of days. But, fair or not, Kane's visit with the Cup became a litmus test of sorts.
He is nothing if not self-aware, so he knew that eyes from around the league were on him to see whether he would step over the line.
"Yeah, I think about [last summer's incident], for sure," Kane said Saturday while the wings were being served a few feet away. "It's something that will stick with me the rest of [my] life. Hopefully you can do some things to change that so you don't have that perception from people.
"Like I said, I'm trying to do things not just for the media aspect or for people saying I'm a good person, but to feel like I actually am a good person, so it hits my heart more than anyone else's."
It is one thing to be aware of scrutiny and another to rise above it; it is one thing to talk of maturity and another to reveal it. And to Kane's credit, his visit with the Cup revealed surprising sensitivity that dovetailed seamlessly with a natural penchant to be, well, a 21-year-old star.
After a ball hockey game with a group of lifelong friends with the Cup as a prize, there was Kane, following along and making sure the Cup wasn't being mistreated. An evening party to which some 500 family and friends were invited went off without a hitch.
"I see him more mature," said Kane's mother, Donna. "I see him more grateful. He is a very, very hardworking person."
In many ways, Kane has led a charmed life. Drafted first overall by the Blackhawks in 2007 after a sensational junior career in London, Ontario, he not only made the team the following season but also won rookie of the year honors. In his sophomore campaign in 2008-09, the Blackhawks reached the Western Conference finals. Then, this past season Kane helped erase decades of hockey futility in Chicago and scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime to boot.
What got lost in the proceedings, perhaps for all concerned -- Kane, his friends, his critics -- is he remains a young man.
"It is, it's tough," Kane said. "You always want to have a good reputation and everything. At the same time, I'm still a kid; I'm 21 years old. To say I don't like to have fun, I'd be lying to you. I love to have fun. I love to go out with my buddies. I love to enjoy my summer. I love to enjoy my time off away from hockey. I think that's what helps me in hockey, is getting away a little bit.
"There's different aspects to it. I think, 'Yeah, I'm young, I'm a kid, I'm going to have fun.' But at the same time, I feel I'm maturing as a person. I'm getting older. I'm getting more mature. I want to help the world out."
Kane has stumbled; he acknowledges that. Yet, isn't he more than a few moments of indiscretion in a cab, just as any of us are more than our worst moments?
On Saturday morning, away from the media throng and gaggle of friends who had joined him for his Cup visit, Kane quietly took the Cup to a local cemetery.
"I went to my two grandmas' sites and one of my dad's friends' site. I'm an emotional kid; I cried three times," Kane said. "That's just the way I am. I feel like that stuff really hits me hard. I feel like I really have a big heart. I want to show the world that. But at the same time, I think the biggest thing is not to show you guys but more to show myself."
A day earlier Kane visited the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Among the patients he visited was an elderly man whose dying wish was to see the Stanley Cup.
"As you come into the league, you want to prove yourself as a player. After that, I think other things become a little bit more important," Kane said. "You obviously want to play good, but you want to be more of a role model to people around you. For the past year or so, I've been praying to God every night that he can help me become a better person and help me make a difference, not only in sports but in the world. Whether that's helping one or two people out, that's what it is. I think it all depends on the situation."
Kane later said the Roswell visit reminded him of how important his relationship is with his grandfather, Donald Kane Sr., how it made him want to appreciate the time he has with him even more.
His grandfather was in his pajamas out on the sidewalk in front of the Kane house early Friday morning, drinking a cup of coffee as Kane hoisted the Cup over his head for the first time that day. "Way to go, Patrick," he said with a smile.
His grandfather, 83, lives in a house next door to the house where Kane grew up in South Buffalo. Grandpa Kane lives with his son, Kane's uncle, John Kennedy Kane, who is an independent circus contractor. They call him Circ or Uncle Circy, and John joked that his father will get up in the morning during hockey season and remind him there's a big game that night at 6:30 in the morning.
There is a common backyard area where the family plays basketball. Sometimes, the Kanes -- Patrick, his parents and three younger sisters -- will play three-on-three. They also play a game that apparently has no name but involves keeping an inflatable ball in the air. Sometimes they keep it aloft for more than 100 touches. The person who lets it fall is then subjected to all kinds of derision from the rest of the family.
In the kitchen of Kane's childhood home is a note attached to the fridge that announces the current score of an ongoing basketball match between him and his youngest sister, Jacqueline, 16. When the gap gets too big, she is relegated to playing with sisters Erica, 20, and Jessica, 19, before returning to competition with her brother.
If you thought you knew Kane just from reading about the cab incident or seeing him with his arm around a Playboy bunny at the NHL awards or hearing about his party exploits, you might never imagine he would have such a strong and, dare we say, normal family life.
Would you have imagined, for instance, that Kane has spent some of this offseason reading one of the "Twilight" books?
"She would throw me under the bus with that," Kane said with a grimace, realizing his mother shared this little bit of family trivia. "I watched the first three movies. I was really interested with the third one, so I decided to read the fourth book, and that's the only book I read. My family read it before, so I knew they had it, and I kind of snuck it in there and she walked in a couple of times on me reading the book. Tried to hide it, but "
Kane's aunt, Bonnie Kane Lockwood, was also standing on the driveway that first morning when the Cup arrived at the family home. There was the police escort and the limo-van in which Kane and his family and friends rode around all day. They were followed by camera crews, photographers, reporters, neighbors and the keepers of the Cup, Mike Bolt and Howie Borrow.
Aunt Bonnie, keeper of the finely tuned schedule for the two-day visit, shook her head in wonder. In coming up with an itinerary, she said it was like opening up the family's memory vault.
"It's like looking on your whole family history," she said. "If you had 300 hours with the Cup, it wouldn't be enough to give back to what everybody's contributed."
In the end, Kane himself set the agenda.
Every summer for the past five years, we have joined Cup champs for their days with the Cup. We have been graciously hosted by Eric Staal, Bret Hedican, Scott and Rob Niedermayer, Darren McCarty, Scotty Bowman (who happened to be on hand for Kane's party Friday evening), Sidney Crosby and now Kane. We have been treated to moments of great poignancy and celebration and have learned things we did not expect to learn.
That is the considerable power of the Stanley Cup.
During a couple of days in Buffalo, we saw a young player who seems to understand that there is a balance between accepting the responsibilities of stardom and being a young man.
"I do feel I've grown up in the maturity aspect," Kane said. "I feel like in the past year or so, the past six months, I've gotten a lot better at it, the situations I've been through. And I know how to control myself a little better so I don't put myself in those situations again."
And if Kane has come to some kind of epiphany, it appears that his friends have likewise come to understand that sharing the spotlight with Kane means sharing the responsibility that comes with that.
"It's interesting you say that, because I really believe they [his friends] are getting more respectful. I think that comes with age," Kane said. "I think that comes with the territory of what I've been through, and I think they realize, too, they want to be there for me. They want to help me out and through these situations, too.
"There's a couple of people, including myself, that two or three years ago, we were probably a little bit wild and we liked to have our fun. Now, we still like to have our fun, but we're more under control. We respect things more, we respect people more."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.