CHICAGO -- It was certainly a surprise that Patrick Kane took questions Thursday as he made his first public appearance since being accused of sexual assault in early August.
The case is ongoing, he hasn’t been charged, and outside of a statement, what could he say?
Not much, as it turned out. In a statement, Kane expressed his innocence, apologized for the distraction and fumbled a key scripted line, saying, “I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong.”
The video of Kane then politely appreciating every question lobbed his way shows the interaction was appropriately awkward for all involved.
And when Kane was done, it got worse. Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough outdid himself, even by Blackhawks standards of self-congratulation, with a seven-minute speech highlighting the organization’s many, many, many successes, all the way down to the triumphs of the club’s AHL affiliate in Rockford.
If Kane weren't under investigation in New York for sexual assault, the speech would make sense. The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup two of the last three seasons. They are the model organization in hockey. Just ask them.
NHL observers from Sunrise, Florida, to Vancouver, British Columbia, were aghast as the team refused to engage with even the most basic, non-legal questions in a painful press conference. The Blackhawks, who are used to being universally praised since 2009, were panned both in America and in Canada, where they treat hockey like we treat football.
I don’t think the Blackhawks are oblivious, I just think they’re used to directing the conversation. This isn’t the most open organization, and that comes from the top.
I noticed a lot of my peers were surprised by the Blackhawks’ rhetorical stumbles, but I wasn’t. It’s a very tough situation to handle from a PR standpoint -- tougher than you might think. This is a very serious organization that is rarely challenged and puts an overwhelming amount of effort into controlling the message.
When you win, the way you handle press conferences is just background noise, as far as the public is concerned. When you lose, or have a situation like this one, it becomes the story. Welcome to reality, Blackhawks.
Unlike our other teams, the modern-day (in the era I call A.B., for After Bill Wirtz) Blackhawks haven’t had to deal with much, if any, criticism locally. Three Stanley Cups in six years, with a Western Conference finals loss thrown in the mix, earns you a lot of freedom, as it should.
But I always get a kick out of the Blackhawks brass's self-serious love of the Blackhawks Way. Typically, it’s harmless veneration, like the time the team held a press conference for the contract extensions of Jonathan Toews and Kane in 2014, and it took way too long let the players speak, instead devoting its time to, among other things, honoring team owner Rocky Wirtz, who was described by McDonough as having “the humility of a statesman.”
I’ve always said I’d be interested to see how this team reacts to being covered the way, say, the Bears are. We found out: Very awkwardly.
People were correct to criticize McDonough for making a seven-minute speech about the greatness of the Blackhawks organization directly after Kane played an awkward dance with reporters trying to quiz him about the sexual assault allegations that hang over the three-time Cup champion.
McDonough has to know that no one cares about Wirtz’s stewardship right now. At one point, he pivoted to describing the great success of the team’s AHL franchise, the Rockford IceHogs. This went on until he gave way to a clearly uncomfortable Stan Bowman, the general manager. Bowman later acknowledged the awkwardness by wryly referring to reporters asking the same questions in slightly different ways. What else could they do? Reporters are there to ask questions, to push for some version of the truth.
The highlight of the exchange, broadcast live on Comcast SportsNet, which is partially owned by the team, was when McDonough tried to rebut a Buffalo reporter who told him, quite correctly, that he sounded tone-deaf.
“Well, I can assure you I’m anything but tone-deaf,” McDonough said.
Here’s the thing: The Blackhawks, under McDonough’s leadership, are anything but tone-deaf. Actually, they are obsessed with tone. But those rehearsed, scripted methods of dealing with the public don’t always work when people are actually paying attention to the words being uttered.
While many people have chosen to make the narrative of this team about the guys in suits, it’s always been about the hockey. But at that moment, in a press conference about one thing and one thing only, no one wanted to talk hockey, which is why it was silly to hold a press conference and ask for only hockey questions. That happens all the time in sports, and I get why PR folks have to try. But this just wasn’t the time.
But here’s the good news for the Blackhawks: The worst is over. The press conference was akin to holding their nose and taking their medicine. Because they know that until Kane faces charges, hockey talk now takes over. Eventually, for better or worse, this will likely fade into the background. It always does. The game takes precedence. It always does.
On Friday, the team held its first practice at Notre Dame. Fans lined up around the block to get in and Kane was cheered. He has always been a magnetic, exciting athlete. On the ice, he has few peers. Fans showed up in Kane attire, though the Hawks didn’t sell any at the arena, according to reporters.
My colleague Melissa Isaacson wrote about talking to her kids about Kane, and it is a strong, necessary read, but what about the younger kids who idolize Kane? Who love the Hawks?
This is where the Blackhawks can make a difference and realize some of their potential off the ice.
The Blackhawks are the darlings of the middle school set in certain pockets of Chicago. Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith and the rest are heroes to these impressionable children. It’s at this age when boys start to learn about relationships, sex and behavior, good and bad.
The Blackhawks could help combat sexual assault before it begins by funding workshops, clinics and speeches for this age group. They can help talk to the kids about sexual assault when they’ll still listen. This would be a good use of the team’s power.
Last month, I talked to Leigh Goodmark, an attorney who specializes in domestic violence cases and teaches at the University of Maryland’s Gender Violence Clinic, about the NFL’s domestic violence problem, and we talked a little about the Kane situation and the societal problems of sexual assault. She stressed that you have to get to boys before high school to have any impact.
“If we’re not starting at middle school or before, we’ve already lost these kids by the time they get into high school,” she said.
Hopefully the Blackhawks brass, the men and women in the suits, think about this and don’t just ignore an issue that means more than a game.