For nearly six months, the greatest active American-born hockey player, the one fans call Showtime, lived in obscurity. As Patrick Kane recovered from hip resurfacing surgery -- a bold move to breathe new life into his career at age 35 -- he relocated his family to Toronto.
For three hours a day, Monday through Friday, Kane worked with chiropractor Ian MacIntyre, who oversaw the rehab. Then he got on the ice. Kane's skating coach, Randi Milani, made sure his locker rooms at the local rinks were farthest away from the lobby. She insisted that LiveBarn, the ubiquitous arena streaming service, was turned off, and often reserved ice time under fake names. Sessions included Kane battling in drills with retired defenseman Cody Goloubef and shooting on free agent goalie Chris Gibson. Spectators who somehow caught wind were kindly told to get lost.
When it was finally time for Kane to meet with NHL suitors, a series of Zoom calls with teams interested in signing the free agent, one head coach remarked: "Wait, you were in Toronto, the center of the hockey universe, this whole time?"
It marked a new era for Kane. The winger has won nearly everything there is to win -- three Stanley Cups, league MVP, playoff MVP, a scoring title -- while captivating the biggest crowds with inimitable dangles. But, Kane said, he had "a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth after last year."
After being traded away from the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks, his home for 16 seasons, Kane's short stint with the New York Rangers underwhelmed by his standards. Kane had six goals and 19 points in 26 games as the Rangers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Devils. "Going to New York was a new challenge for me," Kane said. "I was really excited about it but it didn't really go the way I expected or the team expected. I figured at that point it was probably time to do something to give myself a chance to get back to a high level -- almost more mentally rather than physically. I don't want to say [I was] miserable, but I was thinking about [my hip] every day."
Kane was willing to tear it all down -- opting for a procedure with little proof of concept in the NHL, powering through 116 treatment sessions to relearn movement patterns. Risky would be an understatement.
"It was no man's land in terms of what to expect," MacIntyre said.
But Kane's confidence barely wavered. He still considers himself one of the top players in the league, when healthy. Kane believed, firmly, he had more to give. So he attacked rehab with his signature meticulousness and intensity.
If Kane finds the success he's expecting, his legend will only grow -- and he could set a new path forward for other players.
"No one's really come back from this type of surgery, but no one has done what he's done to recover this way," Milani said. "Right now, he's moving better now than he was a few years ago. It's crazy. I truly believe he's going to shock the world. It's going to be unreal."
KANE'S HIP BEGAN bothering him in the 2020 NHL bubble -- and only got worse. Kane's crossover left over right was "pretty much nonexistent," he said. By last season, those close to Kane described him as essentially playing on one leg.
"Anytime I would take a hit on the right side of the hip, the joint would kind of compress and it would basically feel like bone on bone," Kane said. "So your leg like shuts down for like 30 or 45 seconds. It's just painful, right? You're almost playing the game not to get hit, which you can't do in this league."
Kane was reluctant to have surgery. He loved the game too much, he couldn't imagine taking time away. Once the Rangers were eliminated, Kane's agents at CAA took him to see Dr. Edwin Su at New York's Hospital of Special Surgery.
"When I saw his hip, it was completely, completely worn out," Su said. "It's incredible he was still able to play, and play at a pretty high level."
Hip resurfacing surgery involves placing a metal ball on top of the head of the femur (thighbone), capping it like a tooth, then fitting the socket with a thin metal shell. It was first performed in the United States in 2006, when the implant was FDA approved, meaning there's still not much long-term data on several aspects. Su said hip resurfacing has fallen out of favor among many surgeons who are concerned about the impact of metal-on-metal, and it represents less than 1% of artificial hips in the United States. The ideal candidate is a healthy, young (under 50) male. Only two NHL players have returned to the ice after having their hip resurfaced: Ed Jovanovski, who retired after 37 games, and Nicklas Backstrom, who stepped away after playing eight games this season,17 months after his procedure.
Kane peppered Su with questions, but at the core he wanted to know: will this make me better?
"If you're still playing with such a bad hip," Su told Kane. "Then there's no doubt it should make you better."
Su was particularly confident about Kane's prognosis. Other athletes underwent hip resurfacing as a last resort, having done several procedures beforehand. That meant bone cartilage was shaved down, leading to muscle atrophy. "Part of [Kane's] incredible recovery is that he did this right off the bat instead of having other surgeries and letting the condition deteriorate further," Su said. "He also may have more success than others because he's incredibly fit. He's not really heavy. He's just an agile person."
Su downplayed potential risks of hip resurfacing, even in a high-impact sport like hockey.
"The only thing holding this artificial hip in place is the joint capsule, the tissue and the muscle force. So it would have to be really unusual, but you could imagine some sort of collision where the leg is basically torqued in a way that pulls it out of the socket," Su said. "That would definitely be worrisome, but hockey I don't think is a high risk. I'm more worried about football, because of the pile-ons."
Since Kane's operation, Su has performed a double hip resurfacing on free agent Jesse Puljujarvi, who is 25, and said there is another active NHL player who is considering. "The biggest risk was the unknown factor," Kane said. "But from what it sounds like, more guys will end up having the surgery. Hopefully I'll be a pioneer and play for a long time."
Kane underwent the surgery in June. Almost immediately, his pain disappeared. Within two weeks, he was on a skating treadmill. A week later, he was jumping off a box. "So I think when he got to us, he thought 'wow this is going to go fast,'" MacIntyre said. "But then I showed him some very easy things that he couldn't do, that was humbling for him. Then, the light switch went off. He wanted to be the best at it."
Kevin Weekes explains why Patrick Kane signing with the Red Wings is such an impactful move.
AS HE PLAYED through his injury, those close to Kane said he was bothered when people commented on his limp.
"Even after the surgery that was something that surprised him, that he was still limping," MacIntyre said. "But some of that movement isn't in your hip, it's in your brain. If you've been limping for 2½ years, you can fix the joints but your brain still acts like it's hurt."
MacIntyre said the arthritis in Kane's hip severely impacted his range of motion -- something he needed to relearn after the operation.
"If I asked him to rotate on his hip on a small elastic band, when he came back to the beginning, it would snap back," MacIntyre said. "He had no strength to hold himself in that position. Being such a good athlete, he just found a way to work around it. Which is remarkable, because he couldn't move."
MacIntyre and strength coach Jason Martin progressively added exercises for Kane. Many were mundane and tedious. Kane had only one speed: diligence. If Kane did nine reps perfectly and messed up on the 10th, he would start doing the 11th, 12th and 13th unprompted.
"I was surprised by how hard he was on himself, despite all that he accomplished in his career, and having arguably the best hands in the world," said Goloubef, who joined the on-ice sessions once Kane was ready to absorb contact. "The look in his eyes if he mishandled one time, I was like, 'Whoa.' And then the focus he'd have on the next rep would be incredible. I think it's important for young guys to know a guy that good also works that hard."
But Kane also has traits that are unteachable: how he processes the game, how he dials in when the puck is on his stick.
Sometimes Goloubef would say something on the ice, met with no reaction from Kane. Goloubef would wonder: Did I say it loud enough? Could he hear me?
"He was so in the zone," Goloubef said. "I feel like he doesn't hear anything outside of his own head."
A COUPLE OF TEAMS were willing to sign Kane on July 1, when he became a free agent. Kane preferred to wait, finishing out his rehab to see how he felt. He also wanted to see how the season shook out.
Kane met with five teams on Zoom. He met with another general manager, Florida's Bill Zito, in Toronto. The options were intriguing. Zito pitched for Kane to play alongside Aleksander Barkov, one of the few players in the league who processes the game at a similar level. Kane could live out his childhood dream of playing for the Buffalo Sabres. He could team up with fellow American Auston Matthews and help the Maple Leafs (and Canada) break through their Stanley Cup drought. The defending champion Vegas Golden Knights rolled out an entire deck. On his call with the Boston Bruins, Kane nerded out over X's and O's with coach Jim Montgomery. Following nearly every call, Kane was personally recruited by the team's star players.
"I could say so many good things about different teams I talked to and their interest in me was incredible," Kane said. "I mean, some teams you don't really expect to have interest in you, and they do, and it's a good feeling."
Kane watches as much hockey as anyone in the NHL. His nightly routine is putting his three-year-old son, Patrick Kane III, down to bed - "then watch hockey the rest of the night," he said. He asked pointed questions about teams' medical staffs, their personnel and systems -- even their neutral and defensive zones.
Kane also showed a level of humility, repeatedly saying: 'I know I need to earn my spot' and that he didn't expect to play on a team's top line or top power-play unit.
But as Kane went through the process, in the back of his mind, he always came back to Detroit. At age 14 Kane moved away from home to play for the Michigan-based Honeybaked AAA program, where he billeted with Red Wings legend Pat Verbeek. Kane fell in love with Detroit, which was just as obsessed with hockey as he was. He adored the Red Wings' history and tradition.
But the Red Wings, who have been in a timeframe-less rebuild, still had to win Kane over.
"Our approach, me and [GM] Steve [Yzerman], was to be simple, direct and honest," coach Derek Lalonde said, knowing that whatever he said, Kane would fact check with one of his good friends, Alex DeBrincat. Lalonde had a vision for Kane -- including pairing him with DeBrincat early, finding ways to create wide ice, where he thrives, and maximizing Kane's ability to play off his off hand.
The Red Wings are looking to break a seven-year playoff drought. For the last several years, they've subtracted ahead of the trade deadline, which dejected the group - especially last season. "Steve [Yzerman] has a plan, he's extremely patient," Lalonde said. "But Kane choosing us, it's a credit to what the guys built and what they're doing. This is the first shot in the arm."
Lalonde had heard stories about what type of competitor and teammate Kane is. A few of Lalonde's friends, including Tampa Bay assistant Jeff Blashill, were on the staff of the USA 2018 World Championship team.
"It was one of the first years Chicago missed the playoffs, so he went to the World Championships," Lalonde said. "They won the bronze medal, they had an end of the tournament party. He's the only guy who wore his medal during the whole thing. Those are the things that were in my head before meeting him. And then once I did [meet him], I was maybe even more impressed. It's like talking to the CEO of a company. He's inquisitive about all of the right things."
Kane agreed to terms with the Red Wings on Nov. 28. The team had already departed for New York for a game against the Rangers as Kane reported to the facility for his physical. Once he cleared, Kane had a request: he wanted to fly to New York as soon as possible, to join his new teammates.
Kane has been patient with his debut. When he finally gets back in a game, a culmination of the quiet hard work he's been putting in since June, he wants to be Showtime again.
"I'm very optimistic," Kane said. "Hopefully I'll be even better than I was in the past."
Additional reporting by ESPN's Stephania Bell.