On Wednesday, the NHL released the findings of its investigation into Evander Kane’s alleged gambling on hockey.
Sports loves a sordid scandal, but this one hit so many third rails – an ugly divorce, allegations of abuse, race, a star player in apparent free fall – that no one would touch it. A story that should have been daily fodder for jock radio during the dead days in summer unfolded in a news vacuum.
On Wednesday, the league tidied it all up. Kane is not guilty, but he’s also not not guilty. Unsurprisingly, absent a betting stub falling out of Kane’s pocket as he walked out of Gary Bettman’s office, no one can prove to a certainty what he did or didn’t gamble on.
The law firm that did the deep dive decided in the end the person it trusted least on the matter was the accuser, Kane’s estranged wife.
Though Kane refused to participate in the inquiry, he was broadly exculpated – “the investigation uncovered no evidence to corroborate Ms. Kane’s accusations.”
When a mob of midtown Manhattan lawyers is released into your life by a multibillion-dollar corporation, that usually ends badly for you. This is as close as it gets to an exoneration.
All in all, this should be a good day for Kane. But there was a paragraph dangling ominously at the end of the NHL’s statement that began – “Additional unrelated allegations, however, involving potential wrongdoing by Mr. Kane have been brought to our attention.”
Then you knew. The thing that used to reliably save most star athletes from their worst instincts – their talent – is no longer enough for Evander Kane. By hook or by crook, he will be bounced from the NHL.
Absent any reliable judicial or third-party investigation, it’s not possible to say what went on in Kane’s private life.
Regardless of where this ends up, he is already a cautionary tale. Only a few people in the league can do what he does as well as he does it. He is an intimidator with great hands. He touches both ends of hockey’s spectrum of ability – fine skills and brute force.
He’s among the most fearless players in the game. He’s still young (30). At a time when hockey is desperate to show off its (nearly non-existent) diversity bonafides, Kane could be its flag bearer on the matter.
All this is to say that if the NHL could figure out a way to rescue Kane’s reputation, it would. The league needs him. It’s hard to think of many players its needs more.
Days before the result of the investigation was announced, efforts were made at public rehabilitation. Kane appeared on ESPN’s investigative news program, Outside the Lines. Speaking as if he had a lawyer’s hand shoved up the back of his jacket, Kane tried to bluster his way out of the problem – “It’s unfortunate that that transpired. It’s unfortunate that those false allegations were made …”
In that short, excruciating and largely unilluminating interview, Kane sounds like someone who’s pretty sure he will be cleared. Asked if he’d ever thrown a game, he laughed, as though the idea that a guy who is reportedly about US$20-million in debt would do such a thing is ridiculous.
The overall effect was of someone whose default effect is smugness, which is the one way Kane could not afford to seem.
Angry? Sure, that might’ve worked. If he is innocent, who wouldn’t be angry?
Regretful? That would have been best.
But smarmy and overconfident? Better that he hadn’t said anything at all.
At some point, the calculation of Kane’s career becomes a bookkeeping matter. Is he worth more on the ice than he costs in hassle off it?
This calculation affects every sort of entertainer, going back to the ancient Greek stage. If you make your living attracting paying customers, you can’t afford to turn any off.
But athletes were uniquely resilient to that algebra. First, because they were part of a team, and most of those customers were primarily loyal to the team. Second, because you always had a chance to get out there the next night and reframe the story by scoring a couple.
When a player is a bad person and scores goals, we call him troubled or complicated. If he is exactly the same sort of person minus the goals, he is a cancer or an anchor.
But those loopholes are closing. Athletes are no different than a delinquent actor or musician. If athletes cross society’s big red lines – abuse, using certain slurs – there is no protection by hiding amid the herd.
Kane’s problem now is that he cannot score enough goals or win enough fights to get this ship turned around. It’s too far gone for that.
The lesson for his colleagues is clear – don’t count on your talent to protect you any more. If you do things now considered beyond the pale, you are surplus to needs. Good luck in Russia.
It’s already clear as day how this will end. Kane is owed four years salary by the San Jose Sharks – US$26-million. It’s about enough to pay his debts.
He’ll get his money, or however much of it he can negotiate without entering onerous litigation. He’ll be cut loose. No other team will touch him. And then he’ll be on his way.
In a few years, few will remember Kane’s name. When they do, it will be as a sort of NHL ghost story – a guy who had it all, and then disappeared without a trace.