Evander Kane continues to be outspoken in his return to hockey
The Edmonton Oilers forward talks racism in the NHL, how he’s perceived in the media and how the league promotes its athletes
Evander Kane’s career has been one of incredible highs and thunderous lows.
After being drafted fourth overall in 2009 by the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, Kane went on to play for the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres, and San Jose Sharks, and returned to the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup Tuesday following a freak on-ice injury Nov. 8 when a skate blade cut his wrist. Alongside his hockey accomplishments, including multiple 30-goal seasons, Kane co-founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which aims to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.
But along the way, Kane has been dogged by multiple challenges and less than desirable narratives. Rumors that he was a lousy teammate followed him across the early years of his career. Most recently, his very messy, public divorce saw Kane’s ex-wife accuse him of domestic abuse, and gambling on and throwing NHL games. While Kane has admitted to having a gambling problem for which he sought help, the accusations of throwing games as well as domestic violence were proven unsubstantiated after league investigation.
As Kane rejoined superstar Connor McDavid in the Edmonton Oilers lineup, he opened up to Andscape about the inherent risk of playing pro sports, the support of McDavid during a challenging time in his life, the troubling narrative of Black hockey players, and why he’s stepped back from the Hockey Diversity Alliance, the organization he helped found.
As seen recently with your injury and what happened to Damar Hamlin, there is an inherent risk in playing professional sports. Before your injury, was it something you thought about when you went on the ice? And now returning after the injury, how conscious will you be of it?
The type of injury I had, you never, as a player, really think about that. Going into the game in Tampa, there are 10,000 other things I would think would happen before something like that. It’s such a rarity. At the same time, you understand the risk as a professional athlete, especially as a hockey player. We have a lot of dangerous elements. We’re on the ice surface at high speed, and at the same time, you’re wearing knives on the bottom of your feet, and you have sticks and pucks. It’s a dangerous sport, but stuff like this happens, but you rarely think about it.
Throughout your career, you’ve been very polarizing. How much of that do you think has to do with you being a Black athlete in a predominantly white sport?
I get viewed differently. I’m a half-Black, half-white hockey player who plays with an edge; I can score, fight, and hit. I don’t shy away from the spotlight. There are some things that any human being would like to have private, but when you’re a professional athlete, you don’t get that luxury, leaving the public to have their own opinions of you. Unfortunately, the media covering our sport has had many of the same issues as the game has had over the years. The narratives and opinions are what you would expect from predominantly white media in a mostly white sport. And when you talk about people of color in hockey media, many of them have been whitewashed. And I don’t hate the media. There are many good people in the media, but you see how certain people are handled differently.
Early in your career, you were fearless in letting your personality shine through, doing interviews, or being on social media. During that early career period, do you remember if there was a lot of engagement from the NHL to leverage the fact that you wanted to be out front?
Hockey has always been more of a reserved sport. We must do a much better job promoting our athletes as a league. It’s not just on the league but also the players. Guys have to want to put themselves out there. Get in front of the camera and open their mouths to showcase themselves. We don’t have many guys that enjoy doing that type of stuff. I could count on one hand the guys who are genuinely good at it. When you look at many of the players the NHL tries to promote and use as faces of the league, they are some of the quietest, reserved people.
Before you signed with the Oilers, there was a press conference with Connor McDavid where the media was trying to get him to pile on to the narrative that was swirling around you at that time as a bad teammate, and player teams shouldn’t engage with, and he didn’t. Instead, he said you were “an amazing player” and had a lot of success in the league. Talk to me about playing with Connor McDavid and having him as a teammate.
He’s the best player ever to play the game. It felt like the media had this hit piece on me and tried to get everybody to denounce and cancel me without knowing the facts. And you fast forward to almost a year later now, it’s funny how things change. For Connor, it showed he was not a follower. He’s a leader. We have a lot of followers in society and a lot of followers in our game. It was refreshing to see that type of leadership. When I looked at the landscape of where I could go at that time, his comments meant quite a bit to me.
Hockey and the NHL have dealt with numerous racist incidents. Most recently, there was the issue with the Boston Bruins’ signing of Mitchell Miller, which they’ve reneged on. Why do you think hockey and the NHL still struggle with this so much? And how do we genuinely get some meaningful forward progress here?
Good question. When I helped create the HDA, it started in a way about bringing real change to the game of hockey. It wasn’t based on trying to be a group that calls people out or wants to work against the NHL. I spoke to Gary Bettman at the time, and we had some good conversations and could never agree on how to proceed.
When it came to the HDA, I took a step back because I was dealing with personal matters. At the same time, I felt there were members of the group, not Akim Aliu, that didn’t want me involved in the HDA anymore. I think this was because of the perception of me, and they were buying into these narratives, and these were players of color. These are players of color that, in the NHL, there are very few of and, if anything, when your brother goes down you would think you would have his back even more. It’s hard to want to put your all into a group you helped found, and then they turn their back on you at such a critical time in your playing career. I’m not super involved in the HDA anymore. That was my choice. But with regards to growing the game and making it more diverse, part of it is trying to integrate different cultures and brands, and it can even be a small thing like fashion.
Regarding fashion, what’s your stance on team dress codes across the NHL? A handful of teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs have relaxed them.
Part of it is if we lift dress codes, players take it upon themselves to keep the dress code intact. I remember when the league had the bubble, and most teams had no dress code. I remember, I’m not going to name the team, but there was a team where they all said we’re going to wear khakis and a golf shirt. We finally get what we want. When the Players Association does its polls, everyone wants no dress code, and then we go back to what we’re told to do. It’s like nobody can think for themselves.
Over the years, you and players like Nazem Kadri and Akim Aliu, both members of the HDA, have many times been labeled by the media as difficult. Do you think this is intentional that this label is placed on BIPOC players, or is it merely a coincidence?
It’s not an odd coincidence. If you look at my first two years in Atlanta, there were no issues. I’m having a great time. I love the city. And then the team got sold to Winnipeg. Same team, very different city. And I go on, and there are rumors about me skipping out on restaurant bills. It sounds so ridiculous. And people are finding every excuse to say I’m a bad teammate because I’m getting YMCMB cut into the back of my head. It was my personality at the time. I’m a young kid. I’m enjoying myself. I asked to leave Winnipeg forever. Media has relationships with certain staff, and they put out there what they’re told to put out there. And then you see not only me leave Winnipeg as a young player, but you see Patrick Laine get driven out of town. And then I go to Buffalo. And in Buffalo, there were no issues. We just sucked.
Why do you think so much of hockey marketing is so rooted in tradition?
Part of it is the people that are in hockey. I hope the NHL will know who they can go to. Why not me? Maybe it’s because there hasn’t been enough time between my bulls— narrative. I see how they promote, and it doesn’t make sense when I look at it from the outside, not even as a hockey player. I was in an elevator at the ESPYs, and a lady was like, ‘oh, are you an athlete?’ And she’s like, ‘let me guess, basketball?’ And I said no. ‘Football?’ No. ‘Baseball?’ No. ‘MLS player?’ I said no, and I was thinking, holy f—. Guess what her next guess was?
You’re on the right track. Cricket. Yes, cricket before hockey entered her mind, and that shouldn’t be happening.
When your career is done in the NHL, how do you want to be remembered as a hockey player?
My on-ice performance speaks for itself. But at the same time, I’m not thinking too much about that. I plan on playing for another eight or nine years. I love the game of hockey, and I want to see it become even better than it already is. And whether that’s being involved off the ice in some capacity, there are many things I could bring to help grow the game and a lot of knowledge based on the experiences I’ve gone through. When you go through different experiences, good, bad or ugly, you learn, and it gives you knowledge and experience, which are good things to have.