Team USA star Patrick Kane has to live up to letter on World Cup jersey

Patrick Kane is wearing a letter for the first time in his pro career. Jamie Sabau/World Cup of Hockey/Getty Images

On the day last week that Team USA announced its leadership group, a few eyebrows were raised that Patrick Kane got an "A" as an alternate captain.

Even Kane, the defending Hart Trophy winner and NHL scoring champion, acknowledged that wearing a letter with this team wasn't something he had necessarily anticipated.

"It's a pretty huge honor," he said. "I don't know if I was really expecting it. But I think there's so many great leaders in here."

Team USA head coach John Tortorella, as he is wont to do, was unequivocal about his decision to not only include Kane in the team's leadership group, but to bestow upon him an even greater symbol of leadership with an "A."

"He deserves it," the coach said, who also named Joe Pavelski captain and Ryan Suter the other alternate captain.

It's not that Kane's resume doesn't speak to greatness. It does.

Three Stanley Cups, rookie-of-the-year honors, a playoff MVP award, a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics and, of course, last year's dazzling regular season that saw him become the first-ever American to win a scoring title, which went along with his first MVP nod.

A money player? One of the best of his generation. But a heart-and-soul guy? A leader?

That's a different story.

With the Chicago Blackhawks, it has always been captain Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa. Those were the guys, at least in terms of the notion of leadership. Sure, it's nuance, but Kane was different, an immense talent to be sure. But different.

Maybe part of this has been his style of play: wildly creative as opposed to possessing the grit we ascribe to most so-called leaders in the game. Maybe part of this has been his past, which has always been a complicated bit of work, given repeated off-ice troubles, including last summer's allegation that he sexually assaulted a girl in his Buffalo-area home. Criminal charges were never filed, but the incident polarized how the public views a player who might well end his career as the greatest American player of all time.

But the "A" signals something different for Kane as we head into the World Cup of Hockey. On a U.S. team full of grit and determination, he is now being expected to be something different -- or perhaps something more.

"I don't coach him, but I watch him during our year, and I listen to him and I see maturity about him," Tortorella said. "I can't get too deep into that, but I want him to take more responsibility now. I think he's ready for more responsibility as a leader of a USA team."

And so coming off his most successful season as an individual, Kane has now been given a platform that will allow him to, if not redefine himself, then at least enlarge his portfolio, expand his hockey persona.

"I don't think it's something that is going to change who I am or change the way I play or anything like that," Kane said, "but it's just kind of a nice honor for the team to give me. And, besides, I think we're looking to everyone in this locker room to help lead in some way or another."

Longtime NHLer and current national broadcaster Ed Olczyk said he would have gone as far to give the "C" to Kane, although he did praise the selection of Pavelski as the Team USA captain.

"In my eyes, whether he has a letter or not, he has learned and earned how to and is a leader," Olczyk said.

Former goalie and longtime NHL analyst Kevin Weekes, who is providing analysis for ESPN during the World Cup, echoed those sentiments, saying that there is often a predisposition to downplay the leadership roles of highly skilled players.

"They discredit his work ethic because of his skill," Weekes said. "But they don't know his skill is because of his work ethic."

"I think this is another step for him," Weekes added. "I know that he's had missteps along the way, as many of us have had, all of us. He's a very, very, very passionate hockey player and he's committed to being great."

Not everyone feels the same way. One longtime player and scout said simply he believes the "A" is based solely on skill.

"Either you're a leader or you aren't," the former player said via text. "Maybe the most dangerous offensive player in the world. His name and game-breaking qualities allow them to put an 'A' on his jersey. Not because of leadership and character qualities. Just how I see it."

This past summer was a different one for Kane, 27, on a number of different fronts. First, it was a lot longer than most recent summers because the Blackhawks were dispatched in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, after going to either the conference finals or the Stanley Cup finals five of the previous seven seasons. Second, he spent most of his summer in Chicago, as opposed to his native Buffalo, where he has traditionally spent most of his offseasons. He played golf and worked out with a different group of NHLers and Blackhawks prospects. But one thing he didn't do was spend much time reflecting on his season, instead looking forward to proving it was not a one-off.

"You win an award like [the Hart], and I think for me you don't really want to see that as a fluke," Kane said. "You want to come back, and I think that's where the motivation is for me now. Obviously, you don't want to have that one good season and then fall down. You want to keep that level of consistency."

Is he more mature? Different?

"I still feel I'm the same person," Kane said. "For me, ... I haven't really changed who I am as a person, just kind of as you get older, you figure some things out. Kind of grow up at your own rate, I guess."

Whether it's a throwaway line or not, his teammates and opponents seem to agree there is an ongoing maturation from Kane.

"Someone that has the vision that he has and sees the game, slows it down," said former Blackhawks teammate Dustin Byfuglien, who now faces Kane regularly as a member of the Winnipeg Jets and is a Team USA teammate.

"It's just maturity," the big defenseman added. "The older you get, the more you get comfortable with your environment. You know how to slow the game down. He can make some adjustments as he goes. He's done a lot of great things."

David Backes, now with the Boston Bruins, has played with Kane in two Olympics and has squared off dozens of times as a member of the Blues.

"I think there's no denying there's world-class skill and ability there," said Backes. "Winning a Hart Trophy last year is definitely a symptom of that. A guy you always have to be aware of on the ice. If you don't play him the right way, he's making you pay in a big way and can win games on his own. ... All those things come to mind."

Like many of his U.S. teammates, there is much to prove for Kane in the short-term at the World Cup of Hockey. He had a difficult Olympics in Russia, coming pretty much straight from his grandfather's funeral to then fail to score in six games, missing two penalty shots in the Americans' disappointing loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

"It's kind of the challenge that's ahead of us," Kane said. "Canada's proven themselves for the last five, six years as the best hockey country in the world, and we feel we have something to say about that and want to prove ourselves. It's a great opportunity for us to do it here in this World Cup."

As it turns out, opportunities might abound for both this team -- and those chosen to lead it.