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No, they don't throw red meat onto the ice, but otherwise the Chicago Wolves don't miss a promotional trick--from the sound track of heavy-metal and pop hits to the indoor fireworks to the peewee games between periods--in appealing to the local hockey fan. The Wolves, an independent team in the International Hockey League, enjoyed their home opener at the Horizon a week ago, and I opted to join that celebration rather than go see the 0-6 Blackhawks, who were about to equal the Bears at 0-7 by losing the same night at the United Center. If the choice was between Bill Wirtz's cheap, stale bread at the UC or the three-ring circus at the Horizon, I'd go with the circus.

Yet a pleasant thing has happened to the Wolves, especially pleasant in light of their little-brother, big-brother rivalry with the Hawks. The Wolves have actually improved the product on the ice. While the Hawks flounder--even coach Craig Hartsburg has described them as "dysfunctional" this season--the Wolves have brought in several new players and a new coach who has instilled a more disciplined style of play. They may not be as talented as their major-league sibs (though that's debatable at this low ebb for the Hawks), but right now they're playing a sounder, more fundamental, and certainly more pleasing brand of hockey. I went to the Horizon intending to slum and ended up enjoying the game.

Last year the Wolves played a sloppy, chaotic, offense-minded sort of hockey that resulted in plenty of scoring and plenty of losses. They had the two top scorers in the league in Rob Brown (117 points with 80 assists) and Steve Maltais (114 points with 60 goals), but gave up more goals than they scored. I went out to see one game late in the season and was stunned by the number of icing calls against the Wolves. The team made the playoffs at 40-36-6 but didn't advance far, and the lack of discipline cost coach Grant Mulvey his job.

This year the Wolves brought in former Toronto Maple Leafs winger John Anderson as coach, and under his new system the team won four of five games and tied the other on a demanding road trip that opened the season. The differences were immediate and striking when the team returned for its home opener last Friday. The Wolves ran precise plays, typically breaking out of their end by passing to a winger along the boards who then passed to one of the other two forwards as they skated across center ice. That's very basic hockey but a world away from last year's style of play--which was little more than throw the puck down the ice and see who gets to it first. The defense was prone to lapses--one player, trying a dangerous pass between two opposing players in the slot, got the pass through them only to see it picked off by another opponent, requiring a couple of acrobatic saves by the Wolves' Wendell Young--but was otherwise sound. The Wolves' first goal came off a broken play, but it was symptomatic of the serendipity that can befall a hockey team that observes the fundamentals.

The Wolves were trying one of those cross-ice lead passes when a member of the opposing Milwaukee Admirals got a stick on the puck. The loose puck came to rest just beyond the Wolves' blue line, and defenseman Kevin Dahl swooped in to scoop it up. With the three forwards skating on the wings to keep the defense spread out, Dahl rushed across the center line, cut down the left wing, crossed the Milwaukee blue line, and got off a backhand shot from the face-off circle just as the defense was hurrying to cut him off. The Milwaukee goalie blocked the shot but couldn't handle it cleanly, and Dahl closed on the net to convert the rebound--a very pretty goal, especially for a defenseman. I went to a Wolves game and some hockey broke out.

The circus elements of the Wolves' show remain undiminished. The PA system begins the night cranking out heavy-metal hits along the lines of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle," the Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz," and, I swear, one or two numbers from Spinal Tap. As the evening progresses the music gradually softens until the better disco hits like "Boogie Fever" and "Get Down Tonight" come to dominate the mix. There's an extended and, in fact, somewhat tiresome laser show before the introductions, but when the Wolves actually emerge from the locker room they skate out one by one between two volcano-shaped aluminum flamethrowers (cue Veruca Salt's "Volcano Girls") that send swirls of fire leaping into the air. (I could feel the heat from them in the upper deck, and I think one of the reasons the Wolves skate onto the ice with such energy is to keep their helmets from melting to their skulls.) Then Wayne Messmer, the old anthem favorite at Blackhawks games who lost that gig when he joined the Wolves' front office, comes out to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his wife, Kathleen, and the crowd does a pretty good low-volume imitation of the old Chicago Stadium roar, punctuated by some indoor fireworks. When the lights come up, the place even looks a little like the old Stadium--the Stadium back in the days when everyone ignored the fire regulations and the place had a perpetually smoky haze--and to the opening of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" ("Hey, ho, let's go!") the starters take the ice.

One of my reasons for seeing the Wolves before the Blackhawks this season was aesthetic: the IHL is a minor league, and its players are nowhere near as talented as National Hockey League players. Most obviously, they just don't skate as fast as the average NHL player. Last year after I'd seen the Hawks first, the Wolves seemed slow even next to Bob Probert. The Wolves, however, seem to have been aware that they needed to improve team speed, for they've added several players of better ability. Dahl, an IHL all-star last year with the Las Vegas Thunder, was one obvious improvement. Another was Steve Martins, a scrappy little center who skittered across the ice like an oak leaf riding a low breeze. (Unfortunately, neither Dahl nor Martins may last long with the team; while the Wolves are unaffiliated with any one NHL franchise, Dahl is on loan from the Calgary Flames and Martins has been loaned out by the Carolina Hurricanes. Such are the fates of minor-league sports.) Martins, who stands about five-foot-nine (in his skates, I think) made one deke-happy rush up the ice only to be clobbered by the Admirals' lumbering six-three defenseman Ken Sabourin, the old Calgary Flames enforcer. Yet Martins bounced right up, and later on he recovered from a stick to the face.

Last year, the peewee hockey game between periods was the highlight of my visit with the Wolves. This year it was a highlight but only a highlight, as the quality of the game proper was much improved. Still, it was a kick to see those little guys--from a local "mite"-level league for kids about seven years old, it seemed--scurrying across the ice. They played the full length but seven-on-seven to fill out the space, and the pace was ferocious--up and down, back and forth, with no pause after a goal. The scored-on team simply pulled the puck out of the net and took it at the other team, as in an ice pond pickup game. By this time I had given up my relatively remote perch in the press box and come down to the main level with the hoi polloi, and two guys behind me turned to each other and said in unison, "It's like basketball!" At the halfway point of what must have been a five-minute game the opposing coaches called for substitutions, and all 14 skaters came roaring toward the bench, leaving the puck alive and only a few feet from one of the goals. The goalie stood his ground as 14 new players all went ripping for the puck, and then play started again when the first reached it. There was something feral about the game ("Born to Be Wild" played on the PA), and the image of the night was of all 14 players slapping and hacking at the puck as it slid through untouched and into the corner, and then all of them dashing off in pursuit like a litter of pups after a cat that had just sauntered past. Minor-league hockey can be garish and gruesome, as lampooned in the film Slapshot, but one of the best things about the Wolves is the way they aim everything at the family, from the ticket prices (very reasonable, especially in comparison with the Hawks) to the mascot Skates to the peewee games. When thousands of high-pitched kids howl along with Skates--especially at a Sunday matinee--it sounds like a Beatles concert.

A bunch of guys came back from a beer break after the intermission and chased me out of the seat I'd taken. I happened to wind up in front of six of the most fervent Wolves fans in the building: six young guys and gals (not couples, evidently, or at least they sat with the three guys on the left and the three gals on the right) just out for a night of yelling and screaming. They must have been high school kids or just beyond, and they stood through most of the game, there at the back of the main-level seating area, and they were avid in the extreme, chanting to distract the Milwaukee goalie and shouting encouragement to their favorites on the Wolves. When the biggest leather-lung in the group caught me taking notes, he asked what I was doing.

"I envy this guy," he yelled when I told him. "He gets to come here and write about the Wolves and get paid for it."

"He's going to write about the obnoxious guy behind him," said the young woman standing next to him. She was right, of course.

Wolves jerseys abounded in the crowd, but leather-lung was wearing a Chiefs jersey (another Slapshot reference), and he started gushing about his favorite players. "Dahl is a god," he said, "also number 6, and 9, and 14." Like me, he had pegged Dahl and Martins (14) right away, but also a couple of bruisers, Craig Binns (6) and Marc Potvin (9). He was that sort of hockey fan, as were his mates. When Martins lost his stick while helping to kill a five-on-three disadvantage for the Wolves, but kept on playing, harrying the Admirals as they passed the puck around the perimeter by falling to the ice and popping up again like a terrier in an attempt to deflect the puck, all six of them went into hysterics. When Martins came to the bench leather-lung shouted, "You are the man, Martins. Martins, you are the man!"

A few minutes later, during a break in play, he said, "I have the worst headache."

"Then shut up for a while," offered the buddy to his left.

They were first-rate fans, and I hated to leave them, but when things turned from bad to worse for the Wolves I felt I had to. They took some stupid penalties and gave up three power-play goals to fall behind 3-1. Then the Admirals' Mark Visheau was hit with a penalty but the Wolves couldn't take advantage. In fact, no sooner had Visheau's penalty ended than he stepped out of the box and found the puck gliding toward him. He slipped behind the Wolves' defense and slapped a shot on goal, and though Young made the save he lost the rebound and Mike Harder chopped it in to make it 4-1.

"There's no luck in this seat," I explained to the group.

"No kidding," said one of the guys.

I wasn't even at the end of the aisle on my way back to the press box when Chris Marinucci chipped the puck in after a scramble in front of the Admirals' net, only 21 seconds after the last goal. The Wolves came back to life then, and converted on a textbook five-on-three power play a few minutes later. Maltais, who remains with the team (Brown's been picked up by the Pittsburgh Penguins), stationed himself just to the right of the Milwaukee net, got the puck, drew the goalie's attention, and then passed through the crease to Alexander Semak, who tapped it in as if it were a gimme putt in golf. The second period ended with the Wolves down 4-3.

Old habits die hard, however. After a brief flurry of penalties to end the second period the Wolves opened the final frame with a five-on-three advantage, but again couldn't convert. The crisp patterns of the first period had been forgotten. Though they never got as sloppy as the Wolves of last season, they were out of sync. They had a couple of close calls, but nothing went in. Finally, Anderson pulled Young for a sixth attacker and the Wolves put the pressure on, but then the Admirals cleared the puck and defenseman Tom Tilley just plain fell down pursuing it, allowing the Admirals to score an easy empty-net goal for the 5-3 final.

It is, after all, minor-league hockey.

Few fans seemed to mind the outcome. People were upbeat and chatty while walking to their cars, with more than a few parents saying good-bye to one another while lugging sleeping children over their shoulders--a sight rarely seen at the United Center. There was one mildly distressing note: the attendance of 9,833 was the lowest for a Wolves home opener in their four years of existence. It also happened to be the first time a home opener came on a night the Hawks were playing. The following night, with the Hawks off, they topped 10,000 while beating the Kansas City Blades, making their record 5-1-1 against the Hawks' 0-7. As Messmer pointed out at a team gathering Friday, right now the Wolves have the best record in Chicago. At least until the Bulls start playing next week, that figures to remain the case.

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