It turns out there are limits to love after all.
When the circus cleared out of the United Center last week and the Blackhawks returned home from their annual fall road trip, precious few fans came out to greet them. Only two years ago I had marveled at how, despite a vast tract of empty seats at the 300 level, there were still some 20,000 fans not only willing but eager to see the Hawks--large Catholic families out for some high-cost quality time and groups of singles treating the United Center like their regular watering hole. But Thursday only 13,134 were in attendance for the match against the Nashville Predators. There were vacant seats at all levels, and the upper deck was all but abandoned to small enclaves of fans, including myself, my father, and my father-in-law. We probably could have scored some 100-level seats at a bargain if we had been willing to walk around the stadium a little bit before the game, but my father's knees and my visiting Aussie father-in-law's uneasy adjustment to the climate prompted us to go directly to the ticket window and buy the cheapest seats available. As it was, we could have moved down to the front row of the upper deck but the hockey would have been no more exciting there. In fact, it would have been dreary from right behind the glass. The Hawks got in a few good hits in the first period but after that played apathetically on their way to a 3-0 loss.
This was according to form. The Hawks have played on the road with the vim and vigor of a randy traveling salesman, producing a .500 record, only to return home with all the enthusiasm of a long-bored spouse. (Not 24 hours after this loss, they would travel to Nashville and beat the very same Predators 2-1.) The home loss lowered the Hawks to 2-7-0-1 at the United Center this season--two wins, seven losses, no ties, and one moral victory, a category recently added by the National Hockey League to designate overtime losses--and 8-13-2-2 overall, good for 20 points and fourth place in the Central Division, on track to miss the playoffs for the third straight season. Where two years ago I had decided it must be love in some misguided form that brought people out to see such a team, now it seemed to be little more than force of habit. We loyal fans screamed and clapped our way through the national anthem, but the sound we produced was more a murmur than a roar, and during the game the crowd hummed away like an air conditioner in the next room, leaving this most aural of sports--pocks, thwocks, and occasional bumps against the boards--to be punctuated only by the occasional whistle from the stands, a sound no one would mistake for a wolf call.
To turn their fortunes around, the Hawks brought in a new coach this year, Alpo Suhonen. He has installed a new system based on forechecking, and it was in evidence during the first period, when the Hawks played well though neither side scored. Yet no system can overcome a lack of talent, and the Hawks' defense on this night showed no ability. The prime offender was Boris Mironov, who displays flash over proficiency when he displays anything at all. At one point during a power play, Mironov rushed the puck right to the Nashville net, a daring move of a sort rarely seen in these parts; but moments later the puck slid out past the right point, where Mironov should have been stationed to keep it in, and the power play lapsed. Later he took a Nashville skater out of the play with a nice riding hip check, but the Predators' Ville Peltonen went past him and defensive partner Alexander Karpovtsev as if they were lawn jockeys to score the final goal of the game in the third period. That sealed the outcome--there was no way the Hawks were going to score three goals, not even with Eric Daze playing well on the team's prime line with Alexei Zhamnov and Tony Amonte.
This trio produced the Hawks' only scoring chances of the night, but they were plagued with bad luck and worse timing. In the first period, Zhamnov hit Daze with a crisp crossing pass for a point-blank shot on Nashville goalie Tomas Vokoun, but Daze backhanded it into Vokoun's pads as if he were spreading manure in a bed of roses. Later Amonte skirted along the blue line, attracting the defense, and then hit Daze with a pass closing on the net, but Vokoun kicked Daze's shot out. Daze forced a one-on-two rush in the third period, when it was still a game at 2-0, and got off a good shot, but Vokoun stopped it and Zhamnov couldn't get to the rebound in time. Soon after that, a forechecking Zhamnov picked off a pass in the Nashville zone but shot the puck right into Vokoun's pads. That was as close as the Hawks would come to scoring. More typical was a play late in the second period when Ryan VandenBussche, Chris Herperger, and Bob Probert came skating up the ice on a three-on-two, only to have VandenBussche skate behind the net with no one to pass to (the ever-slovenly Probert couldn't get open in a touch football game against the Gore family). The Nashville defense calmly skated up and took the puck from him. Later, Michael Nylander hit Dean McAmmond with a lovely centering pass, but McAmmond couldn't kick it off his skates and onto his stick, and again the defense closed on him. The Hawks didn't pull their goalie, Jocelyn Thibault, in the closing minutes. Why bother?
The Hawks still do some things right. The Shoot-the-Puck contest between the first and second periods still features the usual two guys and a babe in high heels, though with the diminishing pool of fans to pick from the babes are a lot less babe-a-licious than they used to be. More emblematic of the current team was a fund-raising ceremony between the second and third periods. The stadium crew spread a red carpet on the ice and a $1,000 check was presented to the Stan Mikita School for the Hearing-Impaired. When the presentation was over my father-in-law pointed out that two crew members had started rolling up the carpet at opposite ends and when they met in middle had to start over. That was the Blackhawks' level of teamwork all night long.
When the Hawks gave the Predators chances, more often than not they converted. Nashville's first goal came in the second period, when Vitali Yachmenev slid a crafty pass through the Chicago defense to Marian Cisar at the corner of the net and he swept it past Thibault like an old lady shooing a cat with a broom. The Hawks' defense was again to blame for the second goal, scored by Cliff Ronning following a scrum in front of the Hawks' net. Nashville's Scott Walker later received a gift assist on the play for being nearby, but it was really the Hawks' pitiful defense that deserved credit.
The woeful display made me wonder what we were doing there. Denis Savard, newly inducted into the Hall of Fame, came out from behind the Hawks' bench, where he is now an assistant coach, to drop the ceremonial first puck, and we all cheered, "Den-nie, Den-nie," as highlights of his swirling moves of 20 years ago played on the scoreboard; but that was the prettiest hockey of the evening. My dad, who introduced me to Hawks hockey back in the proud days of the Hulls, Mikita, and Tony Esposito, got a rise out of "Great Moments in Blackhawk History" when it played during a break in the play. "It's about time," he said. But the play on the ice got so bad that watching the "Kiss Kam"--in which couples in the stands are shown on the screen and urged to kiss--beat watching the game. One couple didn't kiss but engaged in a noogie fight, while another man and woman took so long getting around to kissing that the guy sitting on the other side of the woman leaned into the shot to give her a smooch. When the game resumed, one nearby fan called out, "Leave the camera on!"
Such is their need for love. Hawks fans will settle for it secondhand if they can't generate any of their own. But bad as the Hawks are, give me the people sitting there and paying $5 a beer ($5.50 for smaller quantities of better beer) over those who have rejected the Hawks and what they have to offer, even if the ones in the stands are thinking of better times, when the national anthem produced a genuine roar and the Hawks were something to roar for.
The Hawks have a new coach and many new players, but there's been no revival of optimism. Even a coach with the best system in the world needs talent, as Tim Floyd has discovered. As the third period dwindled away and the boos increased, and the loyalists who stuck around to the final seconds vented their displeasure, one fan in the upper deck called out, "We want the Bulls!" Hey, no need to get desperate.