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After the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII, I thought it only right to give equal time to more "wholesome" sporting events. Not that I found Jackson baring her right bosom so offensive: truth be told, I was watching with my wife and two daughters and we barely noticed. I remember looking up at one point and thinking, "Well, there's something you don't see every day at a football game"--except maybe in the randier sections of college stadiums, I later considered--and then it was over. But perhaps I'd been jaded by life among the libertines of the Wrigley Field bleachers and the gourmands of the Soldier Field tailgate parties and the foulmouthed members of the media in all press boxes. Was it time to get back to the old ways? So it was that my eight-year-old, Meg, and I packed off to see the American Hockey League Wolves at the Allstate Arena last Saturday.

The Wolves nurture a reputation as a family-friendly sporting environment, and although they aren't quite as cost-conscious along those lines as they'd like to think--or as a father might hope--for the most part they proved true to form. After a breezy trip on the expressway, we arrived about an hour before the game, paid $11 for parking, and bought two $15 seats in the balcony. As it turned out, we could have cheaped out and bought $11 seats and sat almost anywhere upstairs, as the game wasn't close to being sold-out. Even so, the attendance of 11,324 was comparable to what the Blackhawks have been drawing lately at the United Center, with many more children than come to the typical Hawks game. After spending $18 on dinner--the tab of $5.25 a beer all but converts the entire stadium into a family-friendly no-drunks-allowed zone--$6 on a program and lineup, and, last but not least, $28 on a pink-and-maroon baseball-style long-sleeve Wolves T-shirt, we settled into our seats; if the hockey didn't quite qualify as "priceless," it was nevertheless a pleasant outing for a father and daughter. Two families soon seated themselves to our right--two boys and two girls all slightly older than Meg in our row, with two dads a row below and two moms a row back--and there were cuddly newlyweds in front of us, an older couple to our left, and a bunch of guys just behind. All were involved in the game if not exactly rabid fans, and all were well-spoken and polite. Yet just as I was taking note of that, some leather-lung rowdies behind the Wolves' goal shouted "Sucks!" after each name as the starting lineup of the visiting Houston Aeros was announced, and those fans later organized an occasional chant about how Houston goalie Johan Holmqvist sucked.

"I thought they were saying 'socks,'" my daughter said.

"What were they saying?"

"Sucks," she explained, matter-of-factly.

Still, that was as coarse as the language got all night. Meg was far more concerned about the indoor fireworks as the Wolves were introduced, especially as they skated out through a green-eyed giant wolf head between two long paws that shot fire straight up into the air--fire that could be felt as wafts of heat across the arena. "Is that safe?" she asked, and I assured her it was--more or less. The Aeros were booed as they took the ice. "I feel sorry for them," she said. It was all part of the game, I replied. Players had to learn to be tough in another team's arena--and I wondered what kind of athletes we're creating in soccer leagues where you're not even permitted to boo the ref.

Wayne and Kathleen Messmer harmonized nicely on the national anthem--another family touch. And Wolves fans didn't seem compelled to curse their own players or the ownership, which made a difference right away from the atmosphere of Hawks games. After years as an independent, the Wolves recently became a minor-league affiliate of the NHL Atlanta Thrashers, but they've remained winners, adding the AHL Calder Cup in 2002 to previous Turner Cup titles in 1998 and 2000. They have a chance to keep the pattern intact this season: they came into the game one of the best teams in the league at 25-16-6-3 (wins, losses, ties, and overtime losses), while the Aeros were 18-22-9-3. Coach John Anderson hammered away on a chaw of gum behind the bench; as ever, he had the Wolves playing good, sound hockey that emphasized defense and forechecking.

The Wolves are minor-league, simply not as fast or as skilled as their NHL counterparts. Nevertheless, they do have some good players, led by fan favorite Steve Maltais, a grizzled veteran who has played with the Wolves at some point or other in each season since the team debuted ten years ago, and who holds the team records for goals, assists, and points. He was leading them again this season with 20 goals, in a tie with newly acquired Eric Healey. In goal was another newcomer, Michael Garnett, who displayed the classic inverted-V style--skates wide, knees together, to help block the low corners--that the Hawks' Tony Esposito originated more than 30 years ago.

The Wolves scored right away. Twin penalties left the teams playing four skaters on four rather than the usual five on five, and Chicago defenseman Shawn Heins exploited the open ice to rush up and fire a slap shot that went right through Holmqvist's glove. The puck popped out and trickled over his shoulder into the net. A few minutes later, the Wolves scored again. Houston defenseman Jason Marshall got preoccupied with the Wolves' Karl Stewart in front of the net and just plain pushed him aside. But this opened things up for Derek MacKenzie, who took a pass out front from Jim Campbell behind the net and wristed the puck in.

The Wolves settled back and started playing conservative dump-and-chase hockey. The Aeros' big goon, Derek Boogard, got in a fight with the Wolves' Libor Ustrnul. "They're like wild animals," Meg said. "That's why they call them Wolves."

But it was the Aeros who were inflamed and who then rallied. Garnett made a splendid point-blank save, but flinched when a blistering shot whizzed overhead, ricocheted off the back glass, and skipped straight to Marshall, who shot the puck in before Garnett could recover. It was 2-1 after the first period.

During the intermission the Wolves opened the ice to a game of peewee hockey. Coaches lifted the players over the boards, and there were times when more than half the skaters were sprawled on the ice, but the play was sometimes impressive. One tyke with the puck stopped abruptly, watched the defense glide helplessly by, then skated in and lifted a lovely shot over the goalie's shoulder into the net. It was one of the best plays made by man or boy all night. But that goalie recovered to make a couple of nice saves and his team claimed a 1-1 tie.

The second period passed quickly, the Wolves protecting their one-goal lead. I shifted to teaching mode, drawing attention to the way the defensemen skated backward to keep their eyes on the opposing forwards, and to other fine points. "They make it look so easy," Meg said, and it was true, even of these minor leaguers. The conservative play made other fans more restless, however. The boys to our right suddenly discovered that their Dipping Dots ice cream was perfect for flinging and accidentally sprayed one of their fathers, who was not amused. Their moms were, though. As for the daughters, they moved discreetly away to an open row below.

A second peewee game also ended in a 1-1 tie--it was as if the adults had scripted the games--and then, as the Zamboni came out to resurface the ice, Skates, the frantic Wolves mascot, incited the crowd by boogying to the classic rock song "Black Betty." The one Houston goal had subdued the crowd and made it anxious, but the fans were back in full roar by the time the final period began.

These two teams just didn't like each other. Right at the opening face-off, while everyone else--referees included--was looking at center ice, Houston defenseman Jason Beckett reached out with his stick and pulled Stewart's skates out from under him. Maybe it was just that the Aeros were frustrated; as is typical of minor-league hockey, the home Wolves were getting the best of the calls, though they couldn't get their power play going. The Wolves finally converted one early in the third period. Maltais made a nice pass down the right wing to Kurtis Foster, who drew the defense then slid the puck across to Tommi Santala just left of the goal. Santala beat Holmqvist high over the shoulder to make it 3-1.

That was when the refs suddenly started playing makeup and hit the Wolves' Zdenek Blatny with a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for elbowing. The Wolves worked hard to kill off the man disadvantage. Garnett at one point made an excellent kick save. "Whoomp!" went the puck as it smacked his pads just below us. With less than two minutes to go in the penalty the refs called one against Houston and it became a four-on-four game. The Wolves appeared to have survived the crisis. Another penalty against the Wolves made it a perilous three on four; another Houston penalty again evened the teams. MacKenzie took a long rebound to start what amounted to a fast break at three on three. He skated down the left wing and made a lovely cross-ice pass to defenseman Greg Hawgood skating down the right, and Hawgood shot the puck over Holmqvist's glove into the net. Hockey can be a scrum, especially in a closely fought minor-league game, but at such a moment there is nothing more lovely.

The refs weren't through. With Houston's Mark Cullen already in the box for high-sticking, Maltais made a textbook hip check at center ice and was called for roughing. The four on four passed uneventfully until the Aeros put on a flurry in the Wolves' end just as Cullen was getting out of the penalty box. He skated straight in and deflected a shot past Garnett before the defense could adjust to his presence.

But the goal merely made it 4-2, and the Wolves steadied themselves to play good forechecking hockey and run out the clock. The fans were excited, but just as intent on getting the arm gestures right on the inevitable "YMCA" and on the various parts of the "Chicken Dance." The game felt at some points like a loud but orderly wedding reception, an impression enhanced when the scoreboard welcomed Jesse V's bachelor party and immediately afterward Cub Scout Pack 18.

The next day Meg wore her new Wolves T-shirt as I basked in the glory of being a doting parent of the sort who indoctrinates his children to the ways of Chicago sports--that is, until she started singing "YMCA" with all the arm gestures. That is something for a father to be offended by.

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