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Winter Belongs to the Hawks

With the rise of Rocky Wirtz, hockey in Chicago has gotten interesting again.

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The hottest game in town is cold steel on ice. When owner Bill Wirtz died just before this NHL season began, the Blackhawks rose like a phoenix. First of all, William Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz stepped in to assume ownership. This was something of a surprise: for years Peter Wirtz had been the heir apparent, but when dad died, Rocky Wirtz seized his birthright as firstborn and with all due respect to the old man's legacy proceeded to wipe as much of it clean as he could. Read into that whatever dysfunctional family dynamics you will.

Then Rocky dumped Bob Pulford, who'd been with the team as a coach or executive since the 70s, and immediately ended his father's policy of not broadcasting home games on TV, adding seven right away on Comcast SportsNet Chicago with four more to come toward the end of the season. Because Rocky isn't associated with the Blackhawks' long decline, which many trace back to Bill Wirtz's refusal to bid for Bobby Hull when he jumped to the World Hockey Association in 1972, he can play a freer hand in remaking the team on the fly. And last month he pulled off the signing coup of the year: seizing the opportunity offered by the Cubs' impending sale, he hired Cubs president John McDonough, a marketing maven, to take over the Hawks.

Bill Wirtz wasn't always alone in believing that a team hurts itself by giving away its product on TV. Even maverick Bill Veeck said the same in his 1962 memoir, Veeck as in Wreck. But TV helped turn Wrigley Field into the fan magnet known as the Friendly Confines, and by the 70s Veeck came around. Wirtz never did.

Of course fresh attitudes in the front office don't mean much to a fan unless they translate into improved play, but the Hawks have been blessed this season with two new phenoms. For the first time, as the NHL team most in need, they got the top choice in the free-agent draft of young hockey talent, and they selected Patrick Kane, a sprightly little 19-year-old with immense skills. Kane's Tiger Beat looks belie a sharp shot and an eagerness to use it, and he's got great "court sense," that instant understanding of where all the players are and where they'll be in the next instant that marks the great ones, from "Magic" Johnson to Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jordan. For years, the Hawks have played plodding, dump-and-chase hockey, rarely placing anyone among the league leaders in points (combined goals and assists), but Kane entered this week with 27 points on 7 goals and 20 assists, leading the Hawks and giving them at least one boldface line.

Another first-round choice, Jonathan Toews, is a bigger forward who's only slightly less talented overall than Kane. He's displayed an equally adept shot and a similar willingness to use it. In fact, for team scoring his 10 goals going into this week put him second only to Patrick Sharp, who had 12. The Hawks' new offensive firepower has given opponents more to worry about, and the Hawks' defense has taken advantage—in particular goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is finally playing up to a level that warrants the big-bucks contract he got from the Hawks as a free agent two years ago. It's as if the team had to sink to the absolute bottom under the old Wirtz regime before they could rebuild in the new.

After a decent start, the Hawks jelled on the road (in marked contrast to the Bulls) during that annual November fortnight when the United Center's two teams abandon it to the circus, and they returned home last week in the thick of the NHL Western Conference playoff race. So I went out last Friday, not to the United Center but to the bars to watch the Hawks at home on TV and see how they were going over with the fans. When I walked into Mother Hubbard's downtown, shortly after 7, the game between the Hawks and Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes was being promoted on the chalkboard in the doorway—though I did have to remind the bartender to tune one of the sets to CSNC about five minutes before the first face-off. Good thing, too, because the Hawks scored right away on a beautiful give-and-go between Tuomo Ruutu and Martin Havlat. Robert Lang helped set it up by weaving in front of Ruutu, and though he wasn't credited with an assist he deserved one for screening the shot. Two minutes later Toews converted a Sharp rebound into another goal, and then Dustin Byfuglien got involved. Playing left point on the power play, he slapped the puck home, then got a pair of power-play goals with first a two-man and then a one-man advantage. Each goal was set up by a lovely cross-ice pass from Kane. The natural hat trick had been accomplished in just under five and a half minutes, and caps cascaded onto the ice. The Hawks led 5-0, and with each goal the people in the bar clapped, led by a bartender who kept looking up from her work to find the Hawks had scored yet again and exclaim, "Oh my gawd!"

At the end of the period I was craving something better than normal bar food, so I headed out on Grand to the Twisted Spoke. In an indication of how low the Hawks have fallen, every TV in the place was tuned to the basketball game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. So I headed north to the old reliable Fireside Inn, getting there just before the end of the second period. The Hawks were on TV, but I couldn't help noticing that it was the only standard TV in the place—the three wide screens all were tuned to the Celts-Heat game, and stayed on ESPN even after that game was over.

The Hawks had scored another in the second period, but Khabibulin lost his shutout midway through the third on a nice play by the Coyotes' Peter Mueller, who deked the defense and backhanded the puck into the net. That goal barely tarnished the 6-1 win, and even after a loss the following night in Saint Louis the Hawks entered the week 14-10-2, in third place in the Central Division and tied for fourth in the Western Conference playoff standings.

Here are the most meaningful numbers of all. The Hawks were greeted by 11,122 fans at their homecoming a week ago Wednesday, even though it was the comeback game for Havlat, who scored two goals. The game against Phoenix two days later was televised, yet drew 16,234. So much for the legacy of Bill Wirtz.v

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