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Worth the Wait?

The Blackhawks are back, but major-league hocket isn't

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I went to a hockey game and a knitting circle broke out. The roar had been replaced by the snore.

After last year's lockout cost the NHL an entire season, the Blackhawks are back. A war of attrition ended with the players caving in to the owners, accepting a rollback of salaries and a lowball team-by-team cap. The damage done may never be undone.

The NHL looked overexpanded even before the lockout, and the level of play took another hit when many of the European stars went home. The league planted the message "Thank You Fans!" under the ice in its rinks, but fans haven't been mobbing the United Center to accept this chilly sentiment, which falls far short of the required apology. The Hawks, who once asked their fans to "remember the roar," that being the roar of the crowd at the old Chicago Stadium, have been playing to diminishing numbers since they moved into the more palatial, muffled UC. The crowd at the Sunday-night game I saw this month wasn't just small, it was apathetic.

Hawks fans used to erupt at the outset, screaming, whistling, and clapping through the national anthem. But throughout the first period the UC was so quiet that even in its upper reaches one could clearly hear the tap of sticks on ice as players called for passes or shouted to teammates. The small group of wandering drummers that used to rouse the fans by pounding out tribal rhythms was nowhere to be seen, and the beer vendors seemed abashed by the sound of their own voices. Though the Hawks have moved up their Sunday-night starting time to six--the better to entice families, I suppose--the charitable attendance count was 12,498, and most of those seemed to be suffering the effects of the tryptophan in the Sunday supper.

The one consolation was that for a $10 ticket, the cheapest seat in the house, one could sit almost anywhere in the third tier. I settled into the second row in the corner behind the Hawks' net, right in front of a couple in matching Hawks jerseys. They knew their hockey, and they weren't afraid to say when it was bad. The loss of the Europeans, combined with injuries to holdovers like Eric Daze, had already pressed the Hawks into using six players who'd never played in the NHL before this season. "I've never been to an Admirals game until now," said the guy, meaning the Norfolk Admirals, the Hawks' minor-league affiliate.

It was an impression underlined by the new coach, former Hawks defenseman Trent Yawney, who like many of his players had moved up from Norfolk, where he was head coach the last five years. The bush-league aspect of the play included centering passes that no one was in position to receive and behind-the-back passes to empty stretches of ice. Despite a new coach, the great Wayne Gretzky, their opponents, the Phoenix Coyotes, weren't much better. The league's attempt to open up play by expanding the room behind the nets and allowing the previously verboten two-line pass had changed nothing. "What kind of power play is this?" the guy wondered aloud as the Hawks bumbled their way through a man advantage.

For years Hawks owner Bill Wirtz refused to pay competitive salaries. He allowed stars like Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour to bolt for greener pastures--to name just two of the more recent examples in a parsimonious history going back more than 30 years to Bobby Hull. Wirtz was one of the hardball owners who insisted on a salary cap, and he helped hold his fellow owners together until he got his way. Yet like White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, no sooner had the labor strife ended than Wirtz paid top dollar for the best free agent available--in Reinsdorf's case slugger Albert Belle, in Wirtz's goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. But like Belle, Khabibulin was no cure-all. From the opening game of the season, a loss at home in which he was scored on five times in a mere 24 shots, he's been prone to soft goals. The game before he hadn't lasted through the first period. On this night, fans derisively cheered each save early on, and the attitude toward the scoreless first period was best reflected by the guy behind me, who said, "Well, at least he got through the first 15 minutes without giving up four goals." The woman spent the intermission knitting. When Khabibulin gave up a goal late in the second period on a low-angle shot that probably should have been stopped, she pronounced him a "pansy."

The play on the ice was as laconic as the fans in the stands, but after the Hawks tied the game with a cheap goal in the third period, both teams turned up the intensity in an attempt to steal a win with 20 minutes of real work. Instead, this effort produced overtime and the relatively new development of going four skaters per side in the extra five minutes to open up the play still more. I was hoping for OT to end in a tie, to get a first look at the new NHL tiebreaker shoot-out, but the Hawks won when defenseman Brent Seabrook--one of the first-year players--joined a three-on-one rush up ice and scored.

From there the Hawks went up and down. In Saint Louis against the archrival Blues, they actually skated 60 minutes of good, energetic hockey and won 4-2, achieving their first winning streak of the season. But back home the following night they looked spent, and they lost to Roenick and the Los Angeles Kings by the same 4-2 score. Last Sunday the Hawks scored three goals in the first period, two of them by Mark Bell, the previously long-haired young phenom who at 25 now qualifies as an elder statesman. He'd been off to a frustrating start this season, but his first goal of the night--redirecting the puck past the goalie on a breakaway while flying through the air Bobby Orr-style after being tripped from behind by a defender--was nothing less than a reminder of how beautiful hockey can be. The Hawks were shaking off the rust of a year's idleness and beginning to round into form; even Khabibulin looked good in preserving the 3-1 win. It lifted the Hawks' record to 7-11 as they cleared out for the circus and set off on their annual November road trip, and the fans showed signs that they might even miss them.

Yet the slight improvement seemed paltry to anyone who remembers the roaring crowd's intensity back in the glory days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, Denis Savard and Al Secord. If hockey had awakened from a coma, that didn't mean it wasn't still on its deathbed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Elsa--Getty Images.

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