The new year, I thought, would be a good time to give the Blackhawks a new chance. So on New Year’s Day I dutifully rejected the college bowl games and trekked to the United Center with a buddy to see the Hawks take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. I had called the day before to see if any $15 300-level seats–the UC equivalent to the upper balcony in the old Chicago Stadium–were available, and they were; but though we arrived more than an hour before game time they’d all been sold by the time we got to the ticket window. So we had to pay $25 for seats in the tenth row of the 300 level, just three rows–barely ten feet–down from where the $15 section began. I suspected a conspiracy. But in all fairness to the Hawks and their ticket agents the $15 seats did seem sold out by the time the game started, albeit with empty pockets here and there where groups of season ticket holders clearly had opted for football over hockey. More aggravating were the entire rows of empty seats below us in the 300 level–but those, of course, were $40 a ticket. (In fact, the 300-level sections behind both goals were to remain largely vacant all night–a sign of fan rebellion, or at least fan apathy.)

What’s more, I paid $5 for a program I soon found was day-old or, rather, month-old goods, having been replaced by a more recent program with a Maggiano’s restaurant ad on page 74, an ad that, if signed by Keith Carney, would have entitled me to a dinner for ten(!), for which I wasn’t even eligible as my old program had a Healthsouth Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation Center ad on that page. (Imagine taking a group of ten there.) My program offered no information on Dmitri Nabokov, the Hawks’ newly arrived 21-year-old phenom, who had scored four goals and earned five points in his first five games with the team. (A brief aside here to mourn the passing of the Blue Line, the renegade independent program that was sold outside the UC and, before that, the Stadium, “with not a penny going to Bill Wirtz,” the Hawks’ infamously penurious owner. The Blue Line was funny, satirical, bargain-priced, informative, and ever up-to-date, but it recently closed shop, the saddest passing of a Chicago publication since the Daily News folded.) So there I sat, almost an hour before game time, in a $25 seat only three rows better than the $15 seats, with an outmoded $5 program in one hand and a $4.50 Bud Light in the other, already $34.50 poorer for the experience of seeing the Hawks, and so steamed at the whole experience that it was small solace that I had snuck in a half-pint of bourbon.

Such are the aggravations faced by generations of Hawks fans.

Yet those fans remain the most fiercely loyal sports fans in the city, and by the time we had all finished clapping and roaring our way through the national anthem–by the time the hard-rock hits played during warm-ups had yielded to Frank Pellico on the organ playing “Pennsylvania Polka” and “Lady of Spain” (complete with castanet sound effects)–I was glad to be among them. Last season, when I paid my way into the 300 level on a Friday night, it struck me as much more of a scene-making experience; the twentysomething singles and couples greeted each other as if they were regulars at the same trendy sports bar. New Year’s Day, however, seemed to bring out the true hockey fans. We were seated right in front of a pair of tough, gruff women–a south-side mother and daughter, apparently–who were as boisterous and knowledgeable as any fans I’d heard at a game in some time.

“C’mon, Antonio,” the younger woman yelled at Tony Amonte early on. “Hit that sonofabitch!”

When Alex Zhamnov–the player who has proved to be no substitute for Jeremy Roenick, the popular star he was traded for–picked off a Toronto pass in the slot only to be stopped point-blank by Toronto goalie Felix Potvin, the same woman yelled out, “Zhamnov, ya scumbag, we’re paying you two-point-six for nuthin’!”

That’s two-point-six as in $2.6 million, Zhamnov’s salary, for those not as well versed in the finer points of Blackhawks hockey as this woman clearly was.

She was dressed in a number-8 Cam Russell Hawks jersey, but her mother, adorned in a slightly more nostalgic 24 Doug Wilson model, was no slouch either. She didn’t yell as loud, but she had a grating voice–sort of like the Lucy Show-era Lucille Ball–that cut right through all the other cheering around us.

“C’mon, you can’t play pansy and win this game,” she yelled at one point, going on to moan while the Hawks were killing a penalty, “They’re gonna score by default if you don’t take it away, you silly guys!”

Remember, we were seated midway up the 300 level, more than 100 feet from the nearest player, but that didn’t stop them from making their opinions known, and they didn’t just yell and shout. Between periods, I overheard the younger woman explaining to her mother just what was wrong with the Hawks–that they had no star presence, that they needed to consummate the long-rumored deal that would bring Brett Hull back to Chicago, where his father Bobby had established himself as one of the greats of the game, and that they’d still need another center and a right wing after that. I’ve heard people who get paid to think about such things put the Hawks’ problems much less succinctly on television and radio.

On the ice, the Hawks appeared to bottom out at the beginning of the season, when they followed in the footsteps of last year’s Cubs and Bears by losing their first seven games. They’ve since righted themselves, rising to a record of 14-18-7 by the end of the calendar year, although they still seem poised on the brink of either success or failure. The Cubs, after all, approached .500 after their season-opening 14-game losing streak last year and got to within three and a half games of first place before the ground opened up beneath them and they sank to a tie for last. A similar fate could still befall the Hawks, although they’ll be helped by the National Hockey League’s liberal play-off system, which allows almost everyone in. As it stood before the Toronto game, the Hawks’ 35 points were fifth in the Central Division but would have gotten them into the play-offs with the eighth-best mark in the Western Conference, this due to the woeful state of the Pacific Division.

The Hawks also have benefited from the addition of Nabokov, the epitome of the team’s hoped-for transformation from caterpillar to butterfly (to borrow an appropriate metaphor from the appropriate author). Nabokov is a tall, fleet forward, the team’s top draft pick in 1995, but the word on him going into this season was that his defense was poor and he couldn’t take a hit. He improved both aspects of his game with the minor-league Indianapolis Ice, however, and was called up to the Hawks last month just when their fortunes seemed to be improving. As I mentioned, he immediately scored four goals and notched an assist in his first five games, with coach Craig Hartsburg placing him at left wing on the Hawks’ top line with center Zhamnov and right wing Amonte. The team’s revival has been triggered as well by Eric Daze, the alternately bright and laconic could-be star who was one of the league’s top rookies two years ago and one of the Hawks’ biggest disappointments last year. Daze was frequently mentioned as trade bait over the last year, but general manager Bob Murray–yes, the old Hawks defenseman–has wisely kept him on to develop. He has a wicked wrist shot–quick and accurate–and I still believe that if he were teamed on a line with two players who could dig in the corners and deliver passes to him in the slot they could be a scoring machine along the lines of Phil Esposito’s work with Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman on the old Boston Bruins. (Esposito, it’s worth noting, came up with the Hawks and was dealt when it was thought he wouldn’t develop.) Hartsburg now has Daze on a line with center Greg Johnson and the suitably scrappy James Black, but he has also experimented playing him with Kevin Miller, another newcomer adept at digging the puck out of the corners.

In any case, with the influx of new talent and the loss of Bob Probert to a season-ending injury, as well as diminished playing time for the Hawks’ other battleship, Jim Cummins, the team seems quicker and more disciplined on the ice than it did a year ago. The quickness was in evidence against the Leafs, even if the discipline tended to lapse from moment to moment. Early on, the Hawks looked crisp on the power play and equally solid killing a penalty with persistent forechecking, but then their attention seemed to drift–a common occurrence this season at home, where they had won only one of their previous ten games, with four ties as meager consolation. The Hawks outplayed the Leafs for almost the entire first period but Toronto scored the only goal, as Tie Domi slipped behind the Hawks’ defense and, as the two Chicago defenders closed on him, passed across the ice to Derek King, who calmly deflected the puck past goalie Jeff Hackett. The Hawks had their chances. Daze drifted out from behind the net trying to control the puck with his back to the goal, then turned and fired a bullet right at Potvin, who stopped it. Potvin then failed to stop a scrappy rush by Jeff Shantz, who shimmied between the boards and a Toronto defender, closed in on the net unmolested, shot, and poked in the rebound; but the apparent goal was waved off by the referees, who said Shantz was in the crease.

That was about the time the young woman behind us, noticing that I was taking notes, asked if we were from Toronto with the apparent intention of kicking some convenient Maple Leaf fan ass. We said she was sadly mistaken–and started cheering more vociferously.

Shantz got his goal back in the second period with a score on a nice centering pass from behind the net by Miller. Shantz celebrated by skating backward and giving his fists the old double pump in the manner of Denis Savard. The tie was short-lived, however, as defenseman Eric Weinrich’s unwise cross-ice pass was intercepted by the Leafs in the Hawks’ zone, resulting in a breakaway by Steve Sullivan. He deked Hackett, then backhanded the puck off the back of the goalie’s leg. It caromed agonizingly slowly across the goal line while Hackett sprawled for it. The second period ended with the Leafs up 2-1.

Around then I noticed my Buffy the Vampire Slayer baseball cap missing. I had taken it off after we moved our coats to the vacant seats just to our right. After a short search, the younger woman behind us admitted that, yes, she had scooped it up, and her mother pulled it from deep in her purse. (Not before remarking, “What hat?” and then, “Oh, that one.”) “You guys didn’t look like the Buffy types,” the younger woman said by way of explanation, adding that she’d found it on the floor and intended to give it to one of the math students she tutored. All was forgiven, and–noticing that they had snuck in some bottles of Beck’s Beer themselves–I even offered up a few swigs from the half-pint as a reward. “Be careful, mother,” said the younger woman as we returned to watching the game.

Things got worse before they got better. The Hawks scrambled to kill a penalty early in the third period, but the Leafs ended an 0-for-53 drought on the power play when Mats Sundin scored with a second left of the man advantage. The Hawks were down 3-1. They went on the attack and harried Potvin unsuccessfully, prompting the younger woman to yell out, “Put it in, pussies!” This brought guffaws from the male fans all around and the woman’s own unabashed chortles. John Belushi’s “It’s not over until we say it is” speech from Animal House played on the scoreboard TV, and three high-school drummers in the 300 level tom-tommed the crowd into a frenzy. With just over three minutes left, Hackett made an amazing save. He’d been skating toward the bench to give the Hawks an extra attacker when the Leafs got the puck and fired it toward the Hawks’ goal. Hackett turned, dived, and knocked it down with his stick as if he were battling a bee with a broom. The Hawks backtracked, froze the puck, won the next face-off, and with Hackett pulled and on the bench scored when Zhamnov converted the rebound from an Amonte slap shot. Hackett returned to the ice, and not 45 seconds later Black scored on a Daze rebound. It was tied at three.

The sad thing was, the women behind us missed both goals. They were gone like last year’s resolutions, taking the half-pint and leaving nothing behind to mark their presence but several empty bottles of beer.

The Hawks almost scored again to win it in the final moments when, with Potvin sprawled on the ice, the rebound went right to Brent Sutter in front of the net. But the puck rolled up his stick and his shot went over the top of the goal. Both teams had their chances in overtime, and the fans were roaring for another score. When Amonte was tripped and the officials made no call, one nearby fan shouted, “Ah, you’re missing a great game ref!” In the end, however, Hackett had to preserve the deadlock with a terrific kick save on an open shot off a well-executed Toronto two-on-two break. It reminded us all of how lucky the Hawks were to escape with a tie, and the stairwell was full of chipper chatter as we descended from the 300 level–another Chicago sports year off to a start of high spirits and low expectations, at least where everyone but the Bulls is concerned.

As I pulled on my coat and tugged my cap down low on my forehead, I sure hoped those women got home all right. The city–much less the Hawks–can ill afford to lose fans like that.