The Blackhawks opened the season with low expectations and equally low fan interest. Though they’d made the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring for the first time in five years, they gave up their most popular player, Tony Amonte, to free agency over the summer and signed in his place Theo Fleury, a veteran star with addiction issues. Fleury went AWOL from practice before the season even began, and almost immediately afterward was suspended by the NHL for violating the terms of his substance-abuse program. In addition, the team’s top remaining offensive threat, Eric Daze, who was coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons, went down with back surgery in September, which meant the Hawks had to go without their two best players for the first month and a half of the season. Fans responded with apathy. Attendance typically failed to crack 13,000, and beat writers speculated that for at least one game there probably weren’t 10,000 people in the United Center, no matter what the announced attendance.
But head coach Brian Sutter got the best out of his diminished personnel by having them play close-checking, defensive hockey from the opening game. If it wasn’t pretty–and I’ve long maintained there’s nothing in sports uglier than October hockey, unless it’s Shaquille O’Neal shooting free throws–it got results. The Hawks went 5-3-1 in October and won three more games in early November, including impressive road wins in Detroit against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Red Wings and in Tampa Bay against the Lightning. In that brutally officiated game, the Hawks killed off a pair of 5-on-3 penalties before claiming a 3-2 victory in overtime. The Hawks returned home to the UC last Friday and were welcomed by a crowd of 18,555, almost all of whom were in the stands for the national anthem, shouting and cheering their way through it like in the old days at the Stadium. I saw one little fan in a white jersey sitting on his dad’s shoulders and clapping through the entire song. That kid is clearly being raised right.
The Hawks responded with a terrific game against the Washington Capitals. Daze’s season debut, the game was full of end-to-end action and reversals in momentum. There was even a penalty shot. Noticeably lacking in cheap penalties and other stoppages, it burned along in just over two and a half hours, a scoreless overtime included, and the tie didn’t seem to diminish it in anyone’s eyes. “It was a fun game,” Sutter said afterward. “It was old-fashioned hockey.”
Nothing is more old-fashioned in hockey than an effective line of forwards with a nickname, and the Hawks were carried through much of the season’s early going by a group that quickly came to be known as the ABC line–for center Tyler Arnason, left wing Mark Bell, and right wing Kyle Calder. Arnason is a rookie, and last year was Bell’s and Calder’s first full NHL season. After toughening himself up with a strict training regimen over the summer, Arnason has emerged as one of the team’s leading offensive threats, and he’s scored a couple of game-saving goals in the clutch. He and his wings, scurrying up and down the ice, have been the very embodiment of the new, young, reinvigorated Hawks. Talk about old-school–both Bell and Calder went through pregame warm-ups Friday without their helmets. Calder even reminds a fan of Bobby Hull, the “Golden Jet” himself, with his flowing head of frizzy blond hair, while Bell–better known in the past for his flowing locks than for his hockey–trimmed them for the look of a young bank executive, if not Felicity in that TV show’s second season.
Sutter showed his confidence in the line by starting it in the first and second periods. He immediately teamed Daze with old mates Alexei Zhamnov and Steve Sullivan, and he frequently put them on the ice opposite the Caps’ top line of Robert Lang, Kip Miller, and Jaromir Jagr, the dangerous right wing who made his reputation playing Scottie Pippen to Mario Lemieux’s Michael Jordan on the great Pittsburgh Penguins teams of a decade ago (including the 1992 squad that swept the Hawks in their last trip to the Stanley Cup finals). The teams’ top two lines played each other evenly for the most part, which had to be considered a victory for the Hawks.
Yet Jagr produced the first goal of the game, in a 4-on-4 situation following a double penalty. The goal was a beauty. Jagr skated across the Hawks blue line and then crossed the ice from left to right, drawing the attention of the defense, and passed backhand to Jeff Halpern on the left wing. As Halpern drew the defense, Jagr circled from the right–all but warbling la, lala, la to himself–and arrived at the right corner of the goal just in time for a return pass. He effortlessly deposited the puck past Jocelyn Thibault into the net. The Caps’ only shot on goal of the period, it was enough to claim a 1-0 lead at the first intermission.
The Hawks had peppered Washington goalie Olie Kolzig with ten shots, but their only real scoring chance came in the period’s final minute, when Sullivan was awarded a penalty shot after being pulled down on a breakaway. The penalty shot is one of the rarest and most dramatic events in hockey; the league has tried for years to make it more common but to no avail, which is probably for the best–its rarity is what makes it such a thrill, like an inside-the-park home run. Fans rose to their feet as Sullivan circled back into the Hawks zone, picked up speed, and took the puck at center ice. Kolzig skated out to confront Sullivan, then skated backward waiting for him to make the first move. Sullivan deked right, then swung the puck left to his backhand, only to find Kolzig there. Sullivan pushed the puck into Kolzig’s pads, and the goalie sprawled on it to end the threat. Minutes later, after the shoot-the-puck contest at intermission, a fan went one-on-one with his sweetie in a wedding proposal delivered via the stadium scoreboard: “Kate, will you marry me? Cory.” Not quite as exciting as the penalty shot, this turned out to be more successful. As everyone watched on the scoreboard, Kate took the ring.
The Hawks dodged disaster early in the second period, when Washington’s Mike Grier broke free on the right wing and skated in unmolested on Thibault. The Hawks’ goalie blocked Grier’s shot but couldn’t contain the rebound, and Steve Konowalchuk trailing the play put the puck in the net. The Hawks immediately complained that Grier had obstructed Thibault by skating through the goal crease–they’d had a game-winning overtime goal waved off in Florida on such a call earlier in the week. The officials agreed and disallowed the goal. A brief brouhaha in front of the net after the nonscore resulted in another pair of penalties to both teams, and when the Caps were hit with an additional penalty Chicago had a 4-on-3 advantage. The Hawks made this pay off. Daze kept the puck alive in the corner against a Washington defenseman, and when it finally popped free Andrei Nikolishin snatched it up and slid it out to defenseman Phil Housley at the right point. Housley loaded up his renowned slap shot and drilled a goal over Kolzig’s left shoulder.
The Hawks had little time to enjoy the tie. This time Jagr was the diversion. He passed to Lang on the right and skated to the left, drawing the defense, as Lang skated in and slipped a wrist shot over Thibault’s left shoulder to give the Caps the lead they would hold at the second intermission. The Hawks had outshot Washington 22-6, but thanks to Jagr the Caps were up, 2-1.
Tension built throughout the third period. I saw a guy in a huge red-feathered headdress with black-and-white stripes sitting in the mezzanine, and the Hawks-approved drum corps popped up here and there to beat out a tribal rhythm before face-offs. In this age of scoreboard-dictated cheers, spontaneous chants of “Let’s go Hawks!” kept breaking out in the upper balcony. With about five minutes left, the Caps took advantage of a Chicago line change to get an open shot on Thibault, but it clanged off the crossbar. The Hawks immediately turned the play the other way and got a shot on goal that rebounded high in front of the net. But a Washington defenseman swatted it clear. Moments later, Zhamnov worked a nice 2-on-1 with Sullivan, sliding the puck across the crease, but Sullivan couldn’t deflect it in.
With just over three minutes to go in regulation, the Hawks made their own break. Newly acquired Sergei Berezin, a small, stocky player reminiscent of comic actor Jack Black in his hurried play and unkempt appearance (hockey is the only sport where tucking one’s shirt in, under the pads in the back of the pants, makes one look more like a slob), drew a Washington holding penalty in the corner to give the Hawks a last power play. The Hawks put on heavy pressure, and Zhamnov fed Calder in the slot for a clear shot on goal, but he could only pound the puck off Kolzig’s pads. With 40 seconds left on the penalty and 1:44 to play, the Hawks got a face-off in the Washington end and pulled Thibault to make it six skaters on four. The Hawks again put on heavy pressure but almost lost control of the puck, which would have resulted in the Caps clearing it at best and scoring into the empty net at worst. But Zhamnov got to the puck and sent it toward the goal, where the unlikely Chris Simon, with only a goal to his name this season, was there to deflect it past Kolzig. The game was tied.
But it wasn’t over. The final minute alone saw several shifts in momentum. First Zhamnov, Sullivan, and Daze put on a feverish offensive, then Jagr turned the other way only to be stopped by Thibault. The Hawks got called for tripping with 25 seconds left, but the refs promptly issued a makeup call to negate the penalty. Skating up the left wing, Chicago defenseman Steve Poapst got one last open shot, but Kolzig stopped it.
The Hawks had most of the good scoring chances in overtime. Zhamnov centered to Bell for a clear shot on goal, but Kolzig made the save. Berezin and Nikolishin worked a nice combination to Simon, but his deflection went just wide of the net. Finally a crisp Zhamnov wrist shot bounced off Kolzig, who sprawled to the ice trying to smother the rebound, but the puck somehow got loose and was lying there right behind him for all to see against the blue of the crease and just waiting for someone to swat it in–for whole seconds it seemed. A Washington defender skated over and smacked the puck away. The game ended with everyone–fans as well as players–spent and gratified; only a Quentin Compson could call this one a sister-kisser.
Sutter was so excited he didn’t even wait for the stragglers from the press box to get to the interview room before he began to talk. He was clearly elated, almost as a fan would be–a Bruce Kimm with brains. “It was a quality point, guys,” he said, referring to the tie. “Holy smokes!”
Holy smokes, indeed. It was the best Chicago sports event I’d seen all year, and the Hawks went on to win Sunday against the Nashville Predators, sending them off on their annual November make-way-for-the-circus road trip at 9-5-3. Somehow, this was consistent. After the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears had all squandered high expectations, it only figured that the Blackhawks should defy doubts by emerging better than they were last season. It’s as simple as ABC.