The Bears weren’t the only Chicago team to show dramatic and unexpected improvement this fall. The Blackhawks did also, even though they, like the Bears, made no major additions during the off-season. They had, however, hired a new coach, the businesslike (and English-speaking) Brian Sutter, and his more organized approach to the game produced instant results. Playing focused, purposeful hockey, the Hawks got off to an impressive 12-4-3 start before embarking on their annual early road trip to allow the circus to take up residence in the United Center. But although the Bears enjoyed a run of good fortune that built their confidence and carried them through a difficult part of their schedule, the Hawks had no such luck.
They got pounded in Edmonton by the Oilers, lost two other games by a single goal, and came away with just three ties to show for the journey–meaning, in the NHL’s system of two points for a win and one point for a tie, a measly three points for six games. They returned home a week ago Wednesday with a record of 12-7-6, a distant second to the Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division of the NHL’s Western Conference, good for only fifth in the playoff standings.
After sitting out the Stanley Cup playoffs the last four years, back in training camp the Hawks would have considered just making the postseason–finishing in the top eight in the conference–a triumph. But the team’s fast start raised expectations among the Hawks’ dwindling fan base. Those were expectations that greatly needed to be raised: aside from a grudge match with the archrival Red Wings, the Hawks couldn’t draw 20,000 to the UC in the early going, and a couple of times attendance came dangerously close to slipping below 10,000. A large crowd would have welcomed the Hawks back from a strong road trip, but there were vast areas of empty seats at every level as their homecoming game began against the Vancouver Canucks; there was barely enough activity to disperse the lingering barnyard smell of the circus. Were the Hawks really improved, or had they simply taken advantage of typically sloppy early-season play under the influence of their disciplined new coach? The fans wondered.
The Chief Black Hawk insignia looked clearer than ever under the UC’s fresh ice that night, and the sport made its usual strong visual impression from the moment the two teams took the ice to warm up: the Hawks skating counterclockwise and the Canucks clockwise in two colorful circles, the hockey equivalent of the yin and yang symbol. Several Hawks warmed up without their helmets, recalling the reckless days of old when players like Bobby Hull and Keith Magnuson created such an intimate impression. Tony Amonte’s hair remained shorn, but it had returned to its natural dark color. The curly-mopped Mark Bell looked as if he’d just stepped out of a “dry look” hair-spray ad from the 70s. The frizzy Kyle Calder looked pesky and scrappy, befitting his digging-in-the-corners role as a complement to linemates Amonte and Alex Zhamnov. And newly acquired defenseman Jon Klemm, the team’s most important free-agent signing last summer, looked close-cropped but grizzled with a day or two’s growth of beard.
The Hawks left the ice to don their helmets and clear the way for the pregame scoreboard presentation. I’m not sure why the Bulls’ similar show strikes me as so overblown while the Hawks’ feels mystical and ritualistic, but once again that was my reaction to the montage of the UC’s outdoor hockey statue and glimpses of stars like Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito. Then the encircling stadium message boards played an eerie, evocative “Here…come…the…Hawks,” and organist Frank Pellico burst into the team’s theme song of that title as the players took the ice. The crowd of 11,773 gave an admirable roar during the national anthem, considering their relatively small numbers; with about half of them wearing Hawks jerseys of some sort, this was a coterie of the most devoted.
But the Hawks were still the Hawks, no faster or more talented than they were a year ago, when they had trouble stringing two passes together. They still played dump-and-chase hockey; the intricate teamwork of the MPH line (Pit Martin, Jim Pappin, and Dennis Hull) 30 years ago, and the whirling-dervish rushes of Denis Savard 20 years ago, were distant memories. But with the sturdy Klemm manning the defense about two-thirds of the time–he is a veteran so respected that he was immediately made an alternate captain upon arriving from the Colorado Avalanche over the summer–and teaming with Alexander Karpovtsev as if they were a right hand and a left (though Karpovtsev had returned only that night after missing a few games with an injury), the Hawks at least tended to play their conservative brand of hockey well. Midway through the first period, defenseman Steve Poapst launched a hard, flat slap shot from just inside the red center line, and it squeezed through the webbing of Vancouver goalie Peter Skudra’s glove like a mouse crawling under a door, dropping to the ice behind his back and trickling in to put the Hawks up 1-0. But later in the period, Calder got called for hooking, and the Canucks immediately converted. Chicago goalie Jocelyn Thibault stopped a crisp shot from the left, sprawling to the ice with his legs straight out like Pooh Bear, and Henrik Sedin flicked in the rebound.
The first period, ending in a 1-1 tie, set the pattern for the game. Early in the second period, the Hawks again faced a power play, but this time things turned out differently. A face-off near the Hawks’ blue line produced a bit of a scrum, and suddenly the puck burst clear like a fox making an end run around a pack of hounds. Amonte was first to notice it getting away, and he took off, beat a defenseman to it, and skated in on Skudra. Amonte faked a slap shot, pulled it in, and fired a harsh, low-angle wrist shot past the goalie to put the Hawks back up 2-1.
Unfortunately, the Canucks responded by picking up the pace and doing some hitting, while the Hawks squandered Amonte’s pretty play with ugly penalties. Klemm got called for tripping–Pellico played “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’Bye)” as he skated to the penalty box–and then defenseman Boris Mironov got called for delay of game when he pushed the goal off its posts as a Vancouver player held the puck behind the net on the power play. That gave the Canucks a two-man advantage, and Ed Jovanovski simply skated in deliberately from the right point and shot the puck past Thibault. Todd Bertuzzi, who set a screen, jumped and kicked his heels to avoid the shot like a Wild West desperado ordered to dance by a gunslinger.
The Canucks opened the scoring in the third period. Jason Strudwick got the puck, skated away from the Hawks’ goal toward the blue line, then turned and fired past Thibault, who was screened by a dawdling teammate as well as by Canucks. Sutter later said Thibault never had a chance. “Generally, there are a couple of assholes on the other team staring you in the face,” the coach said. “He didn’t need one of ours.”
Thibault is often brilliant but always overworked, and during a break in play in the second period he turned his back to center ice, took off his mask, placed it on the top of the net, and rested his head in the crook of his arm like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. At that point, he’d played in 25 of the team’s 26 games, and one couldn’t help thinking he was a part of the team’s early success that couldn’t possibly hold up over the whole season.
All night long the Hawks had failed to click even when they deserved to. Shortly after his goal, Amonte had skated down, drawn the defense, and made a perfect centering pass to Zhamnov, who should have been able to deflect the puck in. But it hopped over his stick and crawled into the corner. (“The puck bounced all over the ice all night,” an exasperated Sutter said later.) After falling behind in the third period, the Hawks executed a delicate little weave in an offensive corner, a tactic that seems to be one of the new wrinkles Sutter has brought to the team. Eric Daze got the puck in the corner and fed Mike Peluso in the slot for a point-blank shot on goal. Skudra snuffed it. But Peluso, thwarted despite being in the right spot at the right time, got his reward moments later. When Skudra blocked Igor Korolev’s hard shot on goal from the left wing, Peluso picked up the rebound, skated around Bell and a couple of Vancouver assholes who were clogging the space in front of the net, and lifted a little wrist shot into the upper right corner to tie the score.
It was excruciating hockey after that. Neither team could break free of the other, and that didn’t change even after they skated four-on-four for the five minutes of overtime. It was like watching two prizefighters clutch and claw each other for 15 rounds. But perhaps because the play was so clumsy, I found myself appreciating the ancillary elements, such as the noises of the game: the thunk of a shot off a goalie’s pads, the thwack, thwack, thwack of a goalie smacking his stick on the ice to count off the last seconds of his team’s power play, the zydeco-washboard rattle of a puck knocking against the metal uprights that hold the glass in place as it’s sent around the corner behind the net. It was a pleasure to listen to Pellico altering his organ play to suit the game’s shifting moods: a pounding tribal rhythm to get a chant of “Let’s go Hawks!” going, swirling flourishes to build tension before a face-off. Then there were his offhand song choices, like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and the somber pregame rendition of “We Three Kings.”
In the end, the Hawks preserved the 3-3 score and claimed a point for the tie. “Was it a good point?” Sutter was asked afterward. “I don’t know what you would call it. It was a point,” he said. “It was one of those games. If somebody said it was a nice game to watch there’s something wrong with you.” I don’t know; as flat as the Hawks seemed, I sort of enjoyed it. But after the mediocrity of the last four years, it was good to know the Hawks now have a coach who expects more.