Looking down from the United Center press box onto the section of seats just below me before Sunday’s Blackhawks game, I saw a couple of Eddie Belfour jerseys, a Jeremy Roenick, and a Chris Chelios, but nary a one for a current Chicago player. That’s a sign of trouble–when fan jerseys of departed players outnumber those of current “stars.” But it was still early–I’d ridden down on the Damen bus past Sunday-morning joggers and churchgoers–and as the noon game time approached the more hip and savvy (if bleary-eyed) Hawks fans started showing up, many of them wearing Tony Amonte jerseys. In fact, four season-ticket holders, two of them wearing Amonte’s number 10 jersey with their own names on the back, sat right in front of the press box and struck up conversations with the beat writers.

“You guys are loyalists,” said one reporter.

“What can I say?” replied one of the guys. “I couldn’t stay home with the wife.”

They then proceeded to dine on prepackaged bagels, cream cheese, lox, and pickles, demonstrating that some Hawks fans know how to adapt to these early Sunday matinees late in the season. Meanwhile, down a couple of sections, a more stereotypical Hawks fan brandished a beer and called out, “Breakfast of champions!”

Let the record show it is now 39 years since the Hawks and their fans could truly call themselves Stanley Cup champions.

As bad as things have gotten for the Hawks–and they are about to miss the playoffs for the third straight season–I still love their fans, and I still find the team’s faintly mystical pregame scoreboard presentation–a montage of details from the Chief Black Hawk logo, followed by historical highlights set to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”–quite stirring. The Hawks’ fans still do a pretty good roar during the national anthem too. Yet there are now vast tracts of empty seats for most games, and on this (barely) afternoon, attendance dwindled to a mere 16,998. Not long ago the Hawks became the first National Hockey League team to average 20,000 for a season. The once proud franchise has fallen on very hard times.

Yet there have been signs of progress. The media guide from the beginning of the season is of little use now, the Hawks having shuffled their management and turned over what seems like half the roster since October. When it became apparent the Hawks were once again doormats, general manager Bob Murray was sacked and replaced by Michael Smith, a rare outsider for this most insular of Chicago franchises. Bob Pulford, old Whitey himself, was booted downstairs from his senior vice president position and awkwardly made head coach, for he didn’t replace Lorne Molleken but simply shouldered him aside. Molleken was given the title “associate coach,” and he still stands with Pulford behind the bench and handles the more distasteful coach’s duties, like the postgame media conference. The Hawks took to playing a recognizable system, and they’ve encouraged chemistry by instituting a relatively fixed array of lines and defensive tandems. Smith recently traded away old favorites Dave Manson and Doug Gilmour for prospects. All things considered, the Hawks have improved. They enjoyed a six-game unbeaten streak in mid-March, and went into Sunday’s game having won 5 of their last 7, 7 of their last 11, and 10 of their last 17. For their last 29 games they were ahead of the league at 14-13 with two ties. Of course, before that they’d amassed a miserable record of 15-24-6.

Having launched my personal boycott of this moribund franchise early in the season, I decided to give the Hawks a second chance by seeing how they’d fare Sunday against the best team in the league, the Saint Louis Blues. I wound up sorry I’d ever been away.

Don’t get me wrong: the Hawks were outclassed and outplayed. But Amonte gave them an early lead, and goalie Jocelyn Thibault clung to it like a mountain climber gripping a piton. He entered the game having recovered from an early-season crisis of confidence to lower his goals-against average to 2.89. It’s true, the overexpanded National Hockey League is going through a defensive trend, with teams playing conservative systems to rein in the sport’s few true stars–a style that suits the Blues as much as anyone–but 2.89 is a respectable GAA, especially given Thibault’s early troubles, and he’d recorded his second shutout of the season the week before against Roenick’s Phoenix Coyotes. Thibault, it’s worth noting, has a cool mask, which is half the appeal of a goalie. The top features a full frontal facial portrait of Chief Black Hawk–a marked contrast with the profile seen on the jerseys–and the neck guard spells out his nickname, “Ti-Bo.”

He had his work cut out for him this afternoon. Amonte, the Blackhawks’ one true star-caliber player, has been teamed on a line with the reinvigorated Alex Zhamnov and the old enforcer Bob Probert. Zhamnov has never lived up to being traded for Roenick, but he looks inspired these days, and he came into Sunday’s game with 25 points in his last 21 games since returning from a pulled hamstring. In the current NHL environment, averaging more than a point a game (either a goal or an assist) is enough to rank a player among the league leaders. Amonte has always played inspired hockey, though he doesn’t look as dashing since he cut his hair and dyed it peroxide blond. Sunday the two of them were the team’s only effective offensive players. They dashed to and fro, while the lummox Probert played menial steward to their two musketeers, doing the dirty work like digging the puck out of the corners. Saint Louis lacked its top scorer, Pavol Demitra, from what has become known as its “Slovak Pak” line with Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko, and Demitra’s place was taken early by Jamal Mayers. The line served a lethargic first shift on the ice, and Zhamnov and Amonte took advantage, with Zhamnov beating the defense to a loose puck and feeding it to an open Amonte in the slot. He scored with a sharp wrist shot from the face-off circle to the right of the goalie. (Probert was penciled in with an assist alongside Zhamnov, but where he touched the puck in that sequence I never saw, despite the several replays shown on the stadium scoreboard.) Thibault had the lead, and all he had to do to claim the victory was hold the Blues scoreless the next 58 minutes or so. Once the Saint Louis defense was shaken awake, the Hawks weren’t likely to score again.

The Blues looked bigger, stronger, and faster, but Thibault kept the Hawks in the game. In the second period he kicked out a one-timer, smothered another in his pads, then snatched a third out of the air. The fans were slowly responding to his effort, as chants of “Let’s go Hawks” and “Ti-Bo, Ti-Bo” started first at one end of the arena and then at the other. During breaks in play Thibault took off his mask, turned, and leaned his elbows on the crossbar of the goal, like a heavy drinker at the neighborhood tavern in the process of forgetting a rough day’s work. Ace defenseman Anders Eriksson went into the penalty box after being called for hooking, and organist Frank Pellico picked up on the anxious atmosphere by playing the music to Jaws. Thibault made another great save, really getting the fans involved, and the Hawks killed off the penalty and took their 1-0 lead into the final period.

The Blues picked up the pace in the third period but the Hawks responded nicely, dumping the puck into the Saint Louis end whenever they got it and forechecking persistently. I was reminded that one of the sublime joys of hockey is the way tension builds, gradually during the second and third periods of a one-goal game and sharply during penalties, peaking when the losing team pulls its goalie for an all-out onslaught at the end. Unfortunately, this game never got to that climactic stage. Thibault stopped the Blues’ Bob Bassen point-blank, exciting the crowd even more; and after extended end-to-end action halted with icing on the Blues at 7:18, the crowd cheered. Then came what seemed to be the critical sequence of the game. During a Saint Louis barrage, Thibault slid to the side and got caught in a tangle of players as the puck slipped through to Mayers on the other side. He missed the open net, and when Thibault sprang to his feet out of a pack of players it was without his stick and deflecting pad. He had a bare hand and a mitt. He made two great kick saves before the Hawks could control and clear the puck, then recovered his stick and arm pad in time to make another glove save following a Saint Louis rush. He held onto the puck and stopped play, as if to give the overdue applause a chance to rain down on him. The Blues put the pressure back on but Thibault survived another flurry, and the Hawks iced the puck with 2:06 to play. But the Blues won the face-off to the left of Thibault, and defenseman Chris Pronger took a pass back at the point and slapped a slightly screened shot just over Thibault’s glove and into the net. All those great saves, and then he got beat on a shot from just inside the blue line.

The overtime period, played four on four, did not suit the Hawks’ strengths, not even with Amonte and Zhamnov on the ice together. It was all Thibault and the Hawks could do to hang on to the 1-1 tie, but hang on they did, even after defenseman Bryan McCabe lost the puck right in front of the net, giving the Blues’ Jochen Hecht a clear shot on goal. Thibault stopped it, and another in the final seconds from defenseman Al MacInnis, who led the Blues in shots on goal with a series of blasts from the point but could never get one past Thibault. Thibault preserved the tie, even though the Blues outshot the Hawks 36-11 for the game. It just didn’t seem fair. Thibault should have gotten the victory on style points alone.

One of the ironic things about hockey is that for a very beautiful sport beauty has little to do with the outcome. This was a well-played late-season game, with crisp passing–crisper on the part of the Blues than on the part of the Hawks, of course–few offside calls, even fewer icing delays, and no fights. The two teams glided back and forth, and through it all Thibault stood firm. Sometimes, it’s true, there is so much beauty one can hardly stand it; then again, sometimes there is only just beauty enough.