The upstart Chicago Wolves openly challenged their big-league hockey brothers this year by adopting the slogan “Losing Bites,” in reference to how the Blackhawks hadn’t made the playoffs in two years and had but one playoff appearance in the last seven, while the Wolves were winning three championship cups. The Hawks responded by writing off the season, leading the National Hockey League’s lockout of its players as the owners pursued a salary cap. (Or rather the Hawks took the lead if one is to believe reports and speculation; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has imposed a news blackout, but given Hawks owner Bill Wirtz’s skinflint tendencies and Neanderthal approach to the sport, such as blacking out home games on TV, what’s not to believe?) The only hockey game in town, the Wolves went about taking advantage of it.

Between the Bears and the Bulls, it took me a while to get to the Wolves this season. But a fondness for hockey is buried somewhere deep within the genetic makeup of most Chicagoans, like big shoulders and an aversion to fire, and when I found myself pausing at HDNet for its replays of last season’s NHL games as I surfed the channels on satellite TV, I knew it was time. So I gathered up the eight-year-old last Saturday, because the overall show the Wolves put on is so family friendly it’s a shame not to share it with a child, and off we went. Thanks to free pizza (courtesy of a reading rewards program), total cost for dinner on the way and two tickets in the upper deck at the Allstate Arena was under $40. No big-league team in town can come close to matching that, and it buys the Wolves enough goodwill to permit them to sell their replica jerseys for $100.

I have to admit that I came to the Wolves woefully ignorant, in part because of the satellite TV system I subscribe to. When four of the five major Chicago sports teams–the Cubs, the White Sox, the Bulls, and (cough) the Blackhawks–recently signed with cable behemoth Comcast to develop Comcast SportsNet Chicago to carry their games, they were actually following in the paw prints of the Wolves, who signed an exclusive TV deal with Comcast last year. While CSNC has been picked up by my satellite service–at a dear price, no doubt–Comcast has kept the Wolves to itself. So even though all of their games were carried on TV–take that, Wirtz–I hadn’t been privy to any of them.

The Wolves entered play Saturday with an 11-7-2-1 record, more than respectable considering that they’d already endured their own long road trip to make room at the Allstate for the circus, which then moved to the United Center and pushed the Bulls out onto the road. The record put the Wolves in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference of the American Hockey League. They’d also been making noises about possibly signing NHL players during the lockout, most notably popular former Blackhawks defenseman Chris Chelios, still a familiar face in town despite being dealt five years ago to the Detroit Red Wings. While many European players decided to go ahead and play at home this year, most North Americans, Chelios included, have been waiting for the season to be officially scratched–a nightmare scenario that is at most only weeks away–before signing with a minor-league franchise to salvage whatever they can from the wreckage. But this isn’t to say the Wolves’ roster didn’t benefit immediately from the lockout. Having given up their independent ways to align with the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, they got to keep wunderkind goalie Kari Lehtonen, who still belonged on their roster even though but for the lockout he almost certainly would have opened the season in the bigs.

Lehtonen just turned 21, but he’s already a tall, elegant netminder who reveals teen-idol good looks when he comes to the bench and takes off his mask during breaks in play. The Wolves, who never miss a marketing trick, weren’t about to downplay his continued presence in town. At the end of the introductions of the starting lineup–each player skating out through the jaws of a giant green-eyed, flame-throwing wolf’s head–the PA announcer stretched out Kaaaaariiii Leeeeeehtoooonen, much the way the Expos’ announcer used to introduce catcher John Boccabella back in the days of Montreal’s Jarry Park. Lehtonen went on to display the classic inverted-V style developed 30-some years ago by the Hawks’ Tony Esposito, with knees together and skates splayed to cover the lower corners of the net. Unfortunately, on this night he would also show a young goalie’s weakness for allowing dangerous rebounds.

Lehtonen might be the new star, but the Wolves still had the graybeard, Steve Maltais, the franchise’s greatest player and a dangerous scorer at 35. If Maltais had been a faster skater he might have been an NHL great, but as it is he’s celebrating his ten-year anniversary with the Wolves, having last had a cup of coffee in the bigs in 2000-’01 (when he returned to the Wolves to score 25 goals in 50 games). Maltais might not be the 50-goal scorer he was in his minor-league prime, but he still patrols the ice with that easy efficiency–no wasted energy–and nose for the puck that distinguish hockey greats at any level. Late in the first period he got the puck at center ice and slid a pass to linemate Cory Larose on the left wing, then calmly skated down the right wing and headed for the corner of the net. Larose, meanwhile, drew the defense and passed to center Brad Larsen as he skated up the middle. Larsen swung left and passed the puck right, straight across the goal crease. Maltais was there to slap it in as if he were brushing the last bit of loose dust out the kitchen door. The Wolves led 1-0 at the first intermission.

It wasn’t to last. The Wolves were clearly the less energetic team, having worked hard to claim an overtime victory the night before in Hamilton, Ontario, and their archrivals the Milwaukee Admirals didn’t need the edge: they came in 13-3-2-1, ahead of the Wolves in the AHL West. The Admirals’ goalie, Brian Finley, was having an even better year than Lehtonen, with a 1.90 goals-against average to Lehtonen’s 2.29 (even if they had virtually identical save percentages rounding to .93). The Wolves played plodding station-to-station hockey, while the Admirals displayed precision passing in fluid three-man rushes up the ice. Early in the second period speedy Simon Gamache, who’d starred with the Wolves the past three seasons, rushed up the ice on a power play, split the defense, and slid the puck past Lehtonen on his lower left side by going to the backhand and gliding it in, as if the sport weren’t hockey but curling.

The Wolves went back in front on a textbook power-play goal of their own. They methodically worked the puck around to defenseman Greg Hawgood at the right point, and he wound up for what promised to be a mighty slap shot only to slide the puck across to Tommi Santala on the left wing. (Not to interrupt the play, but Santala is a perfect illustration of the Wolves’ playful marketing: he’s been promoted in recent newspaper ads in a movie lampoon under the title Bad Santala, which would really be a hoot if he hadn’t logged a mere 25 penalty minutes this season.) Santala launched a slap shot straight off the pass; it thwacked off Finley’s pads and came to rest right in front of the goal, and of course Maltais was there among the crowd of skaters to smack it in for his team-leading 11th goal of the season.

Yet the Admirals tied the match again with a lightning goal 22 seconds later–while I was still taking notes on Maltais’s goal, damn it all. The momentum swung when Milwaukee’s Mike Matteucci got a five-minute major penalty for deliberately hitting the Wolves’ J.P. Vigier in the face with his stick. (The Admirals’ defensemen had a disturbing tendency to raise their sticks as the Wolves tried to skate past them, but this was an especially egregious violation that sent Vigier briefly to the ice.) The Wolves peppered Finley with shots on the power play, but Milwaukee killed off the penalty. When Chicago defenseman Brian Sipotz went off on a hooking penalty, the Admirals took advantage. Lehtonen had been allowing troublesome rebounds all night, starting with a double save in the first period in which he deflected a shot straight to another Milwaukee player coming in on the wing but stopped his shot as well. Not this time. None other than Gamache put a shot on goal, and Wyatt Smith converted the rebound.

Lehtonen righted himself in the third period, but it was too late. Both he and Finley made splendid saves as the teams turned up the intensity. Lehtonen stopped another tough rebound, then watched the Admirals graze the post. Finley plucked a fluttering puck out of the air as if it were an elusive butterfly. Larsen made a nice trailer pass to defenseman Travis Roche, who drilled a shot right at Finley, but he stopped it and covered the puck. Lehtonen stopped a shot Gamache rifled in from the slot as he trailed a three-on-two rush, and brushed aside the rebound. Moments later, Lehtonen made another nice one, snagging a shot with his glove, seemingly after it had passed his left shoulder. The game ended where the third period started, with the Admirals up 3-2.

Yet the hockey was lovely and exciting, without a single penalty in the last 20 minutes as both teams tried to avoid a critical mistake. “Let’s go Wolves!” the 10,718 fans chanted toward the end–all but the few Milwaukee fans ringing a cowbell at appropriate moments down below, that is–and it felt good to be caught up again in what can be the most fluid and beautiful of all sports with a crowd that loved everything about it, from the pure play on the ice to the mite-hockey games between periods to the mascot, Skates, kicking up his heels to the 70s rock classic “Black Betty.” (Isn’t it somehow appropriate that a wolf should be sent into a frenzy by the mere mention of “bam-a-lam”?) At one point, when the Wolves couldn’t get the puck out of their end, my daughter suddenly burst out, “Come on, people!” with the exasperation only a third grader can muster. Miles away at the United Center there was only darkness and silence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ross Dettman–Chicago Wolves.