By Ted Cox

Television has changed many things about sports over the past few decades, but not the experience of seeing a great athlete live. However closely one has studied a Frank Thomas and a Jack Nicklaus and even a Michael Jordan on television, it is more revealing to watch them in person, because great athletes so often establish their rare qualities in the idle moments between plays or during breaks in the action, when the cameras are looking elsewhere or commercials intrude. Think of Thomas’s herky-jerky, muscle-bound throws during infield warm-ups, or Nicklaus’s intently focused gaze while lining up a putt, or the way Jordan adjusts the sweatband on his arm before taking the floor; those gestures seem to define them much more than their exploits do. We remember seeing Sam Snead through a break in the trees from a fairway away, during a practice round for the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah, and the fluid, easy quality of his swing has remained with us since, indelibly stamped where hundreds if not thousands of glimpses on television had failed to make an impression.

Much has been written lately about hockey’s return to health after last year’s truncated campaign, whose first half was lost as the owners locked out the players during labor negotiations. Earlier this season thousands of seats were left empty at the United Center by the normally rabid fans of the Blackhawks. Yet as the Hawks’ play improved and the Bears fell by the wayside, attendance revived.

Still, hockey has a little bit farther to go before it returns to its prestrike vitality. As a barometer, we mention that earlier this month, for the first time in our life, we were able to buy tickets for an appearance by Wayne Gretzky the week before he was to come to Chicago. It’s true that Gretzky, while still great, is no longer the draw he was. His team, the Los Angeles Kings, finished well under .500 last season, and they are playing true to that form this season. Yet Gretzky himself is playing his best hockey since a back injury threatened his career a few years ago. He came to Chicago earlier this month on a hot streak that had seen him perform at close to peak levels: he’d had three goals and an amazing 11 assists in the previous six games, which had lifted him to third in the National Hockey League in scoring. And, of course, this was on top of the 814 goals, 1,692 assists, and 2,506 points he had entered the season with–all NHL records.

In years past before his back injury, whatever few tickets remained for a Gretzky appearance were sold out the instant they went on sale. Truth be told, our ability to buy tickets the week before his sole Chicago appearance this season did not establish a market that was all that much softer than before. It may have been that we bought the last two tickets available; we were certainly in two of the seats farthest from the ice. We were in the last row of the second balcony in the far corner behind the net the Hawks would defend in the first and third periods. And while the United Center has a reputation as a pristine, overcomfortable arena for hockey, with none of the delightful claustrophobia of the Chicago Stadium (God rest its soul), we found ourselves nestled right up against a flange of the roof–offering an obstructed view of the banners above–so that our yells, cheers, and applause reverberated right back on us in a way that almost felt like the old homestead. For all the thrill of seeing one of the great athletes in sports for the first time, just as exciting was the discovery (this being our first trip to the United Center for a hockey game) that Chicago’s best fans have survived the journey across Madison from the old arena to the new.

While the city’s elites have taken over the prime seats and the skyboxes below, the upper reaches remain the domain of the earthiest and most avid sports fans in the city: the Blackhawks faithful. Primarily but not exclusively adults in their 20s, primarily male but with a remarkably high percentage of women, primarily middle-class but with a noticeable working-class presence, primarily dressed in Blackhawks jerseys but with no one wearing a suit and tie, and with everyone on this occasion out to have fun on a Sunday night before returning to the job in the morning, the fans in the upper balcony took pleasure in sullying the tidy atmosphere of the United Center. Anyone who finds the United Center antiseptic should try spending a few minutes in one of the designated smoking areas before taking his or her seat for a Hawks game. The only place in the city that smells more like Chicago is a south-side Irish bar along Western Avenue as it’s being swept out on a Sunday morning.

Into this atmosphere came Gretzky, with that regal carriage common to almost all great athletes. With tufts of hair sticking out from the ears of his helmet, and with his smooth, erect skating style, he patrolled the rink with the dispatch of an arctic bird circling an ice floe for prey.

Gretzky is 34, and having come to the bigs as a 17-year-old sprite in the soon to be defunct World Hockey Association, he has spent half his life as a major-league athlete. It would be ridiculous to insist he is the same skater he once was. Yet he retains an uncommon sense of where everyone–both teammate and opponent–is on the ice. Like all the greats, he makes his work seem almost effortless, gliding into position near the net (especially behind it, where he can see all the ice as he lurks and awaits a scoring chance). Even so, faced with an opposing breakaway, he can still lower his head, throw his shoulders forward, and dig for the far end.

That, unfortunately for Gretzky, was the position he found himself in as the Hawks scored their first goal. A player like Gretzky is a joy to watch, but on a team of lesser talents his uncommon skills can easily become a liability. Last year he stood alone among the NHL’s leaders in points with a plus-minus rating of minus 20. For all his talent, opponents scored 20 more goals while Gretzky was on the ice than the Kings scored. While Gretzky came into the game plus 12 for the 1995-’96 season, the Kings immediately showed how he got his nasty minus rating a year ago. Attacking the Hawks net, Gretzky made a flashy behind-the-back pass to a teammate, who was so surprised he lost the puck. The Hawks turned it the other way, with Bernie Nicholls making a nice lead pass to the impressive rookie left winger Eric Daze (pronounced DAH-zay), who shot, recovered the rebound, and passed it back to Murray Craven. Craven hit the post dead-on with a shot, but Daze by that time had maneuvered into position to brush the loose puck into the net.

That cheered the fans in our section, including one leather-lunged guy who, the next time Gretzky touched the puck, yelled out, “Hit ‘im! Hit Gretzky! He’s a faggot!” Chortles all around for that witticism.

In the second period, however, the Hawks came out sloppy, and the Kings tied the score when a rebound was left sitting in the slot, with John Druce poking it home. Still, led by Frank Pellico and his organ, Hawks fans remained in good spirits.

Pellico’s friendly, irreverent repertoire remains intact (including the chorus to the old Hamm’s beer TV ad); his familiar organ style goes a long way toward making the United Center inviting. And the new stadium’s high-tech TV scoreboard might look sharp, but it has been programmed specifically for the Hawks fan, with glimpses of the Three Stooges, Beavis and Butt-head, and–as Pellico provides booming thump-thump sound effects–an old training-film shot of one guy pounding another in the stomach with a sledgehammer. It should be pointed out that the Hawks’ initial entry onto the ice is impressive: the arena goes dark as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” plays, then the lights come up and the Hawks come bursting out to U2’s “Desire.” It’s not quite Keith Magnuson scurrying out to center ice to the strains of “Here Come the Hawks,” but what is?

The Hawks gathered themselves as the second period progressed, and Sergei Krivokrasov put them back in front to stay when he came down on a two-on-one break, put a shot on goal, then scooted around the net to convert his own rebound. Daze tipped in a shot in the final minute to give the Hawks a 3-1 lead through the second period.

The shoot-the-puck contest has also made the transition to the United Center, with one typical kid, one typical oaf, and one typical hockey babe in high heels all trying to slide the puck through slots in a board guarding the goal, at a distance of somewhere near center ice. This time, however, the kid in the Hawks jersey was a girl, and she slid the puck right through one of the holes and into the net in one direction, then turned and slid it through the one and only hole in the other direction to score some free airline tickets. When the big oaf missed, the fans booed him all the more. Of course it was all cheers for the hockey babe, even when she missed.

When play resumed Gretzky got the Kings back in the game right away, drawing traffic to one side of the net and then making a nifty pass through traffic to Tony Granato on the other side of the crease. Granato slapped the puck into the wide-open net. There were a few tense minutes until Nicholls tipped in a Chris Chelios slap shot to put the Hawks up 4-2. “Go back to LA ya dick smokes!” shouted the leather-lung homophobe down the aisle. Yet a few minutes later, when “YMCA” played on the loudspeakers, who was singing along, complete with hand gestures, but that guy.

Actually, as victory neared the shouts got progressively cleverer. When the Kings, with their Gretzky-enhanced reputation for slick passing and elegant play, slummed a little dump-and-chase hockey in the grand Chicago style, one fan screamed out, “Ah, go back to surfing!” And when defenseman Eric Weinrich provided the final score, 5-2, with a big slap shot that clanged off the right post and ricocheted into the Los Angeles net, another fan screamed out, “Yeah, go home and listen to that Poison CD!”

Poison, for those not up on their popular music, was (is?) one of the last of the glitzy, longhair pop-metal bands of the 80s. For an upper-deck Hawks fan, listening to a Poison CD is now considered even worse than being homosexual.