The screaming and shouting began at the end of the Canadian national anthem and of course didn’t let up until the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If it wasn’t quite as loud as we remembered it, it was just as delighted with itself, just as determined to intimidate the opposing team–on this night the Edmonton Oilers. It had been years since we’d been out to see the Blackhawks, and we regretted the lost time almost immediately, as in the first moments of a joyous meeting with a long-lost friend. There was a feeling of obligation to the noise at first, a hint of people doing what was expected of them, but about halfway through the national anthem that pro forma aspect was dropped and the crowd began to roar. There were guys in the front row of the second balcony waving a U.S. flag and gesturing angrily at the Edmonton players. There were people whistling through their teeth all around, and in the row in front of us two young boys with somber looks on their faces clapping dutifully through the entire proceeding. We managed to stifle a shout, but not a broad smile; it felt too good to be back.

Chicago hockey, however, has fallen on hard times, and there are hints of the dire situation throughout the city, confirmed–on this night, anyway–within minutes of the start of the game. For one thing, tickets are available. We called around asking friends if they were interested in standing through a Blackhawks game in the second balcony (seats upstairs were sold out, and we were determined not to let spending run into triple digits for the evening, which ruled out mezzanine seats), and before the afternoon was over a friend had called back offering tickets. Absolutely free. Turns out they had been given to him the night before at a bar. He thought he would have no problem getting someone to go, but that hadn’t been the case. Now he was so turned off to the whole affair he was offering both seats up. So we dropped by, picked up the tickets, and were off.

Not only had we not been to a hockey game in years, we were attending with a friend from Australia, which helped open our eyes anew to the whole experience. We are now in the final calendar year of the Chicago Stadium, and there’s something almost unutterably sad in that; the place deserves to be preserved in our memories even if it can’t be saved from profit-minded sports owners. The arena rose white and defiant and sudden out of the west side: we were driving and talking and forgetting to point out the sights, and suddenly, oh yes, we were upon it. As we clambered up to the second balcony and then came out, way above the ice, and climbed down to our seats, we remembered the first hockey game we had ever seen, and the way the Stadium had seemed like an ancient religious structure erected around a holy site–ice, left from the Ice Age, that had never melted.

The seats were splendid–the best we’ve ever had for hockey at the Stadium, to our way of thinking. We were in the second row of the second balcony, at the east end of the ice, right behind the flags, and from there we could see hockey’s chaos form itself into patterns, we could hear the players call to one another, and–perhaps most important–we could be heard, heard unlike at any other sporting event in the city, except for those once-a-decade occasions when one gets seats in the first few rows at Wrigley Field. But this was even better. There, a player will turn and look a heckler right in the eye. Here, we could call down–“C’mon Jeremy!” to Jeremy Roenick, the Hawks’ best player–and know that he heard, because we could hear him calling to his teammates, hear him tap the ice in request for the puck, see the instantaneous delay between the puck meeting the stick and the “pok” sound that followed.

That’s why the Stadium is so noisy, because the noise has an almost tangible quality. A leather-lunged guy to our left called down during the second period, “You’re a loser, Ranford!” to the Oilers’ goaltender, Bill Ranford, and we could see Ranford shrug his left shoulder and then his right, and sway his head from side to side, in the unmistakable manner of an athlete ignoring someone who can’t be ignored.

But that we could see and hear and–above all–think all these things was a sign the Stadium was not as noisy as it can be. The Hawks, who have been an up-and-down team all year, were in the midst of what would grow to be a four-game skid, and the crowd became noticeably unimpressed within moments of the puck being dropped at the opening face-off. There are no doubt several reasons for that, but one of the main ones has to be ticket prices. We had lost track of what it costs to see a hockey game. Tickets in the upper balcony–historically, our favorite place to sit–cost $20. It’s $27 for the first balcony. And the same prices apply whether for seats or for standing room. Calling TicketMaster the week before the game, we found the balconies were sold out and the best seats available were obstructed-view high in the mezzanine (where the scoreboard can’t be seen) for $38–apiece. That’s not even the top of the line. The first 11 rows of the mezzanine go for $45 a ticket, and there’s something called club circle tickets, or box seats, for $65 a pop. Taking our seats, we thanked the gods for the current fan apathy.

Yet that was almost all we thanked the hockey gods for on this evening. The Hawks were noticeably out of sorts and never really in the game. Bringing the puck out of their zone, they passed it several times through the slot in front of their net–a cardinal sin, we remembered–and while none of these passes was picked off and turned into a shot on goal they reflected the Hawks’ generally scatterbrained state of mind. Twice goalie Eddie Belfour deflected shots directly in front of the net, and these did turn into goals on the rebound. And the Hawks’ passing just wasn’t connecting. There were drop passes that were never picked up until an Edmonton player came along, lead passes just out of reach, cross-ice passes picked off and turned the other way.

Bad as this was, it was also instructional. It reminded us of how elusive the chemistry is in hockey, what a fast-paced and beautiful game it can be, and how that beauty is all the more noteworthy because it seems to emerge from nowhere, like a form of magic. The Oilers scored first on one of those nasty rebounds, then the Hawks responded with an ugly goal, Rich Sutter skating right into the net with the puck, dragging a defenseman along with him, and plowing the goalie over in the process. (The referees waved it off, but on further review somehow found a way to allow it.) But then, in the second period, came a pretty Edmonton goal, with Shayne Corson of the Oilers skating down the right wing shadowed by a Chicago defenseman and slipping a pass to Shjon Podein trailing the play–utterly unhindered by any Chicago player. Podein beat Belfour with a quick wrist shot.

The Hawks came out very determined after that and picked up the pace of their play, but they also picked up a stupid penalty, which led to another Edmonton goal, giving the Oilers a 3-1 lead. They scored again on another of those unfortunate rebounds early in the third period, and that was it. Roenick fed Brian Noonan cutting to the net for a score to make it respectable, but that was the final, 4-2.

Roenick, who–no coincidence–was suffering through a goal drought just as the Hawks were suffering through a losing streak, was the picture of a player trying to do too much. He was all over the ice, trying to do everything himself. Roenick has the jaw line of a hockey star–and also the shot and the skating ability. But on this night he seemed out-of-the-flow good, as if there were no one on the team capable of playing at his level. This gave us the impression–justified or not–that hockey is overexpanded, that unlike in pro basketball–where an overabundant talent pool buoys the stars–there is a dearth of true ability in the National Hockey League today.

The Hawks are perhaps not the best team to judge by. The sport is in transition: in the wake of injuries to its top stars (Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and newcomer Eric Lindros), the National Hockey League has cleaned up its act in recent seasons. And the Hawks, who have always played a plodding, physical, defense-oriented, but effective brand of hockey, have been caught at odds with the new emphasis on skating and finesse.

Several players were called for “holding a stick,” a penalty relatively unfamiliar to us, and while our first response was that here was a citation Beavis and Butt-Head would love (“Heh, heh, heh, he got caught holding his stick”), on second thought it seemed symptomatic of the sorts of things the Hawks used to rely on and now can’t get away with.

Does that mean the end of the rowdy Stadium crowd? We don’t think so; but on the other hand there was a noteworthy difference in the clientele from years past: there were women there. Not the high heels, spandex pants, and satin warm-up jacket Blackhawks babes of the bygone era, but women out with their friends, enjoying a night on the town at the Stadium. They knew their hockey, too–in that inarticulate fashion of the second-balcony regular. There was a Belfour fan sitting just down from us, and early on, when the goalie strayed far from the crease to corral a stray puck, she called out, “C’mon, Eddie, get back in the damn–thing!” That was unintentionally funny, but funny outright was later on when the Hawks’ power play was utterly ineffective, and the Oilers iced the puck with seconds left in a penalty. As the puck came dribbling down to the goaltender the same woman called out, “Shoot it, Eddie!” If nobody here can play the damn game, why don’t you give it a try?

Even so, for purists there remains the score-a-goal-from-center-ice contest between the second and third periods. We had warned our friend from Down Under about this, and had told him that the contestants would be a kid, a burly Hawks fan, and a big-haired Hawks babe, and the contestants turned out to be a kid in a Hawks jersey (cheers but no goal), a guy from Schaumburg (boo!) in a big green sweater (no goal), and a babe in a scoop-neck black shirt, tight faded jeans, and black boots (no goal, but abundant cheers).

Even in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of sports some things don’t change. All praises to the hockey gods.