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Fresh air in the Windy City


Mere weeks after taking over stewardship of the hapless franchise, new Blackhawks president Rocky Wirtz has taken the first step to win the hearts and minds of the city's downtrodden hockey fans by breaking with his late father's long-standing decision not to broadcast home games. It was confirmed this week that Wirtz is in negotiations with Comcast SportsNet to get the team on TV. And not some time in the future. This season.

Word is that just six games will be on the proposed schedule, a pittance compared to the wall-to-wall coverage offered in other Original Six towns. But even that tiny taste of action from the plenty-of-good-seats-still-available United Center is a shocking development. More important, it's a sign that, for the first time in ages, the interest of the fans is actually a consideration in the minds of Hawks management.

That certainly wasn't the case in years past. Wirtz's late father William was justifiably regarded as one of the worst owners in sports, a man who had little interest in raising the profile of the game or his team. It came as no surprise when the fans severed emotional ties with the old regime by booing boisterously during Wirtz's pre-game memorial service on Oct. 9.

Was it classless?

Hardly. After all, it wasn't his funeral, and ticket buyers weren't his friends. And they weren't booing Wirtz the family man or Wirtz the philanthropist. They were exorcising the demon that had not only allowed their beloved team to fall into disrepair, but actually seemed to revel in their misery.

In the years leading up to his death, Wirtz had become a villain of cartoonish proportions to Chicago's fans, a Grinch-like super baddie whose primary objectives appeared to be (1) counting his money and (2) the eradication of whatever passion existed for the sport within the city's limits. In the end, it appears the only foe powerful enough to put a stop to his fiendish plans was the pale rider himself.

But now that Wirtz the younger is manning the helm, all things seem possible. On the ice, the fortunes of the Hawks are rapidly improving. Patrick Kane, the first overall pick last summer, has shaken off early doubts brought on by his diminutive stature and is off to a rousing start. He collected four more points in Tuesday night's loss to Columbus, giving him 13 in just nine games. That total not only leads all rookies, but all Hawks as well.

His running mate, 19-year-old Jonathan Toews, is living up to his own immense billing, and already has a goal-of-the-year tally to his credit. Tuomo Ruutu is healthy -- knock on wood. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are maturing quickly into dependable top-four defenders.

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The team still has issues: the penalty kill is bleeding goals and the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime won't win any beauty contests. But coach Denis Savard has his charges playing an inspired style that's conducive to winning and to entertaining the faithful as well as developing the prospects that eventually could restore the luster to this faded franchise.

But more encouraging than the kids or the 5-4 start is the promise of a better tomorrow under new management. What Rocky already seems to grasp is that no one needs to support a pro sports club. And among those inclined to do so, it takes more than simply slapping the hometown's name on the sweater to attract loyalty.

After handing Bob Pulford a red Swingline and assigning him basement office space, Rocky's proven himself willing to part company with the old ways of doing business. The broadcast deal, when finalized, will cement that reputation.

It remains to be seen what impact those broadcasts will have on backsliding Hawks fan. But at the least, it's a sign that someone actually cares to listen to them. And for the long-ignored hockey faithful of Chicago, that's reason enough to hope.

Here's all you need to know about how lightly the Maple Leafs are regarded at the moment: Six games in a row, the opposing coach has tapped his backup goaltender on the shoulder. Of course, Atlanta's interim coach Don Waddell didn't have a choice on Tuesday night -- starter Kari Lehtonen is sidelined by (surprise!) a groin injury. But even so, the league's worst team still managed to dispose of the Barney Fife-like Leafs, 5-4 in a shootout, for only their second win of the season.

The Leafs bear watching over the next two weeks. After stumbling out of the blocks with just nine points in their first 10 games -- despite hosting eight of them in the supposedly friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre -- Toronto now plays six of seven on the road. The bunker mentality brought on by long trips has been known to energize teams, so it's conceivable that the Leafs might slash their 29th-ranked 4.10 GAA in half and steal a few wins on the road. But it's more likely that this is a team steaming headlong into crisis mode...

The soft attendance in several markets -- alright, several American markets --may not be an issue if you listen to the commissioner, but it hasn't completely escaped the attention of the league. When the Board of Governors gets around to approving a new schedule for next season, don't be surprised if the changes are fairly dramatic as a result. Along with ensuring that every team gets to player the other 29 at least once, there are whispers of support for pushing back the start of the season into mid-October, in part to avoid the crush of competition from pro, college and even high school football that impacts early ticket sales. Whether there's enough support to actually effect that move remains to be seen, but the value to the bottom line could outweigh any inconvenience of a more compacted schedule....

Since dealing franchise pillar Ryan Smyth to the Islanders at the deadline last season, the Oilers record is 5-22-1 absent his services. Smyth returned to Edmonton on Tuesday night as a member of the Avalanche, and was warmly greeted by both the fans and his former team, which offered a pre-game video tribute. Nice touch by a class organization, Brian Burke's opinion notwithstanding...

Paul Kelly will be handed a plate overflowing with contentious issues as he takes over as the NHLPA's Executive Director. The most important, but certainly not most pressing, will be his position on the union's ability to trigger a clause that would allow it to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement at the end of the 2008-09 season. Although there are certain to be vocal proponents of such a move -- Chris Chelios should be at the head of the line -- it's hard to imagine he would take the union down that path. Kelly, who was the lead prosecutor in the case against former NHLPA leader Alan Eagleson, is unlikely to be as chummy with the league as was his predecessor, Ted Saskin. But he's widely regarded as a man capable of moving the union, and the business of hockey, forward rather than someone who will focus on old battles, and that means another labor war so soon after the disastrous lockout of 2004-05 is highly unlikely.