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If the most surprising hockey team this winter has been America's, then surely the second most astonishing is Chicago's. After six seasons of going nowhere, the Black Hawks—a club that had varicose veins, needed a heart transplant and had become as dull as it once was exciting—are tied with Minnesota for fifth place in the 21-team National Hockey League. Better still, in a city where the late Mayor Daley used to have the only team that won regularly, sports fans are again crowding cavernous Chicago Stadium, where scalpers had once thrived, only to be rendered obsolete by the scads of empty seats since the defection of Bobby Hull to Winnipeg in 1972.
Last Sunday night, 15,927 hyped-up fans watched the Black Hawks rally to beat the Atlanta Flames 4-2 as Grant Mulvey scored two goals within 16 seconds late in the third period. So psyched were the victory-starved Chicagoans that, with the score tied 2-2 and less than four minutes to play, they arose during a stop in play and applauded wildly, hoping to motivate their team. A standing ovation for a face-off. Whatever, it worked, Mulvey scoring the winning goal at 16:20—and beating Goalie Don Bouchard again at 16:36.
One of the main reasons for Chicago's renaissance is Tom Lysiak, a gifted center who last March was the principal in an eight-player trade with the Flames. Lysiak was the Atlanta captain, boy wonder, No. 1 heartthrob, most recognizable player and finest talent. He also was an enigma, some nights superb, other nights a flameout.
"I lost my confidence," Lysiak says. "I started to think that I might not be that good, that the potential they drafted me for really wasn't there. Plus, there was a lot of pressure on me. They made me the captain, which I didn't want to be, and kept telling me I was the franchise, which I didn't want to hear. I wanted to be just another guy. They expected me to do everything, from collecting money from the players for the Christmas party to selling season tickets."
Still, after not scoring a goal in his first month as a Black Hawk—"the fans didn't boo me because I think they felt sorry for me"—Lysiak visited Atlanta during the spring and openly yearned for a return to the Flames. He said he would take a pay cut just to get out of Chicago.
"Now I love the Black Hawks and don't want to leave for anything," he says. "We have a system of play on the ice. I've learned to relax, and I've become a more rounded player. I finally feel like maybe I've arrived."
Indeed, Lysiak, a 26-year-old bachelor who has purchased a condo near the neon lights of Rush Street, scores (23 goals); he choreographs (37 assists); he plays both ends; and he plays it tough. He remains a heartthrob, too. Signs such as WE LUV YOU, TOMMY now adorn the stadium balcony, where once BRING BACK BOBBY HULL bed sheets flew.
Ah, Bobby Hull. After last summer's NHL merger with the World Hockey Association, there was every reason to believe The Golden Jet would return to the rink of his greatest triumphs for a last hurrah. However, the Black Hawks had neglected to protect one of Chicago's most beloved professional athletes ever; they failed to negotiate a deal with the Winnipeg Jets, who then repossessed the 41-year-old Hull even though they had no plans for him. (He recently was sold to Hartford.)
What Winnipeg wanted for Hull was either Terry Ruskowski or Rich Preston, both of whom had played for the Jets last season. Ruskowski, a center, had been reclaimed in June by the Black Hawks, who held his NHL rights, and Preston, a winger, signed with Chicago as a free agent.
"The easiest thing for us to do would have been to give one of them back," said Chicago President Bill Wirtz. "Everybody was clamoring for Bobby Hull, and nobody knew who these two kids from Winnipeg were. Except us. With all due respect for Bobby, we had two players who would be with us for 10 years. You don't trade the family jewels."