Get on the bandwagon

I went to Minnesota this weekend and brought back a cold and a stifling sense of ennui.

Another ugly Bears loss. Another one-sentence-and-a-cloud-of-dust news conference from Jay Cutler. Another game that ends with the thought, "So who is getting fired over this mess?"

So, the football season is officially a macabre countdown to the end, a continuation of how baseball faded in September. The seasons change, but the results stay the same in the city of shoulder shrugs.

The writer Alex Kotlowitz titled his recent book about Chicago, "Never a City So Real," and that phrase about captures the city right now. Reality has hit the city like a snowball packed with ice. It's starting to get cold, parking's a pain and it seems as though none of our teams win. The Olympics, football, baseball, tetherball, whatever. The Bulls are hit-or-miss, injured and trying to find their rhythm. Northwestern football is awaiting a bowl bid, while the basketball team is starting to turn heads. But the red-hot Blackhawks are really the only good thing going right now.

So I sucked up my sniffles and headed to the warmest cold place in the city -- and I was rewarded.

Just so you know, disgruntled Bears/Cubs/White Sox fans, the Chicago Blackhawks are ordering extra bandwagons (they'll look like a stock car with all the sponsors the Blackhawks have inked), so there's still room to climb aboard.

"Hey, if fans want to come with us and start going for us, we'll take them," left winger Kris Versteeg said. "We'll take as many fans as we can get. They've been awesome for us since Day 1."

After a rocky summer, it's all good news at the Madhouse on Madison. In a city that rarely sports back-to-back playoff teams, the Hawks look stronger than last season's squad that reached the Western Conference finals. After a wildly successful circus trip, going 4-1-1, the Hawks were welcomed back by their fans and they gave them a show.

The Central Division-leading Hawks (17-6-3) are second in the ESPN power rankings and are now 11-2-1 at home after beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in a laborious shootout, 4-3, on a Brent Seabrook goal.

The Hawks needed a franchise-record 11 shots to score two goals, a scoring drought reminiscent of the Bears' futility in the red zone. Except, of course, the Blackhawks eventually scored.

"Obviously we can play with everybody," said right winger Marian Hossa, who made his long-awaited United Center debut with a shootout goal and two assists. "But on the other hand, the opposition knows that and they're going to be ready for us, like Columbus."

The Hawks can market you to death. (New jerseys! The Madhouse on Madison! Ogle the Ice Girls! Hey, isn't that Vince Vaughn?!) But with the return of Hossa, this team is more dangerous on the ice than at the box office.

Hossa made his Blackhawks debut on the road, after missing the first 22 games with offseason shoulder surgery, a procedure that rivaled Patrick Kane's Cabbie Occurrence and Dale Tallon's ouster as general manager as bad PR headlines. Hossa signed a 12-year, $62.8 million deal on July 1 and went under the knife three weeks later, and some fans and reporters were wondering whether the Hawks' magic was gone.

But Hossa scored two goals in his first game, a 7-2 win against a dominating San Jose team. He went scoreless in the team's two losses, including an overtime affair in Los Angeles.

The fans roared when he scored the first shootout goal, a no-frills laser past Steve Mason's right shoulder.

"He's a big-time player, and that's why we went out and got him, and you can see that in the first few games he's been playing," Versteeg said.

The Hawks went down 2-1 and 3-2 but twice tied it on power play goals by Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews (well, his skate anyway, deflecting a Duncan Keith shot). Versteeg's nifty goal, in which he deked two defenders out of their skates, was short-handed.

Twenty thousand (and change) people came to the United Center to see Hossa make his debut and Joel Quenneville win his 500th game, certainly in that order, and they were not disappointed as the Hawks kept their home mojo going.

"They're awesome," Hossa said of the fans. "In the shootout, when I was taking my penalty shot, they were so loud after I scored."

The fans cheered every one of Cristobal Huet's 10 shootout saves, but the place really erupted after Seabrook scored. Not only was it a franchise-record for shootout length, breaking the 18 combined shots in the home opener, a win over Colorado, it also came down to a defenseman, which is like using a position player to pitch in extra innings.

Of course, the difference is Seabrook is a dangerous offensive weapon. He's won two games in overtime, and now this.

"He's our go-to guy," Quenneville joked. "He's a weapon in the shootout now."

"It never gets to the D-men," Seabrook said. "We're always yelling, 'Why don't they try us every once in a while.'"

This is how it goes when a team is on a heater and everything falls into place. It's cold out there, Bears fans, and there's no better place to warm your spirits than the United Center on a hockey night. If you can get a ticket.