Beautiful Losers

The hockey Hawks hardly ever win, but they're not about to quit. Game on.

After two periods of hockey, the Hawks find themselves in an unusual, though encouraging, situation: They are in a low-scoring game, and they are winning. The last time they met, the Wrecking Crew easily disposed of the Hawks. This night is different. With only 15 minutes left to play, the league's third-place team is trailing the last-place Hawks, 3-2.

Goaltender Jim Rhine is playing well, incredibly well, and as he kneels next to the boards near the bench to take a breather, his teammates tell him so. "You're playing good, man," one of the team's young forwards says. "You're keeping us in this."

That he is. In the first two periods, Rhine stops at least five one-on-one breakaways and makes about 20 other saves. Of course, the Wednesday-night adult recreational hockey league in Fenton is not the National Hockey League, so no such statistics are kept. The most they do is write on a bulletin board who won and who lost, put up new standings with how many goals each team scored or allowed. But the vibe is good on the Hawks bench, and what little communication occurs is upbeat and positive. The Hawks are not big on "win-one-for-the-Gipper" speeches or X's-and-O's chalk talks. There is no coach and no captain -- just players.

The break is about to end when Rhine, holding his helmet in his hand and resting his tired legs, reminds his teammates to watch for "cherry pickers," opposing players who hang around the Hawks' net waiting for a pass or a rebound to score a cheap goal. Though they have a one-goal lead going into the final period, the Hawks are not about to get uppity; they're not delusional.

And as he rises to return to the ice, Rhine says to no one in particular, "I wonder if we can get past our third-period jinx this time." It doesn't take long to get an answer. Eleven seconds into the period, Rhine lunges to block a shot, but because he can't see the puck under his pads, he immediately turns to look in the back of the net, assuming the worst. As Rhine gets up, he sees he had been kneeling on the puck. The Hawks still hold the lead.

On a 3-on-1 breakaway with 12:27 left in the game, the shot pings off the crossbar of the goal. With 11:05 left in the game, Rhine makes a glove save. At 10:06, the puck bounces off his chest; at 9:04, he makes a stick save, pushing the puck off to the side. He's hanging in there.

The main truth about hockey is that the game, at any level, moves with incredible speed. Speed and violence are its two main attractions. But as players and puck move so quickly, the clock seems excruciatingly slow, particularly when you're on a team holding a narrow lead. For Rhine, forced to make save after save, the sand is barely moving through the hourglass. The puck is staying in the Hawks' defensive zone and the pressure on the goalie is relentless.

After yet another save, a face-off deflects the puck out in front of the goal, 15 feet out, where a Wrecking Crew forward sends the puck between Rhine's skates before the goalie can drop to his knees. The game is tied 3-3, with 8:28 to go. There is more to come.

On the next goal, Rhine's prediction about "cherry pickers" proves prophetic when a Wrecking Crew forward begins hanging out by the left goal post, waiting for a rebound or a pass. Less than two minutes after the tying goal, the go-ahead goal for the Wrecking Crew is scored by a player who might as well be sitting in a rocking chair next to the left goalpost. A pass from the point goes to him, and he dumps it in the net before Rhine can turn and sprawl to his left. The Wrecking Crew leads 4-3, with 6:24 to go. The Hawks' third-period fade is in full force.

In the next two minutes, Rhine has two more saves after face-offs before a miscue behind his net makes the score 5-3. One of the Hawks' best young players, who has scored two goals in this game, takes the puck behind the Hawks' net, so Rhine turns away to face forward, assuming his teammate has the situation under control. He doesn't. A Wrecking Crew player steals the puck, comes back from behind the net and dumps the puck in the corner before Rhine can react. The score is 5-3, with only 4:34 to go. The Hawks' offense is missing in action, and the outcome is no longer in doubt.

A slap shot from 20 feet out makes the score 6-3. Then, with only 20.9 seconds to go, a Wrecking Crew forward with his back to the goal deflects a shot from the point, flicking the puck over his right shoulder into the upper-left-hand corner of the net, just out of Rhine's reach. It is a creative, skillful, salt-in-the-wound goal that makes the final 7-3, giving the Hawks their sixth loss in seven games that session. The final score may look worse than the earlier 10-8 loss to the Wrecking Crew, but the Hawks players know that this time they've hung in longer and made the other team work harder.

With the Hawks, progress is a relative concept.

For the four guys who form the nucleus of the Hawks, almost any game is as good as a win because it fulfills their goal -- they get to play. Rhine, the goalie, and Jeff Graves, Tom Bresnan and Jeff Limbaugh are four guys on the wrong side of 30 who decided in the past year to play hockey. Less than a year ago, Rhine, who is 36, and Bresnan, 33, did not know how to skate. Limbaugh and Graves, both 35, could, but they had not played organized hockey before this year.

Considering the normal male's athletic lifespan, for these guys to start playing hockey at this late date appears ambitious, if not Peter Pan-ish. But for the Hawks, it's different. They're not yearning to be young again; instead, they're playing a sport they once just watched because they want to feel what it's like to play hockey, and this may be their last chance.

By most conventional measures -- wins, losses, statistics -- the Hawks suck. They know that. They harbor few illusions about their abilities or their chances of success. Bresnan, a carpenter by day and Hawks defenseman by night, was clear about that after a stinging 15-4 loss in August. Asked who the Hawks would be playing the next week, Bresnan, a South Sider, answered in his usual flat, blunt tone: "Who knows, who cares? We suck."

The team is composed of freelancers who've played together for three sessions, each lasting seven or eight games, since March. Participating in the sport isn't cheap. Each player pays about $150 to sign up each session. And the cost of equipment, which ranges from a few hundred dollars to close to $2,000 for a goalie, is extra. The games are played at the Forum Ice Arena in Fenton, an unlikely venue for high drama that sits across Interstate 44 from the Chrysler plant and down a service road from a 24-hour Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. From the parking lot, the "arena" looks like a giant metal tool shed; inside, the silver-foil lining hanging from the ceiling suggests the interior of a giant expanded Jiffy-Pop pan, although it's far from hot -- the arena is cold, meat-locker cold. The few dedicated spectators who show up spend the game shivering on metal bleachers.

The Hawks are a "house team" in their league, which means most of their players didn't have enough comrades to form a full team so they signed up individually and were assigned to a team. Sometimes a league has just one house team, sometimes two. Other teams are usually sponsored by a corporation and have players who at least know each other or have played together for years.

Not so with the Hawks, whose roster changes each new session. Any synchronicity with teammates is fleeting, because after each session, about a third of the team doesn't return. Over the last three sessions, the roster of the Hawks has changed significantly, but the core -- Rhine, Bresnan, Graves and Limbaugh -- remains. They are rookies this year in a doubly negative sense, having the added burden of age to go with their inexperience. They play not in an over-30 league but in an open adult league where players range in age from the late teens to the mid-20s. Many of those players have been playing since elementary school. The contrast shows, both in the play and the results.

Measuring the team's progress is difficult. The Hawks almost always lose. The team's low point may have occurred during their second session, when they faced a team that was outnumbered but apparently not outmanned. Only five of the opposing team's players showed up for the game, one shy of the six who normally take the ice. The opponents did not have a goalie. So the Hawks, with enough substitutes for at least a few line changes, went ahead and played a team that was a man down and had no goalie. The Hawks lost, and it wasnt even close. In hockey, a losing team in the final minute or two may pull its goalie in a desperate attempt to score a tying goal. In this Hawks game, the opposing team never even had a goalie -- and won anyway. At least they didn't skate on one leg.

The Hawks' only win in the most recent session came with an asterisk attached: They beat the Blades, another house team, whose goalie didn't show up. Even without anyone standing in the opponents' net, the Hawks struggled, finally winning by the astronomically high score of 18-12. For two teams to score 30 goals in one game is extraordinary, no matter what the league. This season, it took the Blues and their NHL opponents six games to score a total of 30 goals.

Opponents usually find a way to score goals against the Hawks, though that isn't solely the goalie's fault. An ineffective offense, poor puck control, a porous defense and teammates' barely knowing each other all contribute; the goalie is just the last person to get beat. In the Hawks' first six games of this session, opposing teams have scored a total of 66 goals, more than twice the total of each of the top three teams in the league. That means that Rhine, the Hawks' goalie, has had a goals-against average of 11 goals per game. Rhine's average of letting in 11 goals per game suffers in a cruel comparison with NHL's top goaltender, Patrick Roy, who has a 1.45 goals-against average. The worst goals-against average for an NHL goalie is less than three goals per game. But on the upside, due in part to their 18-goal surge against the goalieless Blades, the Hawks have the second-highest total in the six-team league, having scored 47 goals.

Because the Hawks lost to a goalieless team in the second session but defeated a team without a goalie in the current session, apparently there has been some progress. Oh, there have been close games, one- and two-goal margins of defeat, and there have been blowouts. But to hear Graves describe it, the score is not the thing.

"There's enough back-and-forth in our games where it's still fun to play," says Graves, suggesting that the puck isn't always in the Hawks' defensive zone. "The score, well, it sure would be nice to win. There's kind of a fine line between whether the puck goes in the goal or not, but that's what gets counted. The games with the Hawks, yeah, the score might not show it, but the puck goes up and down the ice enough to keep it fun."

Hanging out and talking with the four Hawks veterans, it's clear that the standings don't matter. They know that no matter what the Hawks do, their highlights won't be on ESPN SportsCenter, that their stats won't be listed in agate type in the morning sports section. They won't bore strangers with their exploits. They know people don't care.

They are drawn together by a common desire to play hockey, and although they know each other only through this endeavor, they have common bonds. Bresnan, Graves and Limbaugh are all married; each has two children. Rhine just got remarried -- he missed one game in September for the wedding and honeymoon -- and he has one child, from his first marriage. Bresnan and Limbaugh work in construction: Bresnan as a carpenter building upscale homes in West County, Limbaugh heading his own construction company. Graves, with an electrical-engineering degree, is a software engineer for Westar Corp. in Weldon Spring. Rhine works in information systems for Anheuser-Busch.

Graves played pond hockey as a kid but was never on an organized team. He was drawn back to ice hockey when he coached his son's roller-hockey team. That encouraged him to start skating again, though he only played periodic pickup games before joining the Fenton league. The lateness of the games, which start at 9:30 and 11 p.m., allows Graves and the others to head out to play when their children are already in bed. And the cost, which may have been more of an obstacle when the men were in their early 20s, doesn't seem so bad now in the context of staying in shape.

Limbaugh had lingering memories of pickup games in high school, playing in the wee hours of winter mornings at an outdoor rink in Granite City. Limbaugh's wife works with Rhine, so when she heard that the inexperienced Rhine was going to play hockey, she told her husband. Limbaugh and Graves had a head start on both Rhine and Bresnan in one important category -- they both knew how to skate.

"I had never skated in my life," Rhine recalls. "I had never had a pair of ice skates on until last year."

Of the four, Rhine perhaps had the most difficult obstacle to hurdle in starting hockey so late in life. "Getting into playing goalie, at 30-plus, that's a huge leap," says Graves. The skills needed to anticipate and react to flying pucks, the endurance needed to stay standing on the ice for 45 minutes of play and the expense of the equipment all argue against a novice's picking up the pads. But Rhine perhaps also had the most significant motivation.

Graves and Limbaugh with distant memories of adolescent play, wanted a diversion, a workout they could look forward to. Bresnan had never played before but, as a Blues fanatic, wanted to learn what it felt like to play the sport he loved to watch.

Rhine's reason for playing is different. His young son, Austin, loves hockey and started skating lessons when he was 4, before the diagnosis of Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative disorder with effects not unlike those of Lou Gehrig's disease. Four years later, Austin is confined to a wheelchair. Rhine, who says he's "normally pretty private" about his boy's illness, admits that Austin's love of hockey is the reason he's out on the ice.

"As my son got a little bit worse off, that's when it just kind of hit me. I don't want to sound melodramatic or anything, but it just started to hit me: "Y'know, I'm not getting any younger, and I really want to do this,'" says Rhine. Austin was fascinated with goalies, so Rhine decided to head for the net. "After it was apparent he was never going to be able to play, frankly, I decided if he couldn't, I was going to," says Rhine. "Finally I thought, "He loves this so much that I'm going to do this.'

"Most children develop an interest in sport from their parents. Mine has been just the opposite," says Rhine. "It's because of my little boy that I grew to love it."

Austin's favorite player was Blues goalie Grant Fuhr. Rhine called the Blues to see whether there was any chance Fuhr would meet his son. Three days later, the Blues called back to say Fuhr would meet Austin before the next game. Fuhr met Austin, autographed his jersey and hat, and posed for photos. "He was the nicest guy," Rhine says of Fuhr. "That really got me hooked. He didn't have to do that, make that special effort. So of course, from then on, he's my favorite player. I think the guy's great.

"We got tickets for that game," Rhine says. But the Hawks are not the only team that falters. "The Blues lost -- I think it was 8-1," Rhine remembers. "Fuhr played terrible."

But that didn't matter. Rhine was on a mission. He put on his first pair of ice skates April 1999, then plunked down another $1,800 for secondhand equipment. But getting the gear was the least of his problems. Rhine had to learn to skate. For the uninitiated, it might seem peculiar to say the goalie has to learn to skate, because it appears that all he does is stand in the crease. But when Brent Johnson, the 23-year-old rookie goalie for the Blues, is asked what the skill a goalie needs most, he quickly answers that the goalie should be the best skater on the team: "Maybe not the fastest, but you have to be the best skater on the ice, because you're going forward, backward; you're up, you're down. You have to be a great skater."

Also, a goaltender must be durable. "You get bumps and bruises all the time," says Johnson. "It's how you drop to your knees. The ice is not that forgiving. It doesn't feel too good."

Rhine can testify to that fact: "The first game that I played, the very first night, after about 10 minutes I was so exhausted from dropping down to my knees and getting back up that I really wondered if I was too old or if I had the stamina to really do this. I made it through to the end that night, and the next week it got a little better and a little better. I always thought I could do it; I thought I could learn to skate if I just stuck with it, but then the endurance when you try to play really caught me off guard, how hard it was, and I realized how out of shape I was. Playing in the game is totally different than skating laps around a rink. Playing in goal is a lot harder than it looks. Just trying to stand on a pair of ice skates for an hour, it's actually harder than skating laps, and to stand there and move from side to side, drop down on your knees and get up -- I just kind of hung in there."

However, there are limits. As the third period stretches to the other side of midnight and the opposing team is finding the back of the net with increasing frequency, Hawks goalie Rhine can get a little weary of the onslaught.

"We've had times where in the third period we're tired and we'll be losing 10-1 and the other team will score four or five goals at the five-minute mark," he says. "Then we've still got three minutes left, and you know there's probably going to be three or four more. That gets old. But you kind of know what's coming. There haven't been too many surprises."

But when Rhine remembers his first night, playing with strangers in the Fenton league for the Hawks, he waxes nostalgic, even though the scene wasn't pretty.

"I had no idea what was going to happen," says Rhine. "I just showed up in the locker room with a bunch of guys I didn't know and got in goal. And that was it. We lost our first game. I'll never forget that score -- we lost 13-1 and we just got pelted. The shots were flying. I was exhausted. I'll never forget that. It was great."

Hockey came to St. Louis in 1967, the year Bresnan was born. St. Louis had had a few hockey teams before then, but they were all minor-league. In '67, the NHL took the ingenious approach of putting all six expansion teams in one division. That way, no matter how much all the new teams sucked, one of them would have to finish first. In the NHL's first season in St. Louis, the Blues made it to the Stanley Cup finals but got creamed by the Montreal Canadiens, four games to none.

But the magic of a new sport, the Blues' quick "success" and the departure of the pro-basketball Hawks to Atlanta made the Blues the wintertime rave in St. Louis. Bresnan never remembers a time when the Blues weren't big news in his South St. Louis home, within a short walk of the Bevo Mill.

"I remember being a kid and my aunts and uncles and grandma would be over and be sitting around the TV watching hockey," Bresnan says. "I've always been a hockey fan. Watching it just made me want to do it."

The urge may have existed, but Bresnan didn't act on it until just before he turned 30. The first obstacle was that he couldn't skate. Aside from a rare visit to Steinberg Rink as a kid, Bresnan had never done much ice skating. Because he was prone to asthma as a child, playing sports hadn't been a priority. As Bresnan grew older, the respiratory problems faded. A few years ago, he started working as a carpenter for Behlman Builders, constructing million-dollar homes out in St. Albans. On weekends he tends bar at wedding receptions and private parties for Hendri's Banquets & Catering, which runs a banquet hall at the end of his street. Being a carpenter kept him physically active, helping him drop 20 pounds, but something was missing.

Hockey was it, so Bresnan got some skates and kept showing up at area rinks.

"I went by myself, every Saturday or every Sunday, a couple of nights during the week," says Bresnan, "watched how other people did it and learned how to skate. I just went out there and did it. Fell on my ass a few times." Once he got good enough to skate backward and was comfortable on the ice, it was time for equipment.

For one pair of skates, he brought a pair of in-line roller skates to a skate shop so that blades could be put on the boots. The shop had some leftover tucks -- the devices that hold the blades on -- so Bresnan got a reduced rate by letting the shop put a black tuck on one skate and a white tuck on the other. A helmet cost $80; then he got another pair of skates, worth about $275, at a reduced price. Gloves can be $60 apiece. Bresnan's brother was once an equipment manager for the Blues, so some other leftover items, including a pair of Ron Sutter's old pants, found their way into Bresnan's equipment bag.

Finally, though, there came a time when the 31-year-old man had to show up at a rink for what's called a "stick-and-puck" session, pay his 5 bucks and get into a pickup game.

"Sooner or later, you have to skate up to somebody and tap them on the shoulder and say, "Can I play? I know I suck real bad, but I want to play.' And it's not like you're 18 or 19 saying that; you're over 30 and these cats are 10 years younger than you."

From there, the next step was signing up for a seemingly legit league where there would be scheduled games, somebody keeping score and a referee. "I guess I got to the age where it was like, "Fuck, I'm gonna play hockey, man. That's what I want to do, and I'm doing it. I don't care.'" says Bresnan. "I looked around and looked around and found a place that said "Thursday-night men's league.' I said, "Fuck it, I'm gonna try it.'"

The first two sessions the Hawks played in were on Thursday nights, with games starting at 9:30 and 11 p.m. Earlier times at the rink are reserved for younger players, preteens and teenagers, who presumably have to be in bed earlier. Bresnan, who must be at the construction site by 7 a.m., tries -- usually unsuccessfully -- to get a nap in before a late game. The upfront cost of $150 per person pays for 10 games and a jersey. In the first game, Bresnan knew none of his teammates: "Man, the first session, that was the first game I ever played. When I first went there on that Thursday night, whew, I was as nervous as a cat. I had never played any organized hockey at all. I was more nervous than anything. I struggled."

As in most adult-hockey sessions, the leagues at the Forum Ice Arena don't allow "checking," which means bumping or pushing a player away from the puck. But this is still hockey, and the NHL is the only pro league that doesn't take a hard line against fighting. A "roughing" penalty can banish the player to the penalty box, but physical contact and fighting are seen as part of the game. The Blues' advertising campaign last year featured photos of players on billboards with the catchphrase "Wanna go?" which is hockey slang for challenging someone to "drop the gloves" -- that is, fight. This year's billboard catchphrase is "Do you bleed blue?"

Bresnan was comfortable with the physical aspect of hockey. In a recent game where the Hawks led 7-6 late in the second period but faded down the stretch to lose 13-8, Bresnan had this postgame comment: "Man, I looked up at the clock, and it said 41 seconds left. I ain't did shit. I ain't hardly got no shots on goal. I didn't make very many good plays. I got to hit somebody."

Bresnan, for all his brash talk and routine profanities, is not a fighter. But he is not allergic to contact. When he reminisces about his first few months of hockey the tales often revolve around "knocking somebody on his ass." The Hawks don't contend for trophies or plaques, so their fond memories spring from the game itself.

"You ain't going to necessarily remember the score; you're going to remember a good hit on somebody, or something funny happening, or a fluke goal," says Bresnan. "This guy the other night was moving in on our zone with the puck and I came across fast and hit him; he lost the puck, and another guy on his team picked the puck up, and I hit him. Then I got a penalty, I guess because I did it twice in a row. I looked over at our bench, and they were all laughing and cheering.

"Then there was this young kid on our team who got a penalty for shooting the puck after the whistle was blown. He skated over to the penalty box, and he was looking around, trying to get in there. He came over to me and said, "Man, how do you get in there?' I said, "Well, I can tell you -- I'm in there every night. Push that white button with your stick; you get right in.'"

For the first two sessions, it was not uncommon for Hawks players to fall for no apparent reason. Once, before a puck was dropped for a face-off, a Hawk skated up the circle, stopped and, with no one touching him, his skates went out from under him, landing him on his butt. A more unfortunate incident occurred last session when a young, inexperienced Hawk skated fast behind the net after the puck.

The Hawk player, who no longer is with the team, was skating too fast, out of control, and he headed back behind the opponents' net. When he tried to stop, he tripped over his own skates and slammed into the opposing player who had the puck. The opponent, thinking it was an intentional hit, got up, dropped his gloves and, as Bresnan puts it, "just beat the fuck out of the guy." The ref called a penalty on the opponent for fighting, which spurred him to yell at the ref, questioning why the Hawk player hadn't been penalized. But the ref said, "No penalty on him -- that man's been pummeled already. Time served."

Later, the opponent who pummeled the Hawk player realized that the guy had tripped and fallen into him. "He felt bad and shit. He said he was sorry," says Bresnan. "That was pretty good. You trip, you fall into a guy and he gets up and beats your ass."

Not surprisingly, Bresnan likes to play defense because defensemen get to play more physically. Even though the Hawks are playing in a no-checking league, if a defender is fending for a puck, contact is allowed. And if a defenseman is a good skater and develops his speed, so much the better. After just three sessions, Bresnan has developed a defensive philosophy of sorts.

"When you're a defenseman, that speed is good because it gives you time to make a play. If you fly back and get the puck before anybody else, then you got a second to do what you want to do," he says. "But if you're slow and somebody's on you, then you're struggling. See, I like to stand up at the blue line. That's like my first line of defense. Some of those other guys keep backing up. Fuck that -- don't even let 'em get in our zone. Then if they get by you, you hustle back and knock somebody down."

Bresnan may be a 33-year-old rookie, but he's a quick learner on defense. Apprised of Bresnan's defensive approach, Blues Coach Joel Quenneville -- the NHL's coach of the year for 1999 -- says he thinks Bresnan is on the right track.

"That's not bad," Quenneville says. "Some guys back in, back in, because they don't want to get beat one-on-one. But we encourage our guys to challenge before they get in our end, make (the other team) dump the puck in so they don't have any control coming into our zone. You back in, then everybody's in your zone and they've got all the alternatives. His philosophy's right, but it's easier said than done. You're standing still a lot of times at the blue line, and you're vulnerable to get beat. They have to have their gap, and (the defensemen) have to adjust their speed to the speed that's coming at them; they can't be just standing there at the blue line, or they're going to be beat one-on-one."

For Bresnan, who couldn't skate backward a year ago, to mirror the defensive strategies of Coach Q is a sign he's come a long way in a short time. And for all his gruffness, Bresnan appreciates a good joke, even when it's on him.

During the second session this summer, when an opponent complained too much about the ref's not making a call against Bresnan, the Hawks defenseman told him off: "He was whining to the ref the whole time. I went over and said, "What the fuck's your problem, dude? I gave you a clean hit and you're fucking crying. Don't be such a pussy.' Well, dig this: I go to my first Wednesday-night game of the new session, and there that guy is. He's my defense partner, the pussy. He's on my team. I still tell him to quit whining to the ref -- "Just play.'"

Bresnan and the other core members of the Hawks have long since stopped looking at the standings. Limbaugh sees improvement, particularly in Rhine, the goalie. "J.R. has improved a lot," Limbaugh says. "That poor guy takes a beating. The puck seems to be at our end of the ice a lot; he's always getting peppered." But all the Hawks are fans first, and they love the game, even more now that they are more than spectators.

"The thing about hockey is, it's hard to explain, but it's how it can change in an instant -- in less than an instant," Bresnan says. "For one second you think you got a goal; the next thing you know, there's a breakaway and they score. It's, like, "Oh my God, how did that happen?' It's exciting. What kind of athlete can run on ice, carrying a puck, and, y'know, knock somebody else down while they're doing it? You almost have to be the best athlete to do that."

Bresnan has few illusions about his own athletic abilities. He's improving, and he can be a force in the defensive zone, but the skaters 10 years his junior but with much more experience sometimes dart around him. At a recent game, six fans of the younger members of the Hawks stand on the metal bleachers, trying to keep warm, watching the game. They only know a few players on the Hawks, and they cheer mostly when their friends get a stick on the puck. During one of Bresnan's shifts on the ice, they can't help but be catty.

"Who's that? Look at that old guy. He doesn't even know where the puck is," says one of the 20-ish fans as Bresnan turns to skate back on defense, chasing the puck. "Boy, does he suck."

Believe it, man: He knows. He knows. He just doesn't care.

Fortunately there is little postgame analysis to a Hawks game. After the 7-3 loss to the Wrecking Crew, Bresnan, Rhine and Graves linger on the parking lot because they have just played the "early" 9:30 p.m. game and it's barely 11 p.m. Limbaugh has already left, saying he wants to get some sleep before an early start the next morning.

The NHL news of the day is that the Boston Bruins have hired Mike Keenan, the much-vilified former Blues coach and general manager. But Rhine, Bresnan and Graves care more about the Hawks.

"It's the third period," says Rhine. "I give up goals, and we never score. It just seemed that the first five minutes of the third period, they had way more energy. They came out firing. That puck was down in our end the whole time. I don't know what it is."

Bresnan agrees, recalling a brief respite earlier in the game: "There was a time in the second period where we were pressuring them. I was kind of surprised, like, "What am I doing down here on this end of the ice?'"

The talk turns to the goal that made the score 5-3 and put the game out of reach.

"When the guy lost the puck behind the net and the other guy wrapped it around -- I get in a bad habit," says Rhine. "I kind of know, depending on who the guy is, if they're going to come out with it. If it's one of our guys who's not so good, I'll always be looking. But that guy always comes out with the puck. I just look forward, and out he comes."

What's the guy's name?

"They call him Shorty. I don't know," Rhine says.

"That fucker can skate," Bresnan offers.

"He's really good," say Rhine. "He was aggravated, and I was, too. I wasn't even paying attention, because he always comes out with the puck. Now, if it's Tom back there with the puck, I'm on my toes."

"Yeah, you better watch it," Bresnan says. "I might just leave the puck and go to the bench. Or give 'em the puck so I can hit 'em.'"

With just one regular game left in the session and then the obligatory single playoff game against the second-best team in the league, the topic of the next session comes up. All three are up for re-enlistment.

The previous Saturday, Graves and Bresnan drove out to Wentzville for an hour of ice time at 10 p.m. They plan to do that again. For the last game of the session, they make plans to bring a cooler so they can share a postgame beer. Without dissecting their play, Graves offers vague optimism about the next session.

"We're coming on," says Graves. "We just need a couple of minor adjustments here, man, and we're gonna be OK."

"Yeah," says Rhine, "if they just shorten the game to two periods."