When given the choice between having the White Sox or Blackhawks make the playoffs, Kevin Paulson didn't hesitate: "White Sox!"

That didn't stop the 24-year-old Paulson, who works the counter at a bowling alley in Wheaton, from attending the Hawks' first exhibition game Tuesday night while his beloved Sox were battling for a division title in Minnesota. Paulson was one of a near-sellout crowd of 18,752 at the United Center to watch the Blackhawks' 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"I'm in the 200 level and they have TVs over there, so I'll be checking back and forth," said Paulson, who was sporting a Paul Konerko White Sox jersey. "I've been a Blackhawks fan for a while, [but] it has been kind of hard to go. It's a lot more exciting right now."

Paulson wasn't the only baseball fan getting a taste of the Hawks in the middle of the pennant race. The biggest Cubs fan of them all, Ron Santo, dropped the first puck and took in the game with one eye on a TV showing the Cubs losing to the Mets in New York.

"We've already clinched, so I'm much more relaxed," said the Cubs legend and current broadcaster, who doesn't travel on all of the Cubs' road trips. "I wouldn't be here if we hadn't clinched."

Santo said he "always has been a Blackhawks fan" and credits former Cubs executives John McDonough—now the Hawks' team president—and Jay Blunk (vice president) for the resurgence of fan interest in the Hawks.

"When you look at the crowds that Wrigley draws, it's mainly because of John McDonough and Jay Blunk who were there for many years. Now look what has happened in one year since they came over here."

A 300 percent surge in season tickets from last season was the main reason for Tuesday's announced crowd—there were a few thousand empty seats—as exhibition games are included in season packages.

Earlier Tuesday the Hawks announced they had surpassed their franchise record of 13,425 season tickets, established in 1994-95 when the United Center opened.

"It shows the fans are excited for the season," Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell said of Tuesday's crowd. "You look at the sports that are going on in the city of Chicago and it shows that there's room for lots of sports here and people are hungry for it."

ckuc@tribune.com