Before Bobby Hull showed up, the NHL was long on workmanlike effort and short on rock ’n’ roll erraticism. Now that he’s gone, it’s returned to its former state.
But for a while there, Hull played hockey the way Led Zeppelin played arenas – the most interesting stories didn’t happen in public view, and few of them were the sort you’d want to hear in decent company.
One of the great pure goal scorers in the game’s history and its most notable off-season farmer, Hull bridged the gap between the NHL’s working-class roots and its jet-set aspirations. His career was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if he’d stayed in the NHL past his early 30s?; what if he’d been allowed to play in the Summit Series? The best testament to Hull’s athletic greatness was that despite often working against his own best interests, he still managed to be remembered as great.
Hull, 84, died on Monday.
Like many of his contemporaries, Hull was the sort they grew big on the farm. Born in rural Ontario, he came up through the provincial ranks and joined the Chicago Black Hawks in 1957. He was only 18, but already fully formed as a player.
In a league full of big, tough men, Hull was bigger and tougher, but also remarkably skilled. His slap shot is still remembered as a weapon of NHL mass destruction.
Teammate Glenn Hall once said of it: “The idea was not to stop that thing, but to avoid getting killed.”
Defending Hull was a special challenge because he didn’t have to find a way around you. He could just go through you.
He remains the only hockey player who is more recognizable with a pitchfork in his hands, baling hay, than he was in uniform on the ice. Up until the chemists got involved, Hull may have had the most imposing physique in sports history. He put it to brutal use on the ice.
He was the first player to score more than 50 goals in a campaign. He scored more points than anyone ever had in a season. He won a single Stanley Cup, giving him access to the best-ever conversation.
In a two-fisted league, Hull and his Chicago teammates played a particularly exuberant brand of hockey. It made them famous outside the game’s usual strongholds.
Like a lot of other famous people in the sixties, Hull took full advantage of the social perks.
I spent an hour with him in a hotel room a decade ago. He was releasing a book and in high spirits, clearly enjoying the attention. But there was a hook of resentment in every story he told.
“We had guys who liked to have fun. But when they dropped the puck at 7:30, we played guilty,” Hull said. I remember him tilted forward, waving his hands around. They were enormous.
“We used to say to each other, ‘C’mon, guys. We were pissed up last night. So now we gotta play guilty.’ And there are a lot of guys who don’t understand that – these coaches, I mean. Don’t bother us, cause we’re the guys who know how to play. I never listened to a coach in my life.”
This sort of approach worked for Hull, until it didn’t.
When he publicly mused that he would consider leaving the NHL to join the upstart World Hockey Association for a million dollars – a ridiculous amount at the time – guess what? They gave him a million dollars. That was 1972.
Having got what he wanted, Hull found out it wasn’t what he needed. Once the biggest deal in the biggest league, Hull became the richest guy in an outfit no one cared about.
He continued to score goals in the WHA through the seventies, but his star dimmed. His turncoat status meant he wasn’t invited to join Team Canada for the Summit Series. Just like that, Hull was cut out of Canadian history.
Eventually, he’d find his way back to the national team and the NHL, but the damage had been done. Hull became a cautionary tale about valuing the wrong things.
Post-career, shorn of the protection that teams and the journalists who cover them offer to active stars, Hull went from colourful to objectionable. In the late nineties, it was reported that Hull had given an interview to an English-language Russian newspaper in which he praised Hitler and denigrated Black people.
Once back home, Hull denied it all. The paper stuck to its version of the story and the issue was left unresolved. Whatever the truth of it, Hull was pushed down to the second tier of NHL legends. He still worked the autograph circuit, but no one was anxious to have him make appearances on behalf of the game.
Hull leaned into his reputation as a hockey wild man rather than a legend of the sport. By that point, he was most familiar to contemporary fans as the father of Brett Hull. That seemed to bother him as well.
Where does Hull figure in the pantheon? As a cult figure.
The NHL’s golden age is chock-a-block with team-first guys who played the game the right way – Howe, Beliveau, Richard, Orr, et al. The hard thing is finding a guy in there that anyone had a bad word to say about.
Hull was the wild card in that pack. He played like a virtuoso and lived like a roadie. He made terrible decisions, but kept emerging from them, diminished but intact. He was hockey’s fallen star, and one who kept falling.
It doesn’t make him heroic, but it does make him interesting.
That time I met him he was going through his own book, looking at pictures of himself and pointing out the other people in them.
“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” Hull said, quiet and contemplative for the first time that afternoon. “I hate it when I’m the only one alive in these things.”
Now he’s gone, and an era with him. If it can be said that the NHL had a wild, uncontrollable period in its adolescence, Hull embodied it. Then, like a lot of precocious teens, he never quite get over it.