Bobby Hull is a legendary player for the Chicago Blackhawks, but for 35 years he was a ghost with the franchise. That was until there was regime change in management, a new era for Chicago hockey and a concerted effort to recruit Blackhawks luminaries like Hull as team ambassadors.
"I didn't think I'd have another chance to get back with the team. I can't tell you how proud I am of [Blackhawks owner] Rocky Wirtz, [team president] John McDonough and the entire Blackhawks organization," said Hull in a phone interview last week. "Rocky did everything that should have been done by his father. First of all, he got rid of some dead wood. He put the home games on TV. And then he dove into the past.
"If you're not proud of your past, you're not going to have a future."
Pride in the past is the selling point for The Sports Legends Challenge, an exclusive event that collects heroes from several different sports at the Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas, from Sept. 14-17. (More information about the event, which includes sports simulators and a huge poker tournament, can be found at www.SportsLegendsChallenge.com.) What makes the lineup of stars compelling isn't just their celebrity, but the common bond some of them share: rebellion.
Richard Petty, Julius Erving, Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson ... none have exactly lived unexamined lives. Neither has Hull, who notably left the NHL for the upstart World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets in 1972 for $1 million; suffering through litigation from the NHL and a ban from Team Canada.
That rebellious streak thrives in the 70-year-old Hockey Hall of Fame left winger; a trait he famously passed on to his son Brett, recently deposed as the Dallas Stars co-GM. Our discussion ranged from coping with playoff defeats with copious amounts of booze; judging this generation of NHL stars; why winning the Lady Byng Trophy is more than a little embarrassing; and whether a player who scored 913 goals between two leagues could handle today's game.
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Q. When you were playing, and you were eliminated from the playoffs, how would you get over it? Hit the bars afterwards?
HULL: I'd play my guts out. Win, lose or draw, I'd always give it my all. If we got beat, it was usually by a better team, or somebody on our team came up a little short. A day after, we would all get together because the guys would disperse and head home, generally back to Canada. It would be the last time we would see them until September and training camp.
Billy Reay, who was our coach, used to bring in a 50-gallon drum, fill it with ice and water, and throw cans of beer in there. And we used to go diving like we would as kids for apples, and commiserate that we got beat.
Or if we won, like back in '61, have a great, great party.
So what happened to the Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings in the conference finals this year? I thought they showed a level of maturity heading into that series, but then they looked overwhelmed against Detroit.
Even when they were behind the eight-ball, they never showed any pressure. They won big games in Calgary's home rink and in Vancouver. [Against Detroit], they just couldn't bring it to that level. They got beat by Detroit in the first game. They had a chance of winning the next going into overtime. In the other series, they would have pulled that out and come out of Detroit with a split. And then they came out flat as a pancake in the fourth game.
They're a great young team. People in Chicago, I don't think, thought they'd go that far. At the very least, they're a team to be reckoned with for the future.
At the very least, you were able to do something that a lot of people haven't been able to do: Watch a hockey game with Michael Jordan. What was that like, and did you teach him what icing is?
[Laughs] We didn't really talk much, being that the box was full when I went down to say hello to him. Kid Rock was there, and Kid Rock's brother, and Chris Chelios, who was scratched that night. We just had a nice chat, and then they wanted us to wave to the fans. I felt kind of dwarfed standing beside him. He looked good in a red No. 23 Blackhawks jersey.
In the NHL today, is there one player in this generation of stars you feel is better that the rest?
You've got some great players in Detroit, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. You also have a guy in Washington in Ovechkin. He entertains royally. He doesn't mind ramming into people, he skates strong, he shoots the puck so very well. And you've got the two in Pittsburgh in Crosby and Malkin. And we've got a couple in Chicago who are no slouches, either. It behooves the NHL to bring these players to the forefront and get them on television.
When all is said and done, will people consider Alexander Ovechkin the better left winger than Bobby Hull?
If they don't, they're crazy. He's a great, great player. Things were a little different when we played, of course. We had to fight our own battles, as he does. I just would have liked to have played in the game today, with no inference and no hooking and holding as you advance into the opposition's end.
Since you bought it up, what would Bobby Hull look like in today's NHL? Did you need that extra bit of grittiness in the game to play as well as you did?
I don't really now how I would have reacted with the changing of the rules. I played coming from behind; with speed, I'd hit the blue line when everyone else was standing still. Now, you've got five guys going full blast one way and then full blast another way. I don't know if I could get used to that.
This Sports Legends Challenge thing in the Bahamas seems to involve some poker. What kind of card player are you?
I'm not a card player. I've always said that I worked too hard for my money. If I'm going to gamble, I'm only going to gamble on a sure thing.
And the only sure thing I know are me and my fellow players.
Now, when you where playing, you had an enormous level of celebrity. You were on the cover of TIME Magazine, which is a pretty big deal for a hockey player ...
A pretty big deal for anyone!
... this is true. But did you think when you were playing that you'd end up, in 2009, you'd end up at these kinds of events with Dr. J and Jim Brown and those types of people?
They've chosen people that have played the game of their choice well. That played back when the games were hard-fought.
I used to go to the Bears games and watch Jimmy Brown. One of the greatest, if not the greatest runner in football. I watched him play and kind of emulated him on the ice; the way he used his off-arm to sweep people away.
I watched him and wondered how he could come out of a pack of tacklers still running with the ball. I watched and watched, and I saw that the arm that he wasn't using to carry the ball was the arm he used at his side. When people would leave their feet to tackle him, he's just sweep his arm and knock them out of the air and keep on going.
So I thought that could work in hockey. I learned to carry the puck in the one hand; I shot left and carried the puck with my right hand. When people would come to check me, I'd sweep it away from them and then use my arm to sweep them past me, and go on my merry way.
I've seen a lot of interviews with goalies who used to face you. What is it like, as a man, to hear someone like Eddie Giacomin of the New York Rangers say he was genuinely afraid of you shooting the puck? That's gotta be the greatest compliment in the world.
I suppose it was. I used to say that I knew the skate sizes of every goaltender in the League -- when I'd wind up to shoot, they'd go right up on their heels. I'd say, "Hey, there's a nine-and-a-half. There's an 11."
It was nice to know that I was intimidating enough that goaltenders would come out and say it. It was intimidation without abuse. And my intimidation was shooting the puck and scoring goals.
(Ed. Note: At this point, Hull answered a question about winning the Lady Byng Trophy back in 1965 that led into a humors anecdote about fellow Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita. This wasn't intended to be a podcast, so the audio quality isn't the best. But we figured it was worth presenting as its own clip.)
I think we can agree that the Blackhawks have the best sweater in hockey ...
Greatest emblem, of any.
No doubt. But leaving them out of the equation, who has the best jersey in the NHL today.
I think any of the Original Six teams. Those jerseys, out of the 30, still rank. I don't think any of the other 24 teams can compare.
I know Brett had a very storied career with the Phoenix Coyotes. Will you be sad to see them go if they leave?
All five games of it. [Laughs]
I pulled my [retired Jets] jersey down off the rafters and gave it to Brett. He wore it for, I think, two games. God, it disappointed me. I knew that if Gretzky had just given him a chance, he would have been scoring goals on the power play left right and center.
It's always sad to see a team go under after such valiant attempts. It's just too bad that the Phoenix fans wouldn't hang with the team and support them a little better. It's that way with two or three other clubs in the running to have their doors closed. You never want to see it happen. That's why I'm so happy Rocky Wirtz came along and brought the fans back to the United Center.
Finally, it's tradition here at Puck Daddy to ask you what, if anything, is your adult beverage of choice.
When I played, in order to keep my weight hovering at 192, 193, I had to drink a few points of the bubbly.
Coors was a fad. We couldn't get it East of the Mississippi. When the NHL expanded into a 12 team League, we'd go to Oakland and pack our suitcases full of Coors and bring it back East.
And then have my kids steal it out of the fridge ...
For more information on Hull and the Sports Legends Challenge in the Bahamas, visit www.SportsLegendsChallenge.com.