Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull dead at 84; First NHLer to score more than 50 goals
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WINNIPEG – Bobby Hull once proudly said that he played the way he lived — straightforward.
The Hockey Hall of Famer, who electrified fans through the 1960s and 70s, died on Monday at the age of 84. Hull played for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks before a jump to the Winnipeg Jets of the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972, a move that led to lawsuits but ultimately higher salaries for hockey players.
Controversy often swirled around Hull off the ice, including allegations of spousal abuse and a 1986 criminal conviction for assaulting a police officer. A quote attributed to him in a Moscow Times article voiced support of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, although Hull denied making the comment and sued the English-language paper for libel.
Hull helped lead the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 23 years in 1961, and is 55th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 610 goals and 560 assists. He also had 303 goals and 335 assists in the WHA for combined total of 913 goals in both leagues in 1,474 games.
To put that into context, Wayne Gretzky has a combined total of 940 goals in both leagues over 1,567 games, although all but 80 of those were in the NHL.
“When Bobby Hull wound up to take a slapshot, fans throughout the NHL rose to their feet in anticipation and opposing goaltenders braced themselves,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “During his prime, there was no more prolific goal-scorer in all of hockey.
“As gregarious a personality as he was explosive as a player, Hull was a true superstar and the face of the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s.”
Hull’s 604 goals with the Blackhawks remain a team record.
“Hull is part of an elite group of players who made a historic impact on our hockey club,” the Blackhawks said in a statement. “Generations of Chicagoans were dazzled by Bobby’s shooting prowess, skating skill and overall team leadership.”
Hull was the first player in the NHL history to score more than 50 goals in a season. He set the record of 54 in 1966 and broke it by four goals a couple of seasons later.
Along with Chicago teammate Stan Mikita, he helped popularize the curved hockey stick blade in the NHL. He would first soak the wooden blade, then bend it under a door and leave it overnight. It made Hull’s slapshot, clocked at close to 200 kilometres per hour, even harder for a goalie to stop.
His defection to the WHA in 1972 was the catalyst that helped shatter the NHL’s contractual stranglehold on players. It also started the escalation of salaries that now make Hull’s once record-setting million-dollar payday look like small change.
There were plenty of hard feelings at the time on both sides, but in 2011 a statue of Hull was erected alongside one of Mikita outside the United Center, where Chicago now plays.
“I never, ever thought in 100 years I’d ever be standing here tonight,” Hull said at the unveiling.
Robert Marvin Hull Jr., was born Jan. 3, 1939 in Pointe Anne, Ont., now part of the city of Belleville, and was 12 when he was first scouted by Chicago. He started playing with the Blackhawks in 1957 when he was just 18.
He was regarded as the fastest skater in the NHL and led the league in scoring seven times in the 1960s. When he left the NHL in 1972 for the WHA, he was second on the all-time scoring list behind only Gordie Howe, and Howe had been in the league for an extra decade.
“It was sort of a dream that came true,” said Joe Daley, Hull’s teammate on the Jets who is from the Winnipeg area. “You always hope that you get a chance to have wonderful teammates, and I got lucky in having him here.
“Certainly, what he brought to Winnipeg and the way he conducted himself with every fan in every city, it was amazing to see.”
Although not large by modern standards (five-foot-10 and just under 190 pounds), the muscular Hull was not afraid to scrap. In 1966 when he set his first scoring record, he also had 70 penalty minutes in 65 games.
In an era when few players worked out in the off-season, Hull stayed in shape throwing around bales of hay on his farm — which led to a still iconic black and white photo of the shirtless Hull in action, a bale on the end of his pitchfork.
In 1978, Hull was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983 and his No. 9 jersey was retired by both the Blackhawks and the old Winnipeg Jets (who moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes before the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and reclaimed the Jets name).
Son Brett Hull became a star and Hall of Famer in his own right as a star scorer with St. Louis and Dallas and is 25th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.
Hull renewed ties with the the Jets after their return to Winnipeg.
“I was lucky enough I actually got to meet Bobby Hull. He was an awesome guy to meet,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said. “Obviously, a moment that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
“He was a guy that revolutionized the game and was one of the stars and made hockey what it is today,” Scheifele added. “So we wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
Scheifele called Hull a Winnipeg “legend.”
“He always will be,” Scheifele said. “He’s something that made hockey what it is in the world, and especially in Winnipeg. Obviously, his legacy will always be there forever.”
Hull said he loved his years in Chicago and the fans, but the organization didn’t love him as much. He resented what he was paid, as did many in the league at that time, and got into high-profile disputes over money with the Wirtz family that owned the team.
In 1972, he became the linchpin around which the WHA was formed and the first hockey player to earn a million dollars, his signing bonus for joining the new league with the Jets.
Although some resented him for the leap, Mikita once said he got down on his knees and thanked his former teammate and the Jets — his salary doubled almost overnight because of the competition.
But the move cost Hull a chance to play in the 1972 Summit Series when the NHL refused to let him join Team Canada. He made up for it in 1974, when a team of Canadians from the WHA met the Soviet Union in a second Summit Series, and again when he played in the 1976 Canada Cup.
Nicknamed the Golden Jet for his speed and blond hair (even before he joined the Jets), Hull spent eight seasons with the team, the last in the NHL, and helped make them one of the strongest clubs in the WHA. They won three Avco Cups, the league’s ultimate prize, in the seven years it was awarded, and were runners-up twice.
Hull played only part of the final Jets’ final WHA season in 1978-79, and returned only briefly the next season when Winnipeg joined the NHL as the two leagues merged. He moved to the Whalers, who also jumped to the NHL, for nine games that same season.
He was 42 when he made a brief comeback attempt with the New York Rangers in 1981 before finally hanging up his skates.
An acrimonious divorce from his second wife of 20 years, Joanne — which included numerous allegations of abuse — cost him a stake he owned in the original Jets.
He returned to farming/ranching during the early years of his time away from hockey and then settled in Florida with third wife Deborah.
Although their marriage lasted, he also was accused by her of assault in 1986. She dropped the charges but the police officer who Hull took a swing at during the investigation did not. He was fined $150 and placed on six months court supervision.
He stoked more controversy when in 1998 the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, alleged that Hull said in an interview that the Nazis were not without merit, the Black population of the United States was growing too fast and genetic breeding was a worthy idea.
“Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far,″ Hull, who was visiting Russia, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Hull denied making the comment, calling it “false and defamatory.”
The Blackhawks brought him back as a team ambassador in 2008 and he was on hand for their 2010 Stanley Cup win. It was their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
— With files from John Chidley-Hill in Toronto, Judy Owen in Winnipeg and The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.