I thought I knew a lot about Bobby Hull, the hockey legend who passed away yesterday at age 84. I knew he was called The Golden Jet, I knew he scored more than 600 goals, and I knew fans of a certain vintage who rooted for him as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks considered him their GOAT, especially after he led them to the Stanley Cup in 1961, at a time when the NHL had a mere six teams and, unlike the teams that played for many decades afterwards, and especially this year’s edition, were among the best in that league.
I knew he was a pioneer in free agency, becoming by far the biggest name in the sport to defect to the fledgling World Hockey Association, which unlike the upstart leagues in football and basketball started in the previous decade threw what were at the time unheard of seven (gasp!)-figure contracts at big names to grow the sport far further than the NHL had been inclined to do. It was as an original Winnipeg Jet that I saw Hull play live for the only time in my life, a Saturday matinee at Madison Square Garden against the long-forgotten (and soon to relocate) New York Raiders, a game that naturally the Raiders lost.
Hull was villified by most of the NHL-friendly media at the time, especially after his defection prevented him (as well as other WHA players) from joining the game’s stars in the much-awaited Challenge Cup series against the Soviet Union. But I also knew he, like so many athletes of the era, were grossly underpaid, and his move opened doors for many others to become pros at all, let alone earn a better living doing that.
Heck, I even knew he liked to go on game shows, a frequent guest on the CBC daytime show DEFINITION, best remembered as the impetus for Austin Powers’ homage to SOUL BOSSANOVA with that classic Quincy Jones lilt as its theme song, and for being played like WHEEL OF FORTUNE without a wheel. After seeing Deion Sanders try to play PYRAMID lately, in hindsight, I appreciated his talents as a word game player all thge more.
But I never knew what the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus shared in his tribute column yesterday, one that case a slightly different lens on Hull’s career and life than most of the other sanitized eulogies that dropped seemingly all day yesterday did.
What do you picture when you think of Bobby Hull?
Do you see him with the Stanley Cup in his hands, the one he won in 1961? Do you envision him with that famous banana-blade stick in his hands, the one he helped popularize, maybe even invent, alongside longtime Blackhawks teammate Stan Mikita? Or do you see him with a steel-heeled women’s shoe in his hands, the one that he allegedly used to beat his then-wife Joanne over the head, leaving her “covered with blood” and believing “this is the end,” as she told ESPN in a 2002 documentary?
What do you think of when you think of Bobby Hull?
Do you think about the team-record 604 goals he scored, so many of them with that cannonading slap shot? Do you think about the way he changed the game forever — eventually expanding the NHL and opening the door for more lucrative player contracts — by jumping to the upstart WHA in 1972? Or do you think about the time in 1997 when the Moscow Times quoted him as saying Adolf Hitler “had some good ideas” but “just went a little bit too far,” and that the population of Black people was growing too quickly in the United States, comments he later denied ever making?
All-Time Great. And wife-beater. Free agency pioneer. And seeming White Supremist.
Yes, all four accurately describe the late Bobby Hull.
Last week I wrote about the indignity of the likes of Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez being kept out of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The strong likelihood that Curt Schilling, who apparently shares a few political viewpoints that Hull had, will never see the inside of it without a ticket in his lifetime. And at the time I wrote that it’s a Hall of FAME that honors the on-field (or, in this case. on-ice) exploits first and foremost–or should. Hull is very much a deserving member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Heck, he even has a friggin’ statue–in full color, no less–that stands in front of the United Center, where today’s fans can spend hundreds of dollars to see a ragtag last-place team hope against hope Connar Bedard winds up in their laps this summer.
You might be inclined to take the actions of so many so-called “woke” activists and tear down the statue, or kick him out of the Hall, or do something to course-correct his legacy. The NHL, which has its All-Star weekend coming up in South Florida this weekend, has a difficult decision ahead on how to properly honor his legacy. The Blackhawks return home to Chicago soon afterwards and have the same task in front of them.
Lazerus’ Athletic piece offered some pointed observations and suggestions which I fully support:
We have a tendency to glorify and aggrandize in death, especially when it comes to the famous. We smooth out the rough edges and conveniently gloss over the true nature of the deceased. We use death as a shield, an excuse. It’s a natural instinct, an innate quest to find class and grace. But there’s no such thing as “too soon,” and there’s no sense in pretending. The truth matters. The truth is relevant. And the truth in Hull’s case is complicated — historic and horrible, triumphant and abhorrent.
The Blackhawks would be wise to keep things mostly antiseptic on Feb. 7. There’ll surely be a moment of silence. There’ll probably be a highlights package set to treacly music. And that should be sufficient. Keep it simple, keep it classy, keep it brief.
I’ll kick it up a notch.
The next time you’re in Chicago, go visit the statue, and anoint it with a few Golden Jets of your own, if you know what I mean.
And pray like heck where he’s headed now is far too hot for ice to form.
Let’s face it, his very name is awfully close to the spelling of that destination. And, ironically, it’s often referenced as H-U-double-hockey-sticks.
Rest in something, Bobby Hull. I can’t quite default to peace, since you denied it or the mere wish of it to so many while you were here.
And let that be my enduring definition of you.