A goal-scoring god in the latter stages of the NHL’s Original Six era, and later in life demonized for his hateful words and painful acts, including alleged domestic abuse claims of ex-wives, Bobby Hull died Monday.
Known worldwide by his legendary moniker, the Golden Jet, Hull was 84 years old.
One of the game’s most prolific goal scorers, his name synonymous with the sport itself for much of his 15-year run with the Black Hawks, Hull also forever changed the payscale dynamics of North American sports when he abruptly left Chicago for the Winnipeg Jets in the upstart World Hockey Association in the summer of 1972.
In an era when some of the NHL’s top performers still made barely a cut above blue-collar wages in the United States and Canada, Hull, then age 33, bolted the NHL for a 10-year deal in Winnipeg worth an unheard of $1.75 million (approximately $13.5 million today) and a reported $1 million bonus.
The WHA folded after seven seasons, with the Jets and three other franchises (Quebec, Edmonton, and Hartford) merging with the NHL for the start of the 1979-80 season. It was a deal the NHL was forced to make, largely as an attempt to stem the payroll bleeding caused by the rival league.
True free agency wouldn’t arrive in the NHL until years later, but it was Hull’s brazen, antiestablishment move to Winnipeg that provided the financial breakthrough that hockey players believed for decades would never happen.
Hull, and the 604 goals he scored while wearing that now-retired No. 9 sweater in Chicago, led the way, and set the stage for an NHL today that pays Oilers star forward Connor McDavid $12.5 million per season.
Hull, signed by Chicago as an amateur in the years before the NHL implemented its amateur entry draft, joined the Black Hawks as an 18-year-old phenom for the start of the 1957-58 season. It was still a six-team NHL, all leather skates and wooden sticks, with four franchises in the United States and two in Canada.
Faithful paying customers filed through the gates as much for fighting as the artistry of the game. Game stories of the day focused as much on the bench-clearing brawls, some of them epic buckets of blood, as they did on great goals and saves.
Robert Marvin Hull, born in Southern Ontario (Point Anne), was a left winger of average build (5 feet 10 inches, 190 pounds) who preferred to use his hands for shooting. No one hit the puck like Hull hit it.
The runner-up to Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich in the 1958 Calder (Rookie of the Year) voting, Hull quickly became known for his trademark blazing speed and searing shot. He knocked home a league-best 39 goals by his third season, at which time ex-junior teammate Stan Mikita had joined the team. Hull went on to top the league’s goal-scoring charts a half-dozen more times by the end of the 1968-69 season. He was 30 when he scored his NHL best 58 goals in that 1968-69 season.
Hull was a force, a man in full on the ice, a blazing menace off the wing possessing a thunderous, near-mythical, slap shot that became even more intimidating when he adopted the so called “banana blade” curved stick of the late-1960s. For years, he made goalies cower as he gained speed through the neutral zone and delivered his crackling shot, and the curved stickblade added degrees of lethality to his game.
The NHL soon cracked down on the use of the banana blade, while the WHA, the XFL of its day, embraced it. Hull scored 303 goals in his 411 games with the Jets, with a single-season high of 77, albeit against skaters and goaltenders that were often many cuts below NHL standards.
Hull’s final shifts were with Hartford, where he joined fellow NHL icon Gordie Howe during a nine-game stint in 1979-80.
Viewed solely through a hockey lens, Hull is inarguably one of the top dozen names in the sport’s history and one of North America’s greatest athletes. He arrived in the NHL as Rocket Richard, the greatest goal scorer of his day, was wrapping up his legendary run in Montreal. Hull defined the sport through the ‘60s, much as Mickey Mantle defined baseball in the same decade.
It was Hull’s dominance that emboldened the Hawks in 1967 to ship fourth-year center Phil Esposito to the Bruins. By the time Hull went to Winnipeg, Esposito and the Bruins had twice won the Stanley Cup.
Esposito eventually would score 459 goals in his eight-plus seasons in Black and Gold. Esposito ranks No. 7 all time in the NHL with 717 goals, with Hull No. 18 with 610.
The larger lens when viewing Hull, sadly, cannot ignore his outrageous, hateful words and acts, particularly his alleged abuse of his wives. The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus recounted Monday that two of Hull’s ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse. Former wife Joanne, noted Lazerus, told ESPN in a 2002 documentary that Hull beat her during a trip to Hawaii.
“He took my shoe – with a steel heel – and proceeded to hit me in the head,” she told ESPN. “I was covered with blood. And I can remember him holding me over the balcony and I thought, ‘This is the end, I’m going.’ ”
Invited back by Chicago as a team ambassador later in his life, Hull was let go in 2021, largely because the weight of his words became too much over time. Pariah.
In Russia, the Moscow Times in ‘98, noted Lazerus, quoted Hull as saying Adolf Hitler “had some good ideas . . . just went a little too far.” The same publication noted that Hull said the US Black population was growing too quickly. Hull refuted the quotes.
There is no disputing the greatness of Hull’s game. He was spectacular, unique, an awesome and artful performer. He died just over a month after the passing of the 82-year-old Pelé, the great Brazilian soccer wizard. Pelé also was a scoring phenom, also one of a kind, revered throughout his life for his athleticism, bold play, richness of spirit, his grace and humanity.
The world will remember them both for being among the greatest athletes of their times. And there the comparison will end.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.