A Hull of a career

BY foxsports • November 10, 2009

By DAN O'NEILL
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

To capture Brett Hull in a single story is to condense an entire landscape into a single frame.

The picture is borderless, bursting with color and controversy, emotional spikes, dramatic moments and franchise-saving skills. The impression left by a "lazy and chubby" kid, one of five children to a sports legend and publicly-ruptured marriage, overflows with content.

There never has been a story like it, in hockey, in any sport. There never has been a son follow his father's trail to the Hall of Fame with such prodigious steps, ones that he has taken toward being enshrined Monday in Toronto. There never has been an athlete in St. Louis with more layers - some gruff, some gracious, all unforgettable.

"I remember we were in Los Angeles one night, and we're tied with less than a minute left to play," former Blues forward Kelly Chase recalled. "And (coach Brian Sutter) wants the checking line out there for a faceoff. But Brett jumps over the board and goes and stands by the dot. So now there's too many guys out there and they're arguing over who should be out there and finally the referee comes over and says, 'OK, one of your guys has to get off the ice.'

"Brett looks at Richie Sutter standing next to him and tells him, 'Richie, get the (...) off the ice.' Finally, Richie skates off, they drop the puck, Brett gets possession, carries it down the wing, cuts to the middle and just rips a shot over Kelly Hrudey's shoulder to score.

"Then he skates back to bench, slides to a stop and says with a smirk, 'As if we're going to play overtime in LA.'"

It was classic Brett Hull, irreverent, incorrigible and at the same time, irresistible. A Hollywood property titled "Hullie" would include credits like 741 career goals and 650 assists, 86 goals in one season, 50 goals in 50-or-less games twice, 33 career hat tricks, 24 playoff game-winning goals, eight All-Star appearances, two Stanley Cup rings and one Hart (MVP) Trophy. And in the background, only one soundtrack would suffice, Frank Sinatra's iconic song, "I Did It My Way.''

"He could be so many contradictions," said close friend and fellow Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. "You would be reading an interview with him about a particular game, or particular play, or incident - he just doesn't hold back. He's just a very honest person, I don't think you can say it any better than that.

"He's definitely unique. You got a full package with Brett Hull, there's no question about that."

GROWING UP HULL

From the beginning, when he began playing youth hockey in the Chicago area, Brett Hull came to an important conclusion - subconsciously or otherwise. He would embrace his father's giant legacy, but blaze his own path.

"I was kind of smart enough when I was young, 14 or 15 years old, to realize that if you're ever going to do anything and step out of the shadow of your own dad - not only in hockey but in life itself - you're going to have to learn you're Brett and not 'Bobby's son.'

"Embrace the fact and relish how fortunate you were to have such a legendary father, all the places you got to go and people you met. But you're going to have to make it on your own. Don't worry what people say or what people think. Be yourself."

Brett watched his older brothers, Bobby Jr. and Blake, grow up Hull. He saw how demanding and unforgiving it could be, heard the constant comparisons to their famous father and well-known uncle, Bobby Hull and Dennis Hull, aka "The Golden Jet" and "The Silver Jet."

Bobby Hull is considered by many to be the greatest left winger in the history of the game, certainly among its handful of most recognizable names. Younger brother Dennis also had an outstanding NHL career, scoring more than 300 goals.

Bobby Jr. and Blake Hull tried to travel the traditional route to the NHL, playing at the major junior levels. Brett observed how they were evaluated, transposed against their father's image, expected to possess the same powerful stride and explosive shot. The microscope was unforgiving, especially for Bobby Jr.

"I watched them and what path they tried to take to the NHL, and I learned that was not the way I wanted to go," Hull, 45, said. "To be Bobby Hull Jr. ... trying to be a hockey player - my God!

"I don't know this for a fact, but to be honest, (Bobby Jr.) wasn't nearly the same skill set my father was. And I think if he would have just embraced being who he was, whether it was a defensive player or whatever, I think he had a chance because he had more heart and desire than I ever dreamed of having."

Brett, an outstanding baseball player, at one point pondered giving up hockey altogether. But when no junior teams showed an interest in him, he played for a club team in Vancouver, then got a chance with a Tier II junior team in Penticton, British Columbia. In 106 games over two seasons for the Knights, Hull had 153 goals and 292 points. He eventually accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he scored 84 goals in 90 college games.

As his mother, Joanne Robinson, explained in an interview years ago, Brett always knew how to answer critics.

"I remember kids used to say mean things to him," said the former Joanne McKay, who divorced Bobby Hull in 1980 amid loud headlines and allegations of physical abuse.

"They would call him 'hotdog' and tell him he wasn't as good as his father. But he would just let it go. He used to tell me, 'Mom, I don't care. I just get even with them by putting the puck in their net.'"

Despite his gaudy numbers, Hull was ignored entirely in the 1982 and 1983 drafts, both for which he was eligible. By the time he was selected No. 117 by Calgary in 1984, 610 players had been taken ahead of him through the three drafts.

To borrow on his own terminology, he got even.

BLUES POWER

As a rookie with the Calgary Flames in 1987-88, Hull had 26 goals and 50 points with limited playing time through 52 games. But as the season progressed, management felt he was too soft, literally and figuratively, to impact a talented roster that included right wingers Lanny McDonald, Joey Mullen and Hakan Loob and another spectacular rookie, Joe Nieuwendyk.

In early March 1988, Calgary coach Terry Crisp called Hull to his office to inform him he had been traded to St. Louis. Excited about the opportunity, Hull did his best to appear solemn and circumspect. But he couldn't help himself.

"I couldn't keep a big smile from coming to my face," he said. "I was excited."

To list the trade as a mistake by Calgary would be slightly erroneous. The Flames had plenty of scoring at the time. With the help of their acquisitions in the deal, including defenseman Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley, Calgary won a Stanley Cup the following season.

But with that same mischievous smile and delightful inappropriateness, Hull won over an otherwise-traditionalist city and changed a meandering franchise. In his first full season with the Blues, 1988-89, he collected 41 goals and 43 assists in 78 games. When the schedule ended, Hull eagerly met with coach Brian Sutter for his evaluation session, expecting high praise and congratulatory pats. Instead, the tenacious Sutter dressed him down.

"He ripped me from stem to stern," Hull said. "He told me I'm only scratching the surface and that I better come back next season and be ready to pay the price and become a better player. I was like, 'What the hell?'

"But you know what? His attitude toward me opened my eyes to what I had a chance to be. I thought if someone could believe in me that much, maybe I should take that and run with it. Maybe I should try to become that player."

HULL AND OATES

Two ingredients were instrumental in helping bring Sutter's vision to life. Blues assistant coach Bob Berry worked extensively with Hull before and after practices, refining his shooting accuracy, developing his deadly snapshot and uncanny ability to receive a pass and shoot it in one motion. More than any player in hockey, Hull advanced the effectiveness of the "one-timer."

At the same time, in June 1989, the Blues traded longtime center Bernie Federko (also a Hall of Famer) and winger Tony McKegney to Detroit for center Adam Oates and winger Paul MacLean. Hull and Oates became inseparable. They were line mates, roommates and soul mates. They were an NHL version of Lennon and McCartney, a chemical cohesion that produced magic.

"There is one thing about Brett that I don't think people give him enough credit for, because he was so mouthy," said Oates, now as assistant coach in Tampa Bay. "People don't realize how smart he is. He's a very smart player.

"You take that into account with myself - I really liked to pass the puck and he really liked to shoot it. He understood what I was thinking and I understood what he was thinking, and it just was a perfect marriage. In my mind, we were meant for each other."

Over the next three seasons, Hull scored goals at an unprecedented pace for a right winger. He piled up 228 goals in 231 games. His 86 goals in 1990-91 remain a record for his position and earned him the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, the first right winger since Montreal's Guy Lafleur (1977-78) to be so named. The same season, Oates had 90 assists.

Playing on the popular Hall and Oates musical tandem, "Hull and Oates" became local rock stars, the marketing billboard backbone of hockey in St. Louis. Blues attendance soared from an average of 14,505 in 1987-88 to 17,518 in 1991-92.

"We had an appearance one day at a Sports Authority on Watson Road," recalled Susie Mathieu, the Blues director of public relations and marketing at the time. "So I picked up Brett and Adam and I told them, 'I'll drive you around back to the loading dock so you can go in from the back of the store.' And we were getting there early because we knew there would be a good crowd.

"But as I pulled up to that strip mall, we couldn't even get in the parking lot; we couldn't get anywhere near the store."

Mathieu wound up driving farther down the street to another store and calling the manager of Sports Authority to let him know they couldn't get in. He came and got the players and brought them to the store.

BREAKING UP THE DUO

When a relatively-underpaid Oates held out for more money during the 1991-92 season, Camelot came to an abrupt end. In February 1992, Blues general manager Ron Caron sent Oates to Boston for Craig Janney, another play-making center. Hull never reached the 60-goal mark again.

Oates went on to have outstanding seasons elsewhere, but he wonders what might have been had he stayed in St. Louis.

"The biggest thing that always frustrated me was that Brett and I were the same age, and we had Scott Stevens who was the same age," said Oates, who never played on a Stanley Cup winner. "I feel St. Louis was very shortsighted on that."

"... We had a couple of good years together - we could have had 10 good years together. But that was the financial times of our league at the time."

During 10-plus seasons with the Blues, Hull scored a franchise record 527 goals. He is convinced the total would be 150 goals higher had he continued with Oates.

"He's still the most underrated player that ever played the game," Hull said. "It was weird. He knew where I was going and I knew that he would wait for me, and the puck would be there at the right time, and perfectly."

IRON MIKE'S ARRIVAL

The most tumultuous period of Hull's career, and the beginning of its end in St. Louis, came when the Blues named Mike Keenan coach and general manager in July 1994.

Having won a Stanley Cup in New York the season before, Keenan came armed with his own large personality and championship credibility.

He perceived St. Louis to be a priority-impaired franchise, an environment driven by individual personalities rather than a team-oriented concept. To bring the town its first championship, he was sought to change that culture and often focused his sights on Hull. The next 2


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