Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull — nicknamed “The Golden Jet” — passed away on Monday at the age of 84. I had heard rumors late last year that Hull was in poor health, but I was still surprised when the news broke of his passing.
There are two camps of writers who have eulogized Bobby Hull over the past few days.
There are those who want to stick to his myriad of accomplishments, only touching on Hull’s history of domestic abuse and racist comments.
And there are those who really just want to demonize him, but will begrudgingly acknowledge that Hull was one of hockey’s all-time greats.
I am going to take a third approach.
I’m going to just talk about my few interactions with The Golden Jet as a Blackhaws fan — one who didn’t see him play during his career, but met and talked with him several times over the years.
When Hull left the Blackhawks in 1972 to go play for the Winnipeg Jets of the upstart World Hockey Association, it wasn’t on the best of terms. The Blackhawks refused to pay Hull what he was worth, and only made a half-hearted offer to keep him on the team. Mind you, Hull was arguably the best player at the time not named Bobby Orr.
Then, the Blackhawks barred Hull from participating in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, which is considered the greatest hockey tournament of all time. The ‘Hawks even sued Hull to try and keep him out of the WHA.
Imagine if you quit your job for a job that paid you more, but your old employer sued you and prevented you from working until things got sorted out. Yep, that was pretty much how the Blackhawks rolled back then.
When the NHL absorbed four WHA teams in 1979, Hull’s rights reverted to the Blackhawks — who left Hull unprotected in the expansion draft, instead of reconciling things with their all-time leading goal scorer. Hull ended up splitting his last pro season between the Jets and the Hartford Whalers. A footnote in an otherwise stellar career.
Even after Hull retired, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and had his number 9 retired by the Blackhawks, he was kept at arm’s length from the team by Bob Pullford, who was the ‘Hawks GM and often their coach in the 1980s. Pullford, an old opponent of Hull, did not like Hull, but had the ear of Blackhawks team owner Bill Wirtz. So, Hull, as well as Stan Mikita, were never really embraced by the team for being the legends that they were.
Yep, the two best players in Blackhawks history were ostracized by the team — because the current head coach doesn’t like them!
Why am I explaining all of this? Because despite how lousy the Blackhawks treated Hull, he was never lousy to the fans. Hull didn’t attend Blackhawks functions, but he did go to ‘Hawks home games whenever his son Brett was in town, playing either with the Flames, Blues, or Stars. He would always sign autographs for fans who asked for one. A friend of mine told me a story about getting numerous photos signed by Hull outside the old Chicago Stadium. Hull insisted they go back to the parking lot so he could sign the photos on the trunk of a car so that the autographs would look better.
The 1991 NHL All-Star Game was held at Chicago Stadium. The night before, there was a Heroes of Hockey game between retired NHL stars and former Blackhawks players. Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe did not play in the Heroes game to protest the lousy pension that former NHL players were receiving at the time. But Hull (and Mikita) did not boycott the game.
I am grateful that Hull chose to play in the game, because that was the only time I ever got to see him play. I even thanked Hull for choosing to not boycott the game — like Orr and Howe did — years later, when I got an autograph from him in 2015. Hull smiled and said he remembered how much fun that game was — and how loud the National Anthem was at the All-Star Game the next afternoon.
Hull would do other appearances here and there. One that stands out to me around two decades later is when he signed autographs at a Chicago Wolves game. I was at that game, and the line to get Hull’s autograph was insanely long, so I gave up. But from what I was told, he signed during the entire game, and took his time with each fan.
You know something is seriously wrong when the Blackhawks had little to do with Hull, while the local minor league team makes him a guest of honor.
When Rocky Wirtz took over the Blackhawks in 2007, he sought to reconcile things with Hull and Mikita, bringing the pair on as “Blackhawks Ambassadors.” Then, Hull would make frequent appearances at ‘Hawks games. He’d be a regular at the annual Chicago Blackhawks Convention. And he would sign autographs if you wrote to him via the team.
I had the opportunity to interview Hull at the Virtual Sport Card Expo in 2020. Before we went live, I had a few minutes to talk with Hull. I addressed him as Mr. Hull, and he quickly corrected me.
“Call me Bobby,” he said. “Mister Hull is my son, Brett.”
As a lifelong Blackhawks fan, it was a great experience to interview one of the team’s all-time greats, and ask him some of the questions I wanted answered — like the time he played for the New York Rangers in an exhibition tour, or what advice he gave to Brett. (The interview, which is only 23 minutes, can be listened to here.)
Until recently, Hull was still very active as an autograph guest at numerous shows, like the National Sports Collectors Convention, the Toronto Sport Card Expo, and the Chicago Sports Spectacular. He was quite vibrant for a former “Original Six” era player, still possessing a great memory and a great sense of humor.
The Blackhawks lost their all-time leading goal scorer, a two-time MVP who treated fans like they were the real MVPs.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■