Read an Excerpt
His Own Story
By Brett Hull, Kevin Allen
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2003 Brett Hull and Kevin Allen
All rights reserved.
Playing with Jets
Not many National Hockey League players can claim the nastiest check they ever delivered was against their mother.
It's 1969. I'm a five-year-old, trying desperately to master skating backward at Oak Park Arena in suburban Chicago. I'm chugging blindly across the ice as fast as my chubby legs will carry me.
My mom, Joanne, is a professional figure skater for Hilton Hotel shows. She's on the ice, gracefully teaching youngsters how to avoid the choppy skating form adopted by her third-oldest son.
Mom had no idea of her peril until she felt her fire-hydrant-sized offspring becoming an impact player. Thud! It was like Scott Stevens catching some unsuspecting Minnesota North Stars forward with his eyeball glued to the puck. Mom was launched into the air. She crash-landed on her tailbone. Bruised and dazed, she crawled off the ice.
Who says I can't hit? Dad had to lift her from the car at the doctor's office. Being carried was so painful to her backside that she insisted on crawling up the stairs.
"You should have realized then," I tell her, "that I was destined to be a pain in your butt from time to time."
My entire life, with the exception of three years in North Vancouver, has been spent around a professional hockey environment. My dad, Bobby, signed with the Chicago Blackhawks for the 1957–58 season and played there 15 years. He married Mom in 1960, and they had five kids. Bobby Jr. was born in 1961, Blake in 1962, me in 1964, Bart in 1969, and Michelle in 1970. I was the only one without a U.S. birthplace. I was born in the Ontario city of Belleville, where my family spent the summers.
I wasn't exactly a natural at hockey early in my career. I tried to quit teams more than once because I was cold. And sometimes, I wouldn't participate in pregame warm-ups because I thought they were a waste of time.
Even after Mom taught me to skate, Dad and two teammates, Chico Maki and Phil Esposito, had to hold me down to force skates on me at a Chicago Blackhawks Christmas party.
At four, I played on an Oak Park house-league team. My skating was so wobbly that the referee carried me to the faceoff circle to prevent the game from turning into a marathon. He grew weary of that plan and finally just let me stand in the opposition zone.
Of course, I headed straight for the net, low left wing circle. I put it in park and waited for the puck. Mom says I scored the game-winning goal from there during my first league game. That's too excellent to be true.
When my NHL career took off, reporters were always comparing me to Dad. When I'm asked about my shot, I usually say it's a product of Hull genes. Dad supposedly could shoot the puck at more than a hundred miles an hour. My brothers shoot bullets. I shoot bullets. We're the sons of a gun. That's genetics.
But one day, Mom, who divorced my father in 1980, said she had a beef with me.
"I keep reading that you inherited all your ability from your father," she said. "Have you forgotten that I was a professional skater? I'm the one who taught you how to skate."
"Mom," I said, "I'm actually doing you a favor by not crediting you for my skating. It's the worst part of my game."
The Hull brothers all love to shoot the puck. When Blake was hired to do advertising for the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was reintroduced to Tony Esposito, the Lightning's former director of player development. We knew Tony when he was a young goaltender with the Blackhawks.
"Oh, I remember you — you little punk," Esposito told Blake with a laugh. "I used to get so mad at you, I used to shoot pucks at your head."
By the time Tony came to the Blackhawks in 1969–70, Bobby Jr. and Blake already had wicked risers. But more aggravating than Blake's velocity was his tendency to fire at will.
Tony would be talking to Dad or Hall of Fame teammate Stan Mikita, and suddenly hear one of Blake's missiles whistling past his ear. That would irritate him. One time, Tony got so mad he kept firing pucks at Blake. He missed. So he threw his gloves and stick at him.
The first people to notice I could shoot probably were those who rode the train near the outdoor rink in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois. At seven, I played on the Elmhurst Huskies with Tommy Stapleton, son of former Blackhawks defenseman Pat Stapleton, and Tony Granato, who now plays for the San Jose Sharks. Granato recalls I used to line up pucks at center ice and fire away at the trains. At that point, you could see my hockey career was on the right track.
My memories and my love of hockey began in 1972, when Dad jumped to the World Hockey Association (WHA) to play for the Winnipeg Jets. I was eight when we moved to Winnipeg. Bobby Jr. was eleven; Blake was ten; Bart was only three. Michelle was a baby. We had no clue of the significance of Dad joining a rival league. We knew nothing of the $1 million signing bonus or 10-year contract, or the national publicity that came when a megastar jumped leagues. All we cared about was that we were moving to Canada, and Dad said we were going to get snowmobiles. He neglected to say a thing about Winnipeg winters.
The Hull boys, with our light hair and wild ways, were nicknamed the White Tornados in Chicago by Blackhawks trainer Lou Varga. We lived up to our reputation in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg made a big deal about signing my dad, for good reason. The Golden Jet's presence added instant credibility to the league and the franchise. At age 33, he was still among the NHL's premier players. In name recognition, he rivaled Bobby Orr. There were few before and few after who matched Dad's blend of speed, strength, shot, and scoring touch. The season before, he had scored 50 goals for the fifth time in his career.
On June 27, 1972, the Hull family was greeted by a motorcade that went from the airport to the Fort Garry Hotel. A parade was followed by a ceremony at Winnipeg's main intersection of Portage and Main. It was Africa-hot that day, with way too many speeches for the Hull boys. Dad was at the podium, holding up a six-foot-long $1 million check and promising "to do my darndest to make the WHA go."
Meanwhile, his boys were running wild behind him, as though we were leading a cattle drive.
For the next eight years, the Winnipeg Arena was my playground. The Hull boys were at the rink all the time, always in everyone's hair. Jets practices were happy hour. We were friends with anyone who would give us a stick. When the team finished practice, the Hulls would begin. We would get right in line with those staying around for extra work. Goaltenders Joe Daley and Ernie Wakely would hang around and face our shots until they decided we'd had enough.
Defenseman Larry Hillman, a great guy, would put in practice fine-tuning his not-so-wicked slap shot — a futile exercise. Larry used a stick that was straighter than a Baptist preacher.
When Larry dribbled a shot toward the goal, Dad would yell, "Christ, Larry, my boys shoot harder than you do."
I liked to line up pucks at center ice and try to hit that god-awful, ugly portrait of Queen Elizabeth hanging on the arena wall. Dad said I could shoot like an NHL player when I was 10, but I never was good enough to nail the Queen.
Kent Nilsson, who came to the Jets in 1977–78, gave me a few lessons about shooting accuracy. They called him "Magic." After lining up 10 pucks at center ice, he would turn to Bobby Jr., Blake, and me and say, "I'll bet you boys five dollars I can hit the crossbar seven times."
We would shake our heads in disbelief, and Nilsson would proceed to clang the bar eight or nine times. When he was done, he would stand there holding out his hand.
Dad wasn't one to coach his boys. His idea of teaching was to tell us to watch him. And we did. It probably helped my development as a goal scorer to watch and practice with the best professional line of the seventies. When Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg came from Sweden in 1974, it was immediately clear Hull-Nilsson-Hedberg would be an awesome line combination.
Defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg also came from Sweden. He was a perfect complement to the line, playing in the seventies like Paul Coffey plays today. He lacked Coffey's speed, but he operated like a fourth forward. Sjoberg would bring the puck up ice and give it to Nilsson. Back to Sjoberg. Over to Anders. Leave it for Dad, who would be roaring over the line. Snap shot. Top shelf. Jets goal.
Their scoring plays always looked so easy because all the work was done before the shot. Dad or Anders would usually finish the play into a half-open net because the goaltender had been sucked in by one or more of many passes. I remember one particular power play goal that was amazing. There were nine passes without the opposition touching the puck before Anders ripped it into the net.
You'll never see a guy handle the puck with more flair than Ulfie did. He could perform tricks like a circus juggler. He would lift the puck on his stick, bounce it around a while, flip it high in the air, then use his skate to kick it over his head. He would catch it on his neck like a soccer ball. It was actually quite awesome.
Ulfie was a personal favorite for Bobby Jr. and me — if only because he shot right-handed. Dad shot left-handed, so only Blake could use his sticks. In fact, Dad would get ticked when Blake didn't use his stick. When he caught Blake using Chris Bordeleau's stick he would scold him. "I've watched you play, and my stick — the weight and the curve — is perfect for your game."
That left Bobby Jr. and me to mercilessly hound Ulfie for sticks. I probably broke about 50 of Ulfie's sticks while scoring more than a hundred goals one season for the Tuxedo Jets.
There were times when we had so many of Ulfie's sticks that he had to come to us and borrow some back for games. Bobby Jr. also took Mike Ford's sticks regularly. Before each practice, Ulfie and Ford would come to the stick-cutting table on a rescue mission. They had to retrieve some sticks before we sawed all of them down to suit our needs.
The situation was so ludicrous that Bobby Jr. even tried to tell Ulfie how to order his sticks.
"This stick is too whippy for me," he would tell Ulf.
"Too bad. This is my stick," Ulf would say.
Ulfie, who was constantly at our house, used to bring us Jofa equipment from Sweden every fall. But we still used to take everything but the sweater off his back.
Some years ago, Ulfie interviewed me for Swedish television.
"Brett, my final question to you, and I want you to be truthful," he said. "How many of my sticks did you steal in those days?"
"Hundreds," I said. "Well into the hundreds."
Late Jets trainer Bill Bozak, whose son Ryan was an NHL linesman, was probably the nicest man ever to walk this earth. Bozie treated the Hull kids like we were Jets players. Every time one of us would get hurt, Mom would call Bozie before she dialed a doctor.
Once Blake hurt his hamstring playing football and insisted only Bozie could treat him properly. He swears that as soon as Bozie wrapped him, the pain disappeared.
Mom strained her back during a Jets home game and was taken right down to see Bozie. He manipulated her bones and the pain vanished.
"He's got magic hands," Mom would joke.
Bozie never passed judgment on an injury. If you came to see him for a hangnail, he gave you the same consideration and sympathy he gave a player with a broken leg.
The Jets had a Finnish left wing named Heikki Riihiranta, who was always in the trainer's room. Before every game, Bozie would tape his wrists, then knees, then ankles, then thighs, and finally his ribs. Virtually his entire body would be covered with tape. He went in weighing 190 and left at about 210.
Curiosity got the best of me. "Just how many injuries does Heikki have?" I asked.
"Oh, he's not injured." Bozie said. "He just thinks it feels good to be taped."
The only time we really had on-ice instruction from Dad was when he and Ulfie would join us for a game at a Winnipeg outdoor rink. It was always Nilsson and Hull against the Hull kids and all of their invitees, at the Tuxedo Community Centre. I don't think we ever won a game. I don't think we ever got close to winning a game. For one thing, every time you managed to get the puck, Ulf would steal it away immediately.
Those games probably were where Bart's competitive nature became clearly established. For a time, he played fullback for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League. Back then, he played hockey like a linebacker. It was impossible to make him happy in those games. If you didn't get him the puck, he was madder than a hornet. If you gave him the puck, he would become more enraged, because he felt you were patronizing him.
In either case, he would come after you with stick raised and eyes glazed like some psycho ax murderer.
"You guys aren't trying," he'd scream, while administering a two-hander across your arm.
Bart is an exceptional athlete. At age nine, he would put his street shoes inside Jets forward Peter Sullivan's skates after practice and go wheeling around the ice. Even with tendon protectors flapping around the joints of his knees, he could fly around the ice.
My brothers and I always felt like we were part of the Winnipeg Jets. Bobby Jr. was the stick boy, and the rest of us helped out in the dressing room. We could always sit at the end of the bench during games.
The most awesome professional game I ever saw was the Jets' exhibition game against the Soviet National Team in January 1978.
Dad always got pumped to play the Soviets, maybe because he had been snubbed for the Summit Series in 1972, after his defection to the WHA. In 1975, Dad played well — scoring six goals during the first four games — in the Summit II series, which pitted WHA All-Stars against the Soviets.
In 1978 he still had a fire for international competition. The Jets played a three-game exhibition series against the Soviet National Team in Tokyo — the Soviets won all three — then returned to Winnipeg for a game.
Apparently, Dad was hell-bent on making sure the Jets made a better effort in front of the Jets fans. Bobby Jr., who was in the dressing room right before the game, told me Dad addressed the team before they went out on the ice. Dad coached even when he wasn't the coach. This night he gave specific orders to everyone.
One by one, each Jets line was assigned a Soviet line to check. Each time, Dad would say, "We need your line to check. Your only job is preventing them from scoring."
When he was done with those assignments, a grin spread across his face. "And while you guys are doing all that checking, Ulf, Anders, and I will get all the goals we need."
The game went according to Dad's plan: Jets 5, Soviets 3. Bobby Hull scored three times and assisted on one of Ulfie's two goals.
Jets fans were on their feet from the opening whistle until Dad scored with eight seconds remaining to clinch the victory. Dad's line, matched up against the Soviets' top line of Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, and Boris Mikhilov, outscored them 5–0.
Another highlight for us came in 1974–75, when Dad broke Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals in a season. He scored one in each of the final two games to do it.
Goal number 76 was the most difficult. He double-shifted the whole game, and even moved to the point once or twice. But he didn't score until the final 20 seconds of a 9–5 loss to Quebec. He scored on his 18th shot of the game, against goaltender Richard Brodeur.
The record-breaker was less dramatic, coming in the second period of a 5–5 tie against San Diego. Anders Hedberg fed him a backhand pass, and Dad buried a wrist shot.
I remember reading that the late Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard refused to allow Dad's accomplishment to be posted on Toronto's scoreboard. I was 10. I thought Ballard was a jerk.
On February 14, 1975, Bobby Hull scored three goals against Houston goaltender Ron Grahame to become the first player since NHL Hall of Famer Maurice "Rocket" Richard to score 50 goals in 50 games. He didn't get much recognition for that either, because it had been accomplished in the WHA and not the NHL. I would remember all this 15 years later, when I was offered a lucrative contract by a fledgling league.
The Jets' first league championship came in 1975–76, when they defeated Gordie Howe's Houston Aeros in four straight games. They wrapped it up with a 9–1 win in Winnipeg. It was bedlam. We were all on the ice, jumping around. It was the Hull kids who prevented a lot of equipment from being taken by the fans. We picked up all the gloves and sticks and threw them into the bench. It was almost as though we had helped win it.
The funniest thing I saw in my days in Winnipeg was when Dad's famous hairpiece was yanked from his head during a game against the Birmingham Bulls. You have to understand that Dad and his hairpiece were inseparable. He wore it on and off the ice. He went into the corner with a full crop, and he came out bald. I think it was Dave Hanson who ended up with my dad's rug in his hand.
Dad was furious. But he wasn't vain enough to let it affect his play. He went to the dressing room, donned a helmet, and returned to score two goals.
Excerpted from Brett by Brett Hull, Kevin Allen. Copyright © 2003 Brett Hull and Kevin Allen. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.