Bobby Hull’s Golden Hockey Career Diminished by His Troubling Dark Side
If ever there was an N.H.L. star whose spectacular feats on the ice were diminished by his misdeeds away from it, it was Bobby Hull.
His blond hair and matinee-idol looks combined with the stirring solo rushes up the ice that usually ended in his fearsome slapshot hitting the back of the net brought him the nickname The Golden Jet. But all that hockey gold was tarnished by the darker side of Hull, who died on Monday at the age of 84.
For every accomplishment, like his five 50-goal seasons in 15 years for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1957 to 1972, and all the pioneering steps, like his use of a curved stick or his jump to the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972 that eventually enriched his peers, there were blemishes: credible accusations from two wives of domestic assault; an arrest for assaulting a police officer; and the airing of repugnant views on race, genetics and Hitler.
It will be interesting to see how the N.H.L. and the Blackhawks, the team most associated with Hull, handle memorials for him. The N.H.L. All-Star Game will be played on Saturday in South Florida. The next Chicago home game is Feb. 7. Usually the death of a Hall of Fame star like Hull would merit an emotional tribute at both events, but his conflicting legacy leaves that in doubt.
The N.H.L. has long been criticized for its handling of issues involving sexual assault and racism but has tried to improve its image in recent years. The Blackhawks in particular have earned enormous criticism, especially for the team’s mishandling of a sexual assault accusation in 2010 involving a video coach that resulted in a lawsuit by a former player last year and the departures of several team executives.
So far, neither the league nor the Blackhawks has mentioned any of the problems with Hull’s reputation in acknowledging his death. In an official statement released on Monday, N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman referred to Hull as one of the league’s “most iconic and distinctive players.” Rocky Wirtz, Blackhawks’ chairman, called Hull one of the team’s “most iconic and distinctive players.”
A few years after his N.H.L. career began with Chicago in 1957, Hull established himself as the first mainstream superstar in hockey. A muscular farm boy from Point Anne, Ontario, a small cement manufacturing town 120 miles northeast of Toronto, he could bring fans to their feet with his locomotive-like sorties up the ice and was the closest thing to a household name the six-team N.H.L. had as the television age took hold in the 1960s.
Both the league and the Blackhawks quickly recognized the publicity value in Hull. He was the subject of numerous promotions intended to create interest in hockey, especially among women at a time the sport had a mostly male audience. One of the most famous hockey photographs of the 1960s was one of Hull, stripped to the waist, flaxen hair and muscles glistening in the summer sun, tossing hay with a pitchfork on the family farm.
At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Hull was not bigger than most of his fellow players but he possessed great strength and speed. His slapshot was estimated to hit speeds as high as 119 miles per hour, routinely terrorizing goaltenders of the day since most of them played without the protection of masks.
More than a few goaltenders turned to the mask in the mid-1960s when Hull and his Chicago teammate Stan Mikita began using sticks with curved blades. The sticks, called banana blades for their severe curls, could make pucks rise or dive unexpectedly. In 1967, the N.H.L. introduced restrictions to limit the severity of stick curves.
Hull also became an inspiration to his peers, as he always had a strong opinion of what his services were worth to a league in which players routinely took whatever modest salary the tightfisted owners offered and kept their mouths shut. The insular hockey world was shocked in 1972 when Hull bolted the N.H.L. for a contract worth $2.75 million to play in the new W.H.A. for the Winnipeg Jets. The move eventually broke the firm grip of N.H.L. owners and gave players more money for their skills and more control over where they plied them.
As both the N.H.L. and the W.H.A. turned to brawling on the ice in the 1970s, Hull took a lonely stand, even staging a one-game strike while with the Jets to protest fighting in the game, that years later rang horrifyingly hollow.
Hull may have decried the violence that marred hockey games but his second wife, Joanne McKay, said in a 2002 ESPN documentary that he assaulted her on multiple occasions during their 20-year marriage, which ended in divorce in 1980. She said Hull beat her bloody with her own shoe and held her over the hotel balcony during a trip to Hawaii. “I thought this is the end, I’m going,” she said.
More stories detailing Hull’s dark side emerged over the years, from domestic abuse to troubles with alcohol. In 1986, Hull’s third wife, Deborah, accused him of assault. When a police officer intervened in the incident, Hull was charged with assaulting him and eventually pleaded guilty. He was also charged with battery on his wife but the matter was dropped when Deborah refused to testify.
Another controversy erupted in 1998 when the English-language Moscow Times attributed some disturbing views on race to Hull. The Russian newspaper said Hull felt the Black population in the United States was growing too quickly. He was quoted as saying “Hitler had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far.”
Hull denied making the comments and said he was going to sue both The Moscow Times and The Toronto Sun, which reprinted portions of the Times article, but nothing came of the threatened legal action.
However, Hull’s daughter Michelle contradicted him on the newspaper stories. She told ESPN that when she saw the remarks attributed to her father about Black people and Hitler, “The first thing I thought was, ‘That’s exactly like him.’”
Despite the list of ugly incidents, the Blackhawks named Hull a team ambassador in 2008. He was dropped from the role last year. The team said it planned to “redefine” the role of team ambassador and that Hull and the organization “jointly agreed” he would retire.
But a statue of Hull erected outside the United Center in Chicago in 2011 remains.