Hull, Robert Marvin, Jr. ("Bobby")

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HULL, Robert Marvin, Jr. ("Bobby")

(b. 3 January 1939 in Point Anne, Ontario, Canada), hockey player whose offensive prowess, matinee-idol looks, and electrifying play greatly increased the game's popularity during the period of the National Hockey League's greatest expansion (1967–1981).

Hull's father, Robert M. Hull, Sr., dreamed of playing professional hockey. Instead, he started a family at a young age and needed a steady income. While he and his wife raised eleven children, he worked at a cement plant in Point Anne, a town in southeastern Ontario. He bought his oldest son, Robert Jr., a pair of ice skates for Christmas when the boy was three years old, and by the end of that day, the child was skating unaided. By age five, he was getting up daily at 5:00 A. M. to skate on Lake Ontario's Bay of Quinte near his home. He played hockey constantly, often with his sisters and brothers.

By the time he was twelve, Hull was playing with his father in an amateur league. That same year (1951), Bob Wilson, chief scout for the Chicago Blackhawks, saw Hull play in a bantam game in nearby Belleville, Ontario, and claimed rights to the young left-handed shooter. Under the existing National Hockey League (NHL) rules, no other team could sign him.

After the Blackhawks convinced Hull's mother to let him leave home, they sent him to Hesperer, Ontario, to play on a juvenile team. The next season (1952–1953), Hull led the Woodstock team to a Junior B hockey championship, and at age fifteen he was playing for the St. Catharines Junior A team in the top amateur league in Canada. Hull was a headstrong teenager, and when coach Rudy Pilous shifted him from center to left wing, he quit for four games, mistakenly believing it was a demotion. He returned only when Pilous agreed to let him remain at center.

After high school football practice one afternoon in 1956, Hull was told to report to a Blackhawks exhibition game in St. Catharines, where he scored two goals against the New York Rangers. Chicago, for years one of the National Hockey League's doormats, was eager to get Hull into its lineup. Hull joined the club at age eighteen, and soon after that Pilous became head coach. Pilous again switched Hull to left wing, this time without resistance, as Hull understood that was where he was best suited to play.

In his third season (1959–1960), Hull became the second-youngest player ever to win an NHL scoring championship. The following year, he led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup since 1938. In the 1961–1962 season, Hull scored two goals in the final game to become the third player in hockey history to reach fifty goals in a season. Thanks largely to their magnetic young star, the Black-hawks became a perennial powerhouse and the league's richest franchise.

With his blond hair and muscular good looks, Hull, nicknamed the "Golden Jet," became hockey's top drawing card. He combined the graceful, gliding moves of a figure skater with a reckless, all-out style of play that electrified fans. Hull would carry the puck, skating with long strides down the ice, and then unleash his devastating slap shot. The fastest skater in the league, Hull was once clocked at twenty-nine miles per hour. But he was by no means a one-dimensional goal scorer. He played tough defense, was a superb stick handler, frequently killed penalties, and excelled on power plays. At five foot, ten inches and 195 pounds, Hull was tough and displayed incredible endurance, often logging the most playing time on his squad. "Unless you stop him in his own end of the rink, you don't have a chance," said rival star player Andy Bathgate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He's too big and strong."

In the 1964–1965 season, after scoring twenty-seven goals in his first twenty-seven games, Hull attracted widespread attention for another assault on the fifty-goal record, but a late-season injury and a slump that followed it derailed his chances. That year, he won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player (MVP) and also the Lady Byng Trophy as the most sportsmanlike—a rare combination. Though often harassed and double-teamed by opponents, Hull seldom fought back. "When you hit back, it's just for your own self-satisfaction," Hull said. "I get mine from putting the puck in the net."

Although Bathgate and Montreal's Bernie Geoffrion are credited with inventing the slap shot, Hull made it the modern game's most feared weapon. His slap shot was clocked at 119 miles per hour—so fast that the puck often would sail right in and then out of a goalie's gloved hand. With teammate Stan Mikita, Hull also discovered and perfected the curved hockey stick, or "banana blade," and made it such a dangerous offensive tool that the NHL passed a rule to limit the degree of curvature.

Hull was the focus of intense publicity in the 1965–1966 season until he finally broke the hallowed fifty-goal standard in his sixty-first game before a sell-out crowd at Chicago Stadium. Finishing with fifty-four goals, he was named the league's MVP for the second consecutive year. Over the following three seasons, Hull led the league in scoring each year. In 1968 he became the first hockey player to earn $100,000 a year. In the 1968–1969 season, he increased his own record to fifty-eight goals.

By 1972 Hull had been the league's top goal scorer seven times and was a ten-time all-star. Thanks largely to his fame, the popularity of hockey was expanding into cities far from the Canadian border. Seeking to capitalize on the hockey craze, a rival league, the World Hockey Association (WHA), began play in 1972. The WHA scored its biggest coup when its Winnipeg Jets signed Hull to a $1.75 million contract. The NHL sued to stop Hull from jumping leagues but lost in court. Because of Hull, the WHA gained instant respectability and the Jets became the new league's main attraction.

Hull starred for Winnipeg during the WHA's entire seven seasons of existence. He was named the league's MVP in the 1972–1973 season and again in 1974–1975, when he scored a phenomenal seventy-seven goals for yet another new professional record. When the NHL absorbed the WHA and its teams at the start of the 1979–1980 season, Hull returned to play in his old league and was traded to the Hartford Whalers. It was his final season. He tried to come back with the New York Rangers in 1981, but did not make the team.

Hull was only a teenager when he married Judy Learie, and they had one child before divorcing. Hull then married Joanne McKay, a professional skater. They had five children. Hull wanted his sons Bobby Jr., Blake, and Brett to have the same opportunity for skating as he did when he was young, and would frequently take them with him to team practices and let them skate. Before the start of the 1965–1966 season the Hull boys were becoming such a distraction that the Blackhawks banned children from team workouts. Hull staged a brief walkout and said he wanted to be traded. It was one of the few rifts he had with management during his career.

Hull's brother Dennis played with him on the Black-hawks for a brief time. Hull's son Brett went on to enjoy his own phenomenal hockey career, outdoing many of his father's scoring records, but he could not hope to match his father's impact on the sport.

In a career of 23 seasons, Hull scored 913 goals and made 895 assists for a total of 1,808 points, a mark eclipsed at the time only by Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. Including playoff games, Hull scored 1,018 goals—the most by any left wing in hockey history. But it was Hull's charisma, even more than his productivity, that made him the sport's top ambassador. More than any other player, the handsome, gregarious Hull was responsible for hockey transcending its reputation as a provincial Canadian sport and becoming a big attraction in the United States. The rapid expansion of the NHL from six teams to thirty owed much to Hull's leadership in transforming the game from a slow, defensive battle to a wide-open, high-scoring, crowd-pleasing show. In many respects, Hull was the Babe Ruth of hockey.

By the time Hull retired from hockey, the game was much different than when he had entered the NHL. No longer were players vying to break the record of fifty goals in a season, they were shooting for eighty. No longer were there six teams, all of them in or near Canada. Instead the league had about thirty teams, including those in places like Los Angeles and Dallas. Hockey had a national television contract in the United States. Hull played a major role in all of these changes. By popularizing the slap shot and the curved stick, Hull gave the sport an offensive boost. His flamboyant style of play and accessibility to the media made him the game's first truly modern star. And his role as hockey's ambassador and chief promoter helped attract millions of new fans and players.

Several biographies of Hull are informative, including Julian May, Bobby Hull: Hockey's Golden Jet (1974); Ted Zalewski, Bobby Hull: The Golden Jet (1974); and Scott Young, Bobby Hull, Superstar (1974). Another biography, Jim Hunt, Bobby Hull (1966), was written during the early part of Hull's career.

Michael Betzold