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The Verdict: Golden Jet still a golden draw

Monday, 11.08.2010 / 12:00 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Golden Jet still a golden draw
Bobby Hull is as popular now as a Blackhawks ambassador as he was during his playing days.

Is there a working number for how many autographs Bobby Hull has signed during his lifetime? On jerseys, programs, menus, sticks, pucks, pieces of scrap paper? Might a round figure a few digits short of infinity serve the purpose?

“Would be fun if somehow we’d have kept count,” muses Hull. “Up in the millions, I’d guess. But I’ll tell you what else is fun: I will be 72 in January. I haven’t scored a goal for the Blackhawks in almost 40 years. If you’d have told me that at this point in my life I would be sitting in this building, doing what I am doing now, as part of the only organization I ever wanted to be part of, I’d have said you’re so crazy you’re beyond help.”

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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It is a Wednesday night at the United Center, and Hull is seated behind a table near section 114. He is greeting fans who have purchased “The Golden Jet,” published by Triumph Books, a stunning collection of photographs from his remarkable career. Captions are provided by your ancient historian, but despite that, there is a serpentine yet orderly line of men, women and children forming in the lobby waiting for a signature, maybe a picture, and almost certainly a meaty handshake from the greatest left wing in hockey history.

The size of the gathering surprises Hull, as does its composition.

“Look at all these kids,” he says. “They never saw me play. Half these parents never saw me play. Hard to understand.”

Not really. There is no expiration date on charisma, and stories tend to be passed on through generations. In his day, Hull was the most electric individual on the ice, and the sport’s greatest ambassador off the ice. In his day, the NHL as an industry and the Blackhawks in particular eschewed marketing. Teams didn’t sell the product, they sold tickets. But the Golden Jet was ahead of the curve, as if on one of his famous breakaways. Fans at the old Stadium scoped out Gate 3 1/2, the door on the west side through which players would enter before a game and depart for their parking lot after their jobs were done.

Hull filled the building and then lifted people from their chairs, yet he never considered that to be quite enough. He might be angry over hitting a goal post, or still perspiring after a shower, or bleeding from a high-stick to the chin. But he unfailingly paid homage to those who paid admittance by signing until there was nobody left except the night watchman. He could have walked past them; he could have opted for the ever popular walk-while-signing maneuver; he could have signed three and ignored six others. But no.

Bobby Hull, who could not be stopped on skates, screeched to a halt in street shoes. And if the shy little girl he tapped on the head whispered her name, Hull would say, “Is that Katherine with a ‘K’ or Catherine with a ‘C’”?

Hull was not coached in the art of engaging people—public relations is too stilted, too corporate to describe what he was, and is, about. Somehow from those modest beginnings in Point Anne, Ontario — “a town of about 500 people and $600”— this personality came naturally, just like his slapshot. And he is unchanged. He wasn’t doing anybody a favor to sign books Wednesday night. He was happy to see you and yours.

"I always believed that fans deserve to be royally entertained, and if I somehow get this kind of attention because of it, well, that’s very gratifying," Hull says. "But to get it in this setting, under this roof, after thinking it was in no way possible after 1972, that’s off the charts.”

I’ve said often how [John McDonough's] call changed my life. I was out there, sort of in no-man’s-land. Now... I’m part of the organization again. What were the chances? - Bobby Hull

In 1972, free agency was not part of the professional sports lexicon. So when Hull signed his most famous autograph of all on a Winnipeg Jets’ contract with the rival World Hockey Assocation, it was seismic stuff. The Blackhawks, for whom he starred since 1957, thought they owned him because that’s the way it was done. Jack Kent Cooke, a Canadian, begged the Blackhawks to trade Hull to his struggling Los Angeles Kings. We must keep Hull in the NHL, implored Cooke, who also owned the Los Angeles Lakers and even proposed acquiring Hull in exchange for sending Wilt Chamberlain to the Bulls, also owned at the time by the Wirtz family.

It was wild, contentious, and expensive. After seven years of war with a WHA that would not have existed without Hull, the NHL out of fiscal exhaustion annexed four teams from the upstart league. Both sides — the Blackhawks and Hull — admitted making a mistake, but that did not repair the mood. Hull felt he was excommunicated from the franchise and city he loved.

“There’s a picture in my book of Rocky Wirtz when he was a kid,” Hull says. “I’m in there, too, having a laugh with him. But I point out that I told Rocky, way back then, that he would one day run the Chicago Blackhawks. I was right. Thank goodness, I was right. Thank goodness for the best hockey fans in the world and thank goodness for me. I got the call soon after Rocky took over. John McDonough, the president, phoned and asked me to come back to the family as an ambassador. Be part of the Blackhawks again. Come to the games.

"I’ve said often how that call changed my life. I was out there, sort of in no-man’s-land. Now look at me. Signing a book about the Blackhawks and me in their rink with their support and I’m part of the organization again. What were the chances?”

Hull looks up and sees a woman in a wheelchair. She is in tears because she’s about to meet Bobby Hull.

“Come over here, dear,” he says. “C’mon. How about a picture? May I have a picture with you?”

Behind the lady is a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old. He’s waiting patiently in line. He never saw Bobby Hull play.