By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 12) – A good book almost always begins with a great idea. Sure, the subject matter has to be compelling, but a gripping cover-photo; a catchy title and a splendid scheme are invaluable in the quest to attract readers. As such, author Gare Joyce and publisher John Wiley & Sons, Canada Ltd. combined for a hat-trick with THE DEVIL AND BOBBY HULL: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend.
It starts with the most critical element for a potential buyer: the visual grab, generated by a brilliant cover design, such as that which adorns the Hull book (below). And, occasionally, the least-complicated notion in our lives jumps forward in a prominent way.
As someone that remembers watching Hull terrorize opposition goalies during my pre-teen years – and has often-since wondered why such an incredibly-gifted and charismatic hockey star all-but faded from view – my first reaction when seeing the book was “Jeez, it’s about time someone tackled this project… what an amazing, yet obvious idea.”
You have to be of a certain vintage to fully comprehend the celebrity and magnetism that Hull generated in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was a completely different time from the perspective of entertainment options. Here in Toronto, for instance, color television was still in its infancy and cable-TV had just recently become common – adding a trio of American stations based in Buffalo to the three we already watched: CBLT Channel 6 (the CBC affiliate); CFTO Channel 9 (of the CTV network) and independent CHCH Channel 11 out of Hamilton. That was it, until the advent of CITY -TV and Global in the early-’70s. If you wanted to change channels, you had to get off your ass and turn a dial on the control panel; remote devices wouldn’t come along for a few years.
Almost every house had a TV-antenna tower, almost twice its height, in the back-yard, providing clearer reception. There was no such thing as a Beta or VHS cassette, or the compatible Videocassette Recorder (VCR) that became a common house-hold item more than a decade later. As such, the concept of “renting a movie” didn’t exist; theatres were our only option (Compact Discs, or CDs, hadn’t yet been thought of, let alone the I-Pods on which we store hundreds of songs today). If you wanted music, there was the radio, or the stack of vinyl record-albums next to your turntable – those you particularly enjoyed likely scratched all to hell. Forget about going for a jog with a portable listening device: recorded musical cassettes were still more than five years away.
This trend was reflective of hockey coverage. Whereas today we can hole up in the livingroom and watch all games played on a given night via the NHL Centre Ice package, a maximum of three games per week were available in this market during the late-’60s. Hockey Night In Canada and CBC would televise the Leafs Saturday-night home games and CTV had the national hockey rights on Wednesday. If the Leafs were out of town on either night, we’d get a Montreal home game (occasionally with Toronto as the visiting team). Sunday afternoons provided a treat, as CBS televised its Game of the Week across the United States, available here on WBEN Channel 4 out of Buffalo, and featuring the great Dan Kelly on play-by-play. These telecasts originated from NHL arenas we would never otherwise see, including the expansion buildings that were relatively new to the league. Once in a while, Toronto would be the visitor; I still remember watching a brawl-filled Leafs-North Stars matinee in March 1970 from the old Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington MN.
So, it was nothing at all like today. When you knew that Bobby Hull and the Chicago Blackhawks were coming to town – especially on a Saturday night – the excitement was palpable. Chances are that none of us had seen Hull since the previous visit by the ‘Hawks to Maple Leaf Gardens, and he was always in pursuit of scoring records (legendarily, first to break the 50-goal barrier in March 1966). His slapshot grew fabled soon after he arrived in the NHL (in 1957), and it evolved into a weapon once the curved stick-blade came into vogue in the mid-’60s (Chicago teammates Ken Wharram and Stan Mikita patented the curvature – initially unlimited, and capable of propelling a puck haphazardly; Hull often used it as a means of intimidation, sending an early shot whizzing past a goalie’s ear).
Hull’s ruggedly-handsome appearance added to his appeal as did his legendary patience with fans requesting an autograph; stories abound of how the Blackhawks’ team bus would be delayed after games while Hull scribbled his name hundreds of times, refusing to leave anyone disappointed.
Among the most vivid hockey memories of my childhood – and I’ve written about it before – was attending a Leafs-Blackhawks game at the Gardens on Jan. 3, 1970 with my uncle, Ralph Blatt, who occasionally received a pair of rails from a dentistry patient. Rails were seats in the front row of the Gardens, right at the glass, and these were located next to the visitors’ penalty box on the west side. My uncle got us there in time for the warm-ups and it just happened to be Hull’s 31st birthday. We were at the Chicago end of the ice and when Hull skated past me at one point, I leaned over the glass (which was low enough back then) and squeaked out “happy birthday, Bobby” in my 10-year-old voice. Hull looked back over his left shoulder as he meandered toward the corner of the rink and I thought nothing more of it – returning to my seat.
Not 30 seconds later, I was immersed in the program my uncle had bought when he tapped me on the shoulder, pointing at the glass in front of me. I looked up and was staring directly at the Indian-head logo on Chicago’s white road jersey. The man wearing the jersey was Hull, who stopped by on his next lap around the ice to thank me for the birthday wish and sign an autograph in the program. It is still the closest I’ve ever come to fainting.
This aspect of Hull – and the much-darker side of the hockey hero – were thoroughly examined by Gare Joyce in his terrific book. In fact, Joyce contends it was Hull’s messy divorce from wife Joanne that all but destroyed his playing career.
BOBBY HULL DURING HIS GREAT YEARS WITH THE BLACKHAWKS (ABOVE), AND TODAY (BELOW) IN HIS EARLY-70s.
“I thought that in the pantheon of great NHLers, Hull was eclipsed by Bobby Orr in mid-career, when he was around 30,” Joyce says. “That played out not only on the ice, but in Hull’s hockey after-life in the NHL – which included the divorce and his decision to hang on, by a thread, to what had been a stellar career. His last-gap tryout with the New York Rangers [in 1980] had never been mentioned until I wrote about it in this book. No star player – before or after – had gone out in such ignominious fashion: Orr, [Gordie] Howe, [Jean] Beliveau, [Wayne] Gretzky… none of them. Imagine a guy like Hull ending his career that way.”
Joyce structures his narrative around an afternoon get-together with Hull at Gretzky’s restaurant in downtown Toronto – a metaphoric theme focusing on the precious few that showed up to meet the Hall-of-Famer and obtain a signed copy of his authorized biography. Would Gretzky be similarly ignored were he to host a gathering with hockey fans 15 years from now? Not likely, according to Joyce.
“When I was a kid, the thought of Bobby Hull languishing in an empty restaurant at a book-signing – at any time in his life – would have been ridiculous,” the author says. “But, he couldn’t draw flies that day. We sat there for more than three hours and hardly anyone stopped by. Sadly, it was consistent with the way Hull is regarded among hockey fans that aren’t entrepeneurs – those that show up at trade shows to get his autograph as a potential sales item. His career – among the most prolific in hockey history – had no staying power.”
As I read the book, I got a sense that Joyce simply doesn’t like Hull… there’s an unmistakably harsh tone to the narrative. “That’s interesting, because others have told me they felt I was too generous to Hull, but if I managed to tick off his supporters and detractors, I suppose did a good job,” Joyce laughs. “To be honest, I have absolutely nothing against Bobby and I actually enjoyed our gathering at Gretzky’s that day. But, no one had really examined both sides of the man in book form. When you’re a big-time hockey star from a one-horse town [Point Anne ON], people tend to look the other way at things that aren’t flattering. I brought out as much of the incendiary part of his life as I did the hockey hero’s role. That was my objective going into the project and I think it worked out rather well.”
Even if you don’t remember Hull during his splendid career in the NHL and World Hockey Association – where he formed a revolutionary and dynamic union in Winnipeg with Swedish linemates Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg – you’ll enjoy this interesting study. If, like me, you do remember watching and marvelling at Hull, you’ll find more than a tinge of sadness in the book.
THE DEVIL AND BOBBY HULL: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend retails for $32.95 CAD and is available at all book-stores and Internet-related sites.
GARE JOYCE is a feature editor and writer at Sportsnet Magazine.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]