TORONTO (Jan. 30) — If you were a young hockey fan in the 1960’s or 70’s, chances are you have a story about Bobby Hull. Perhaps even an autograph from the Golden Jet; among tens of thousands that he signed.
Thankfully, I have both.
You’ll be reading and hearing a lot about the great No. 9 of the Chicago Black Hawks from 1957 to 1972. He died early Monday morning, less than a month after his 84th birthday. As a grade–school child in the late–60’s, there was no excitement to match a Saturday night with Bobby Hull in town to play the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was the flashiest and most–prolific goal scorer of his time; a larger–than–life figure who famously stood for hours signing autographs… before games, after games, and — as I particularly remember — during the pre–game warm up.
I have told the story in this space on several occasions — how Hull, on his 31st birthday, singled me out at Maple Leaf Gardens for a hockey thrill that has rarely been equaled in my life as a fan and a radio reporter.
It began with a phone call on that Saturday in January 1970 from my uncle, Ralph Blatt, who still dabbles in dentistry nearing his 89th birthday. Among Uncle Ralph’s patients in 1970 was a man named Dave Dees, whose wife, Elizabeth, taught Grade 4 at Wilmington Avenue Public School, across the park from where I grew up. The facility, today, is the Canadian Hebrew Academy of Toronto (or CHAT), once attended by a young hockey prodigy named Zach Hyman. Mr. Dees had Leafs season tickets in the West Rail (or front–row) seats, directly next to the visitors’ penalty box, an area captured by the end–zone TV camera at the Gardens whenever a player arrived for his two–minute sentence. A couple of times, Mr. Dees offered the Rails to my uncle, who I could easily view on television during such moments. I never envisioned having the chance to sit there, myself, for a Leafs game. Until, that is, Uncle Ralph called on the morning of Bobby Hull’s 31st birthday… with No. 9 and the Black Hawks in town.
I wrote about the ensuing exchange with the Golden Jet in my 1994 book (below), MAPLE LEAF MOMENTS:
You can probably imagine how I felt at that moment. With thousands of people already in the Gardens for the warm–up, and virtually every eye on the Chicago superstar, Hull took the time to stop in front of those Rail seats and personally thank me for the birthday wish. To this day, more than 53 years later, I get a chill when recalling the episode. But, that’s the manner in which Hull treated fans across the National Hockey League. He was everyone’s hero, for his remarkable goal–scoring ability; the legendary slapshot that unnerved goalies… and, especially, for the interminable minutes he spent accommodating autograph seekers. Fables abound of Hull greeting fans after games; the other Black Hawks patiently lingering on the team bus. I can barely imagine how much more time the Golden Jet would have dedicated in the “selfie” era, with today’s I–Phones.
During my Grade 3 year (1967–68), there was a lengthy delay to get a hold of Hull’s book (bottom–right), HOCKEY IS MY GAME. I remember waiting three or four months until my turn arrived in the library at Wilmington Park. There was a strict, one–week deadline for returning the book; if I recall, our library had three copies. What a thrill to finally have the item in my grasp and walk it home across the park. I remember the feeling as if yesterday.
Pertaining to that scene at the Gardens on Jan. 3, 1970, I had an unexpected opportunity, just more than 12 years later, to tell Hull the story. In February 1982, never having lived outside my boyhood home, I moved out west for a job as a sportswriter at the Calgary Sun. I was 23 years old and scared to death. Moments after boarding, on that nerve–wracking day, an Air Canada Lockheed–10–11, the Golden Jet planted himself to my left.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was on a wide–body jetliner with more than 300 seats… and Bobby Hull was next to me, flying to Alberta as part of his cattle–raising business. Before I could say anything — and as if I wouldn’t recognize him — the Hall–of–Famer reached over with his right hand. “Hi, I’m Bobby Hull,” he said. Not yet comfortable around famous hockey players, I gave it a Ralph Kramden “hum–in–ah, hum–in–ah, hum–in–ah” before my first intelligible words squeaked out. As with others, however, Hull quickly made me feel at home. He asked about my move from Toronto and I told him how nervous I was. “Ah, relax, everything will work out,” he replied. “I started traveling for hockey in my mid–teens. It’s an adjustment for a young person leaving home, but you’ll be fine.”
I got around to telling Hull about how special he made me feel that night at Maple Leaf Gardens. I remember how he looked over with surprise on his face. “You had the balls to stand up and yell happy birthday to me at your age?” Bobby laughed. “I was probably taken aback. It’s something I would have expected from an adult, not an 11–year–old. I often stopped during the warm–up and signed autographs for groups of kids near the glass. I don’t remember doing it for one person. You must have really touched me.” Prior to landing in Calgary, Hull signed the page of a register book my mother had bought for a going–away party a few nights earlier. I’ve kept it to this day:
I got to know Hull a bit during my radio career. I remember being at the Quebec City airport after covering the 1993 NHL draft. I was doing a live hit on the air back to Toronto, using one of those early cellphones that were the size of a bowling pin. Hull walked into the gate area with Gordie Howe. Knowing he would recognize me, I approached the Golden Jet and essentially thrust the cellphone at him, saying “Bobby, the folks in Toronto would like to hear from you.” He could have — and probably should have — told me to go screw, but Hull took the phone and happily engaged in a five–minute chat. After which, he glared and said “you owe me one.” I was seated near the front of the Economy section on the flight home. At one point, I got up to stretch my legs. I peeked through the curtain separating us from Executive Class and marveled at Hull and Howe: rivals in the NHL and World Hockey Association; two of the greatest all–time hockey figures, sitting beside one another and sharing a laugh. I remember looking on and thinking about the number of games they had played… with Chicago and Detroit in the NHL; Winnipeg and Houston in the WHA. The sight of those two grandpas has remained with me through the years.
Sadly, there were two sides to Bobby Hull… and you cannot discuss the hockey hero without mentioning the stories of domestic violence, particularly toward his second wife, Joanne McKay, the mother of fellow Hall–of–Famer Brett Hull. When under the influence of alcohol, which was frequent, he became a mean drunk. It is similar to reflecting on the glory and legacy of Maple Leaf Gardens, as so many (myself included) often do. And, which is entirely incomplete without chronicling the horror and disgrace of the pedophile ring that lurked within its walls.
Bobby appeared angry at me, early in my radio career, for mentioning (in top–of–the–hour sportscasts) his arrest for Driving Under the Influence (DUI). For years afterward, whenever I’d see him at an arena while covering the Leafs, he’d say “you made me look bad on the radio.” I’d reply: “Bob, it was news. Everyone was reporting it.”
Then he’d flash that famous smile and we’d chat amicably.
Hull was a regular on the hockey memorabilia circuit. The last two times I saw him were at the bi–annual Expo at the Toronto International Centre across from Pearson Airport. I snapped the photos, below, during the November 2021 and May 2022 events. They showed a man who had aged rather noticeably in six months.
Bobby Hull is one of the greatest wingers in hockey history, a goal–scorer without peer in the mid–to–late 1960’s; recording four of the first six 50–goal seasons in the NHL. May he rest in peace alongside the others of his ilk.