Hockey hall of fame, human hall of shame Golden Jet put Winnipeg on global hockey map, but off-ice behaviour, world view shocked fans, destroyed legacy
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Bobby Hull stood at the corner of Portage and Main on June 27, 1972 and forever changed the face of hockey around here. He signed the richest contract in the sport’s history at the time and put Winnipeg on the map, paving the way for the pro team we now know and love.
“I think Manitobans should ask themselves the question: Would there be an NHL team in Winnipeg today without Bobby being the rebel and the brave man jumping away from the NHL and being instrumental in starting a new league that eventually has led to the Winnipeg Jets of 2023?” the great Anders Hedberg said in a phone chat Monday afternoon from Sweden.
The answer, of course, is very likely “no.” And for that, we have the Golden Jet to thank.
But here’s another fact about Hull, who died Monday at the age of 84. An uncomfortable truth, if you will. As great an athlete as he was, an ambassador for the game and someone who will forever be entrenched in our storied hockey history, he was also a deeply flawed human being, one whose conduct off the ice can’t simply be ignored or erased.
He leaves behind a complicated legacy, to say the least. As great as he was at shooting, skating and scoring, Hull said — and did — some terrible things. Both of these things can be true, as difficult as it might be for some to accept. This is not about piling on the dead, but providing a proper, on-the-record account. The good, the bad and the ugly.
There was the 1998 interview the Jets legendary scoring star did with a Russian newspaper in which he was quoted as saying, in the Chicago Tribune, that Nazis were not without merit, that the black population of the United States was growing too fast and that genetic breeding was a worthy idea.
“Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far,” Hull told the Moscow Times. When pressed on whether it would be fair to describe him as racist, Hull reportedly replied: “I don’t give a damn. I’m not running for any political office.”
Hull later sued the Russian newspaper.
Former hockey super star Bobby Hull died Monday at the age of 84.
Then came a damning 2002 documentary on ESPN, which profiled his long history of alleged spousal abuse, among other issues. His first wife, Joanne, described several incidents of Hull physically beating her during their relationship, including once with a steel-heeled shoe. Their daughter, Michelle, a lawyer who works with victims of domestic crimes, described ugly scenes growing up in the home.
“A lot of bad memories stem from how my dad acted when he was drinking. When he had been drinking, you’d just know that you didn’t want to be around here,” she said. Upon hearing what her father had told the Russian paper a few years earlier, she replied “that’s exactly like him.”
Hull was also arrested in 1986 when his third wife, Deborah, called police to report domestic trouble. Hull tried to throw a punch at a Chicago officer and was ultimately convicted of assault and given a fine and probation.
“A lot of bad memories stem from how my dad acted when he was drinking. When he had been drinking, you’d just know that you didn’t want to be around here.”–Michelle, Bobby Hull’s daughter
“Was Bobby perfect? Was he open-minded? Were there faults in his behaviour? Probably was,” said Hedberg who, along with Hull and Ulf Nilsson, formed the incredible “Hot Line” for the World Hockey Association Jets.
“But to me, and I think I can speak (for) Ulf, he was as open-minded and as friendly and as understanding and flexible as he possibly could be. He was terrific to me as a teammate, and he took stands for my well-being on the ice, He took fights physically, but also mentally and verbally with management, even my own teammates, early. And in the league itself. He stood absolutely firm in terms of what I represented. That’s the Bobby I want to remember. I don’t care for the other stuff. I don’t know, I’ve heard, but that’s not the Bobby I got to know.”“Was Bobby perfect? Was he open-minded? Were there faults in his behaviour? Probably was,” said Anders Hedberg.
Despite all of the above, and likely due to the fact it all happened well before social media and “cancel culture” was a thing, Hull is still widely celebrated in hockey circles, his NHL career treated with reverence.
Still, one got the sense Monday that plenty of folks were carefully tip-toeing around what to say. Heck, even the Jets themselves didn’t post a statement until just before noon, several hours after news of his death was confirmed. No doubt some caution was being exercised about exactly what to say, even as star centre Mark Scheifele went so far to describe him as a “very good man.”
We spoke to numerous people about Hull, asking them how to reconcile everything we know about him. Aside from Hedberg, nobody else really wanted to bite.
“But to me, and I think I can speak (for) Ulf, he was as open-minded and as friendly and as understanding and flexible as he possibly could be… He stood absolutely firm in terms of what I represented. That’s the Bobby I want to remember.”–Anders Hedberg
“I just want to focus on his positive things in life. He was a positive influence on my life, and that’s all I want to focus on,” Nilsson told me.
“I never experienced that side of him and I’m glad I never did but, apparently, that’s true,” former teammate Norm Beaudin said to colleague Joshua Frey-Sam.
“No comment,” said another ex-Jet in Joe Daley.
“I never saw Bobby do anything bad to anybody. I never heard him say anything bad, whether you were Black, white, Jewish or Chinese — I never heard any bigotry at all out of his mouth. So when people say things, if I didn’t hear it, I don’t believe it,” said former WHA Jets president Michael Gobuty.
“I’m not going to get into that. Listen, he was a great hockey player. He had an impact on the league. Hall of Fame. We’ll just leave it at that,” added current Jets coach Rick Bowness, who played against Hull in the 1979-80 NHL season.
Fair enough. It’s not surprising people who hold Hull in high regard would have nothing but positive things to say, but the questions still had to be asked even if the answers were predictable. It’s clear the Hull they knew was a very different person than the one his ex-wives and daughter were around.
Let’s not lose sight of that.
In many ways, Hull’s complex story intersects with some of the current issues facing the NHL. Bigotry and intolerance remain front and centre, thanks to teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers who are doing their best to undermine the league’s rather hollow “hockey is for everyone” message in their botched handling of Pride Night events. We still hear shocking examples of racism and abuse at all levels of the game.
Sadly, the kinds of behaviour and views expressed by Hull have been amplified by far-right extremists and hate-mongers, who will no doubt push back in ugly, profane ways against anyone who dares to say a negative word.
Hull, along with Hedberg and Nilsson, was the first entrant into the Jets’ 2.0 Hall of Fame in 2016. Hull missed the induction ceremony, citing “personal reasons.” In recent years, it seems the organization was taking steps to distance itself from the former great, even though his banner still hangs from Canada Life Centre. No doubt they were aware of the optics, especially under a modern-day lens.
The team acknowledged his death with a tribute and moment of silence in a pre-game ceremony prior to Monday’s puck drop against St. Louis. And that’s fine. There’s no denying Hull’s extraordinary contribution to hockey in this market, and nothing will ever change that. You can’t rewrite history.
Unfortunately for Hull, that means we also can’t forget the rest of his story, either. Nor should we.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 5:17 PM CST: Adds image
Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 8:37 PM CST: Adds info about suing Russian newspaper
Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 9:56 PM CST: Adds info about pre-game tribute