Everybody knows the hockey hero, but who is than with the pitchfork?
WHEN BOBBY HUL L is in his own living room, you don't get the picture that here is the Golden Jet of the Chicago Black Hawks, the most dashing and attractive player in hockey. On the ice, who can miss him? He is beautifully right for his game. When Hull swoops to his left, his right leg crossing high, his motion is as fluid as a bird’s in flight. When he breaks into full stride and shoots the puck in a black blur, he brings a sudden expectant “oh-h-h-h” from the great crowds that falls to a hush if he misses the net or explodes in a roar if he scores.
Hull is hard to miss, even off the ice. In television commercials he's a dimpled pitchman for hair tonic, rubbing his blond head with Vitalis and advising you to try it, too. In magazine advertisements, he models swimsuits and sweaters and socks. In four-color displays for practically suitless swimsuits, there he is in Hawaii on the sands of Waikiki, his tawny pelt glistening in muscles piled on muscles, grinning down on a doll wearing a delicious dispersement of skin. Or, back on television, there he is being interviewed after firing three goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, telling interviewer Ward Cornell with a nice warm gratifying smile and a nice warm rewarding touch of humility that it was fine to score those three goals, all right, but the thing that really matters this year, Ward, is that the Hawks finish on top.
Good grief, the millions wonder, watching and reading, is the guy for real?
Well, yes . . . but you’ve got to hold onto the thought hard if you drop into his Chicago home and see the game’s most flamboyant figure wandering around in his socks, his unbuttoned white shirt trailing outside his pants; or occasionally burying one of his three young sons deep against his chest or playfully piling him into the pillows of a couch; or exchanging barbs with his wife Joanne.
Bobby Hull and Joanne and their boys — Bobby, who is four, Blake, three, and Brett, a year and a half — live* in a surprisingly modest three - room bungalow in a workingman’s suburb of Chicago called Addison. They own the house but live there only during the hockey season. Joanne is a slim, frank, outspoken girl, blue-eyed and freckled, with short auburn hair. She was an ice-show skater and met Hull six years ago when the show played Chicago. The boys, whom she calls “my mutts,” are an enormously energetic handful,
When not playing hockey, spectacularly muscled Hull works on his farm (left) near Belleville, Ont., takes time out for scuba diving (right).
built along their father’s burly lines, all with light-blue eyes and great thatches of hair so blond as to be almost platinum. When they’re indoors they roam across the living-room's royal-blue rug like balls of prairie thistle in a high wind, yelling, crying, laughing, slugging one another, standing parade-ground still for admonition, tearing off. wailing, giggling; in short, boys. Joanne, w'ith the help of a quiet bespectacled girl named Sheila Bourette who lives year-round with the Hulls, battles gamely to maintain law and order with her mutts, running the motherly gamut from cajolery to a high-pitched shriek, kissing them, belting them, fawming on them, hauling them apart by the hair, slumping to a couch at the end of a day when the three sweet-faced boys are bathed, have peered, scrubbed and angelic and pyjamaclad, at Lassie and Walt Disney on the color television set in the living room, and have been bedded dowm and hugged and kissed goodnight. Or good night!
The living room, the focal point of the day’s action, is unpretentious and comfortable. There are two abstract paintings, both done by Joanne’s brother, Jim McKay, a university student in California where Joanne was born. The only photograph on the walls is a recent one of the three boys: baby Brett is chewing on the lace of a skate and he’s wearing a hockey helmet bearing his dad’s number, 9. Blake and Bobby are standing over him in skates under their long pants, wearing Black Hawk sweaters and holding sawed-off hockey sticks. Below the
picture is a small table on which stand five trophies and a single framed photograph. It is not hard to conclude that this corner in this room represents the distillation, the very essence, of Bobby Hull’s existence.
One of the trophies is a miniature of the Stanley Cup, which the Hawks won in the spring of 1961, and another is a framed scroll for something called the Chicago Festival Of Leadership, declaring him “Chicago's Leading Athlete For 1962.” The other three are bronze plaques, two from the NHL as the Hart Trophy and Lady Byng Trophy winner last season — the Hart goes to the league's most valuable player, the Lady Byng to the one who best combines sportsmanship and ability — and one from Sport Magazine naming him “Top Performer In Hockey 1962.”
These are the memorabilia you expect of the most glamorous hockey player of his time; what you’re not prepared for is the single framed photograph, a color picture of a brownand-white bull, a shaggy low-slung blank-faced hulk which Hull matter-of-factly reveals “is a Hereford, a Hardean Hereford, H-a-r-d-e-a-n. It is named for Hardy and Jean Schroeder, who developed the breed. This one weighs twenty-two hundred pounds; he’s a two-yearold. The man who owned him before I got him refused an offer of seventy-five thousand dollars.”
Hull’s passion for purebred cattle is as vital a part of his life as the kids in the picture and the bric-a-brac underneath. Four years ago he bought a six-hundred-acre farm near the little eastern Ontario community of Demorestville, not far from Belleville in the area of the Bay of Quinte where he was born and raised, the oldest boy in a family of eleven, with four older sisters and three younger, and three younger brothers. The sire of this vast closeknit brood, heavy-set shambling Robert, now fifty-six, was a mill foreman at the Canada Cement plant at Point Anne while they were growing up in a sand-colored, two-story, stuccoed house provided by the company. Bobby, who is called Robert by the family, was a mere fourteen when he left home to play hockey for a Hawk-sponsored Junior B team at Hespeler, Ont., and he’s been away every winter since. His mother, a doting, serene woman, recalls that when he first left home he was extremely homesick, so in her daily letters she rarely mentioned the family but wrote only of trivia. He told her when he got home briefly between games, “Gee, Mom, keep those letters coming with nothing in them.”
It was to these familiar surroundings that
Hull returned after
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every hockey season, even after he and Joanne were married. For their first summer they bought a beautiful sprawling four-bedroom home on the shore of the bay, to which they return each spring when hockey ends. The six-hundred-acre farm is four miles away. Hull and his twenty-one-yearold brother Dennis, now in his second year with the Hawks, stocked it with a hundred and sixty Hereford cattle. They have seven bulls in the herd, which Bobby estimates are worth a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. His prime interest in cattle is in their breeding, the search for new and productive bloodlines.
“This is likely the best herd in Canada,” he says, “and Fd argue it’s the best in the world.”
Recently he was considering buying more property near Oshawa. tw'o hundred and twenty acres on w'hich he would put half his herd, and he discussed the purchase idly one afternoon with Joanne.
“It’s a pile of money," he said, frowning. “They want a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it.”
“I keep telling you, it’s because you’re Bobby Hull,” Joanne said. “Tell them you don’t want it: they’ll come down.”
“Oh, Joanne," he said in some exasperation, “people aren't like that.”
“The hell they aren't,” she muttered.
Joanne turned to me. “Bob doesn't think anybody would ever try to take him,” she said. "He’s too . . . what? Modest? He really does downgrade himself. It’s the difference in our upbringing, I think. Bob’s dad’s way of being an admiring father was to tear him down a little. My family was always praising me. So I give him that; I praise him. For example. I honestly feel he’s worth a hundred thousand dollars to hockey ...”
"Oh, Joanne, for Pete’s sake ...”
"You are," she said, frowning at him.
"But he wouldn’t tell Mr. Norris that," she went on. Mr. Norris is James D. Norris, the millionaire owner of the Black Hawks with whom Hull signed a three-year contract last October. “He and Mr. Norris get along great but he wouldn’t ask for a hundred thousand dollars. That story from Hawaii last summer, about Bob wanting a hundred thousand a year? That wasn t for real. Oh, he might have muttered something about a hundred thousand dollars being a nice round number, but he doesn’t really think he s worth it. He wouldn’t actually ask Mr. Norris.”
Hull doesn’t say what he did ask Norris for, but on a question of whether his income, including advertising contracts, television appearances Jnd other sidelines, reaches a hundred thousand dollars a year, he paused for a moment, and then nodded.
You could say that and be close,” he said impassively.
His mood was calm, and I asked him if it usually is when he’s at home.
Yes, I guess so,” he said, pondering. "Nothing really bothers me.”
“If he doesn’t score any goals, he’s unbearable,” interjected Joanne. “He’s not fit to live with. And he knows he
“There is a lot in knowing what you yourself can do —and being in shape”
can’t be talked to the day of a game. He just won’t admit it.”
“Joanne, you imagine things.”
“Oh, Bob, nobody dares speak to you on a day of a game. You’re impossible to talk to.”
“Well, you bug me.” Suddenly, he grinned at her.
“Yes, I know, dear,” she said, smiling, “but you'll admit I bug you most on days of a game.”
She crossed to him and sat on his knee. “You didn’t even kiss me hello at the airport,” she said. "I almost was coming for your autograph.”
He laughed. The Hawks had arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Field from a fiveday road trip that day, an hour and twenty minutes late. Joanne had gone to meet her husband, taking the two oldest boys and leaving little Brett home with Sheila. A couple of hundred fans had gone out to meet the plane, too, and had waited the extra hour and a half. When Hull stepped through the arrival gate with the rest of the players, mobs of people surged toward him. The other players made their way anonymously, or at least unhindered. through the crowds. But Hull was circled by a surging throng. Youngsters flung all shapes of paper and cards tit him for his autograph, and a dozen or so men and women popped flash cameras at him. shouting and shoving to clear paths for their pictures. One woman asked him to hold her little girl in his arms while she blazed her flash gun. Joanne laughed and called to him, “How does it feel. Bob?” He smiled, and Joanne explained, "He wants a little girl,” she said. “Hey. where are my mutts?”
They were in the midst of the crowd, on either side of their father, holding onto his knees, staring up at him as he signed the endless stream of papers, two solemn little eggs in blue levis and faded yellow T-shirts, impassively waiting for their dad. Hull stood there for eighteen minutes by the clock, writing his name over and over, fixing a smile as now and then a flash bulb exploded.
I said to Joanne at length, “Doesn’t he get sick of it?”
“He feels if they’re interested enough to keep staying, he'll keep signing.” she said.
At the airport exit a few of the Hawks stood looking for transportation. and Hull joined them, inquiring if they had rides. He called to a fan he recognized and asked him to give two of the players a lift, and he told two others, Doug Jarren and rookie Kenny Hodge, to come with him. They, Joanne, the two boys and 1 jammed into Hull's week-old Plymouth; it had been given to him, he said, by a car dealer who wanted Bobby Hull to be known, or at least seen, as a Plymouth driver. Hull also has a Dodge station wagon, which a dealer had given him last year, and an Oldsmobile convertible.
He had barely cleared the front door at home when he was out of his shoes, coat, tie and had opened his shirt. He’s a man who likes familiar things around him and is uneasy in strange surroundings. When the swimsuit makers flew him to Hawaii last
summer for photographs, they invited him to stay for two weeks of business and pleasure. Hull’s segment of the shooting was finished in five days, and he hurried home to his farm. When sports-clothes pictures were made last winter in California, he stayed one day, returned home for one day, and went back the next for a TV commitment.
“I come home from everywhere in a hurry,” he says. “I don’t like big hotels or fancy dining rooms — I’m uneasy in them.”
He feels most relaxed holding a hockey stick or wrestling a calf. In the spring he fixes fences on the farm, reseeds the meadows, plants corn and oats and hay, drives tractors, plows and combines, working with his brother Dennis, his brother-in-law Bill Messer, and a friend, Ralph Richards. In addition to the grazing pastures, he has seventy-five acres of corn and seventy-five acres of oats, and he takes off ten thousand bales of hay. Bobby tattoos calves, indenting the ears with pincers and applying indelible ink. He supervises the breeding of the cattle, and watches his kids romp. He drives the four miles from his summer home on the bay to the farm by 7.30 every morning, and returns in the early evening. His sister Maxine, who lives with her husband Bill Messer on the farm year-round, feeds the youngsters and the men at noon.
Through the winters. Le Comet Blond, as they call the Golden Jet in Montreal, works thoughtfully on his game. To some it appears he paces himself, even loafs, sometimes.
“No,” he argues, “it isn’t loafing;
it’s experience. You don’t waste energy. You pick your spots and you go when you know you have the edge. It’s an instinct. You get so that you can anticipate when you should outrace or outbody or outmanoeuvre. You sense your opening and you react. There’s a lot in knowing what you yourself can do. If you see an opening, something tells you if you can make it or not make it. And being in shape is the most important thing. If your legs aren’t going fluently, nothing ever gets co-ordinated.”
Hull never talks of outslugging an opponent and he’d just as soon forget last spring’s semifinal against Detroit in which he massaged the Red Wings the way a bulldozer explores stumps. The Hawk brain trust had urged Hull to throw his weight around, advising their Lady Byng winner that he never would have picked up two serious knee injuries late last season if he’d played tougher hockey. He was injured, he was told, because in playing what he calls “pamby” he’d been a sitting duck for board checks that wrenched his knees. By the time the Hawks reached Montreal for the final round against the Canadiens, enough of the sophisticated addicts in the Forum had been exposed through television to Hull’s rampage to boo him roundly.
This shook him, for Hull is a man who wants to be liked. “It hurt my feelings to get booed in Montreal,” he says. “It had never happened there. This year, I’m playing my own game — outmanoeuvring them.”
And, by coincidence or otherwise, in playing a comparatively “pamby”
game earlier this season Hull went out of action again with a knee injury incurred in the Hawks’ twelfth game. The blow that sidelined him came after he’d started the season at a scoring rate never before known in hockey. He’d scored fifteen goals in his first eleven games, a rate of about a hundred goals for the season. (In 1962 he scored fifty, and he and Rocket Richard and Boom Boom Geoffrion are the only NHL players who’ve ever hit that figure.)
Hull’s chances of reaching a lonesome pinnacle appear to depend on the soundness of his knees. There’s no question he has all of the other requirements. An unusual accolade was given him not long ago by AI Laney, a thoughtful New York hockey observer who has been covering the game for the Herald-Tribune since the Rangers inaugurated the game in Madison Square Garden in 1926. “The plain fact is that any time Hull gets a shot,” Laney wrote, “it is a potential goal. He is the most spectacular player in the game and he may be the greatest from this point of view that hockey has ever known, in spite of the fabulous Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. Hull is a popular figure with the crowds, too, even when he is murdering the home team. There never has been a faster skater or one with stronger leg action. It is very likely that Hull fires the puck faster than any man who ever played the game.”
Hull wants to be on the ice every day to skate and to shoot. Using a stick with a pronounced hook in the blade, a model introduced by teammate Stan Mikita, Hull works on the accuracy of his shooting from long distances and odd angles. The stick has enabled him to add a shot to his repertoire in the fashion of baseball pitchers adding a new pitch, and in Hull’s case this shot makes the puck behave like a knuckleball, with an unpredictable flutter. “If you don’t quite catch all of the puck as you let it go, it’ll rise or drop suddenly, depending on the spin.” he notes. “Drawing it toward you as you let it go sets up a different spin that produces a curve.”
These refinements have not gone entirely unnoticed by Johnny Bower, the Toronto goalkeeper. “He needs another shot like I need a hole in the head — which I may get,” Bower observes dryly. “I used to be able to figure him out. but this year he’s been shooting from all over the place and more accurately. In the past he used to come in over the blueline and let go with a telegram. Now he’s using radar, or something. This guy has everything — speed, power, drive and a murderous shot. Lead me from him.”
Bower, who is forty-one going on forty-six or so, is apt to be gone from the NHL scene before Hull takes his leave — but not by that much.
“Playing is not forever,” Hull says. “I’ve got no scoring records in mind, no record number of years I want to play. I’m a country boy at heart. I’ll have nine years in after this year. If I played fifteen, which would be six more. I’d be thirty-two or thirty-three. That might be enough.” ★