Jay Greenberg
Thursday January 21st, 2016

It was 25 years ago that Hall of Famer Brett Hull exploded for his career-high 86-goal season with the St. Louis Blues. This story originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 1991 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.

Last Friday, the day Brett Hull became the fifth player in National Hockey League history to score 50 goals in the first 50 games of a season, the person who most doubted that Hull would reach that milestone woke up as skeptical as ever. “I get up every day thinking I’m never going to score another goal,” Hull said that evening. “And I was scared to death today. When you’re close to something like this, it gets worse when you think about only having so much time to do it.”

Although he had scored 48 goals in 48 games and had never fallen more than one game behind the goal-a-game pace during his chase of the 50-50 mark, the St. Louis Blues’ right wing had somehow failed to grasp the inevitability of his quest. But Hull proved his fears to be unfounded when he scored two goals on Friday night in Detroit to reach 50 with one game to spare. What he worries about obviously has nothing to do with what he does, which is to get the puck away before he or the goalie can blink, let alone think. In fact, thinking has nothing to do with achieving such a feat. Many good players have thought about scoring 50 goals in the first 50 games of a season. But only Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and now Hull have actually done it.

David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Aided by an injury-ridden—and extremely undisciplined—Detroit lineup, the 26-year-old Hull cleared the barrier with little drama. Last Friday the Red Wings, shorthanded 11 times en route to what turned out to be a 9–4 defeat, raced to the penalty box as if they thought it was the best place in the house from which to view history in the making.

At 17:51 of the second period, after a leg whip by the Blues’ Scott Stevens had put the Wings’ Sergei Fedorov out of the game with a thigh contusion, Detroit’s Bob Probert went after Stevens and drew seven minutes in penalties. Six Blues had already scored at that point. Hull took a number and waited his turn.

Actually, he took two numbers. No. 49, at 18:14, was slapped through teammate Rod Brind’Amour’s screen to the glove side of goalie Tim Cheveldae. No. 50, at 1:30 of the third period, came off a pass from center Adam Oates. Hull, performing one of his specialties, cruised at center ice until somebody blew a coverage, then burst into a suddenly wide-open zone to take a pass from Oates. He took an extra split second to bear down before letting go from 35 feet. The second NHL shot ever faced by goalie Dave Gagnon, who had replaced Cheveldae at the beginning of the third period, went under the rookie as he dropped down.

The Joe Louis Arena crowd, which to that point had displayed a mood befitting the surly, sloppy game, rose in polite applause as Hull was hugged by his teammates. “I was so high, I really don’t remember anything about the third period,” he said afterward.

He was fortunate. The end of the game—the contest’s second brawl broke out halfway through the third period—was no better than its beginning or its middle, a fact Hull conceded had marred the historic occasion, though only slightly. “When you look at who has done it and who hasn’t,” he said, “it’s a great honor.”

What Brett Hull’s 86-goal season teaches us about today’s NHL game

Brett’s father, Bobby, the greatest left wing of all time, never scored 50 in 50. Neither did Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne or Phil Esposito, the top three goal scorers in NHL history. Richard, who reached the 50-50 milestone first, made it in the 50th and final game of the 1944-45 season. By the time Bossy did it, in the 50th game of 1980-81, the season had been increased to 80 games, so 50 in the first 50, Richard’s feat, became the standard. Since Bossy, Gretzky has reached 50 goals in 39 (’81-82), 42 (’83-84) and 49 games ('84-85). Lemieux did it in 44 games (’88-89).

Hull said it did not occur to him until game 45 that he really had a chance to join the 50-50 club. If that seems strange, keep in mind that he is a guy who as recently as two seasons ago had no concept of how good he could be. The Calgary Flames, who selected Hull in the sixth round of the 1984 draft, considered him a displeasingly plump gunner who would not check, hit or even score in important games.

Hull was traded to St. Louis in March 1988, and after he scored 41 goals in his first full season there (1988-89), Blues coach Brian Sutter challenged him to bear down harder. That summer he worked out extensively for the first time and shed 10 pounds. In 1989-90 he led the league in goals, with 72. He may do little else but score, though the difference between 41 and 72 is enough to make a team overlook his faults. Last summer Hull signed a fat, four-year contract for $7.1 million. Despite his newfound wealth, he has kept his weight down, his stick cocked and his disposition as breezy as ever.

GALLERY: The NHL’s All-Time Leading Goal Scorers

Strictly on the strength of his spectacular goal total, Hull may be the NHL’s most valuable player this year. Since the Blues’ next-highest goal scorer is Geoff Courtnall, with 17, there is little distinction between stopping Hull and beating St. Louis. Third-place Detroit, which is headed for a first-round Norris Division playoff series against the second-place Blues, hasn’t figured out how to stop Hull. On Friday, both of the defensemen whom coach Bryan Murray normally plays against Hull—Steve Chiasson and Brad McCrimmon—were out with injuries.

“You can’t check me because I never have the puck,” Hull says. Hull will fade a step backward to rid himself of a check or quickly accelerate to create a hole. When the puck arrives, he utilizes the quickest release in the game to put it on goal. If the puck hits the goalie, percentages dictate that the next time, or the time after that, it will not.

Hull suffered a sprain of the left ankle in game 46, a 7–3 victory over Washington on Jan. 15. Two nights later he wobbled through two scoreless periods of a 4–2 loss to Montreal before showering early. Though he was the leading vote-getter in the All-Star balloting, he limited his participation in the All-Star Game on Jan. 19 to an introduction and a wave from the Chicago Stadium bench. Restored to about 85% of his usual self by four days of rest, ultrasound treatment and ice, he snapped in two goals in Minnesota during the second period of game 48 on Jan. 22. He joined the 50-50 club in game 49, then bagged two more goals against the Red Wings on Saturday in game 50 before re-injuring his ankle late in the first period.

A healthy respect for the possibility of embarrassment, something that motivates many superior performers, now wakes Hull every morning like an alarm clock. Increasingly he understands the obligations that come with his talent. “Being with those four names is something to be proud of,” he said after scoring his 50th goal. “They all made a name in history. I have a lot of time ahead of me. Maybe I can, too.”

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