Robert Marvin Hull, the hard-hitting fancy skater who animates this week's cover, may turn out to be one of the world's great hockey players. If so, he will certainly be the only one who ascended to greatness by climbing all 1,812 steps of the Eiffel Tower as a goggle-eyed tourist in Paris. But that story comes later. The immediately significant fact is that the bright young star of the Chicago Black Hawks looms about as high above run-of-the-ice hockey players as the Eiffel Tower above the skyline of Paris.
During the last three seasons, Bobby Hull's slashing skill on the ice in the service of the Hawks has brought light and hope to a team that, over the years, has dwelt in a state of almost unrelieved darkness and despair. A mere 21 years old, Hull is one of those truly unusual athletes who leap to the top of a sport after the briefest sort of apprenticeship. He came directly from amateur hockey to the big time—a rare enough accomplishment in itself—and last spring, in his third National Hockey League season, became the second-youngest player in history to win the scoring championship. The youngest by a matter of only 16 days was Harvey (Busher) Jackson, chief trigger man on the Toronto Maple Leafs' Kid Line in 1931-32.
Affluence followed quickly on the heels of eminence this fall as Hull signed a five-year, $100,000 contract which brought him within slap-shot range of hockey's highest-salaried players: Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens and Gordie Howe, Old Indispensable of the Detroit Red Wings, each of whom is paid approximately $25,000 a year. Hull's contract is said to be almost identical with the proposal the Canadiens originally used to seduce Beliveau, a provincial idol, from the Quebec Aces.
As the new season opened last month, Hull began to pay back the Hawks' investment with notable speed. Unbeaten in the first six games and with only three losses in the first 11, the Hawks and Hull have been so hot that enchanted Chicago fans are becoming reckless. They are speculating right out loud that the Hawks may snatch the NHL title away from the Montreal Canadiens, who for the last three seasons have acted as though they owned it.
November 14, 1960
Never mind, say the fans, that the Hawks have never won the NHL championship and haven't been as high as second since 1934-35. In a preseason poll of newsmen, they were a nearly unanimous choice to place second to Montreal, and since the season started they have jounced the Habs out of first place several times. Few can doubt that much of the credit for Chicago's part in all this belongs to Bobby Hull.
Not only one of hockey's finest, Hull is also its handsomest player. His hair is blond, his eyes blue and his smile uncommonly forthright and ingratiating. From the neck down he has the sculptured musculature of a Muscle Beach playboy. Hockey is not a game of giants, and at 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds Hull is literally a big man on the ice.
Some of the most effective players in hockey are unspectacular. A novice spectator, for instance, can easily overlook Gordie Howe, because the fabulous Detroit wing does everything so economically and with so little fuss that he seems almost to disappear in the clutch of bodies. But it would be impossible to overlook Bobby Hull. Game pads, jersey (red at home, white on the road) and bulky shorts give him a close-coupled, tanklike look, but when he is on the ice he moves excitingly and with the grace and fluency of a figure skater. There is a cheerful, vivid, freewheeling recklessness about him. He picks up the puck and sprints toward the enemy goal with the kind of jack-rabbit acceleration that marked Germany's Olympic 100-meter track champion Armin Hary. Head up, eyes unblinkingly calculating, he seems almost visibly deciding whether to try to roughhouse past the defense or feed one of his linemates. Sometimes, given a shooting chance at close quarters, he will snap the puck away. At other moments, with a little more room, he takes a big backswing and gives the puck a tremendous swat. His shot is "heavy" as well as hard—that is, not easily deflected. One goalie says it feels like lead when it chunks against him.
In a game in which tempers flare easily, skulls are sometimes cracked, blood frequently is drawn and teeth regularly are bashed in, Hull is a live-and-let-live player. He lost his own front teeth at the hands of an opposing player early in his career, but he is incapable of the wild rage that used to erupt in Rocket Richard, nor does he have the cold executioner's touch of Howe, who exacts the traditional eye for eye and tooth for tooth whenever officials are looking elsewhere. Except for a stick-swinging brawl last year with New York Defenseman Lou Fontinato, the angry man whom NHL fans love to hate, Hull's scraps have been routine and quickly forgotten. "I have the odd fight," he says nonchalantly.
Happy-go-lucky, genial, a little cocky, Bobby Hull is still essentially the same gleeful kid who had more energy to expend than anyone else in Point Anne, Ontario, where he was born on January 3, 1939. Point Anne is a company town tacked on to a local cement plant. Its fat twin smokestacks dominate the north, or mainland, shore of the Bay of Quinte. An arm of Ontario hooks out into the lake just across the bay from the town, and Toronto lies 120 miles to the west. "The population is aboat a thousand if you count the dogs," says Hull's 14-year-old sister, Judy, giving the ou sound a typically Canadian value. "Aboat a hundred if you don't."
As the son of a cement company foreman, Bobby Hull grew up in a succession of company houses spotted here and there around the town. Bigger houses were needed from time to time as new Hulls arrived (Bobby is the fifth oldest of 11 brothers and sisters). The family's present lodgings are in a three-story stucco two-family house within 30 yards of the bay shore. Most of the brood is still young enough to live at home.
Bobby himself now has a seven-room summer place of his own on Big Island, just across the water from the Hull family home. There one day last summer, as Bobby tells the tale, "I had taken my boat out on the bay for a little water skiing with my wife, Joanne. We came back toward the end of the afternoon to have some barbecue with Mum and Dad and my grandfather—he's over 80—and my cousin, Carol Cook.
"Then we all decided to go for a ride in the boat. It's a 22-foot inboard runabout. I hit the starter. There must have been a gas leak. I guess the arc from the starter brushes ignited the fumes. Anyway, there was an explosion that knocked everybody down and blew the floor boards right out. The engine box tipped up, letting a blast of flame as hot as a welder's torch catch Mum on the legs. Joanne was blown onto the dock. Dad bailed out and swam. I knew my cousin could swim, so I shoved her into the water. Then I got Mum out of the flames. I saw that grandfather wasn't in danger, so I jumped overboard and sort of swam the boat back to the dock from where it had drifted. I wasn't hurt at all, but Mum was hurt pretty bad."
Mrs. Hull, alive and improving, but with her legs swathed in bandages, was still in the hospital at nearby Belleville two months later when I found my way to the neat stucco house in Point Anne. Mr. Hull was on hand, however, so with him and seven other members of the Hull family, I sat down to the most abundant dinner I had faced since a certain harvest meal before the war.
It was Sunday, and we ate chicken, dressing, potatoes, cauliflower with a cheese sauce, green beans, a green salad, a gelatin salad, a local Cheddar cheese and lemon meringue pie. The date cake looked good, too, but it arrived too late.
A glance at that loaded table provided one sure clue to Bobby Hull's heft; a glance at his father, Robert Edward Hull, another. The elder Hull is a thick-chested 225-pounder with a booming voice and faded blond hair. When he had more of it, some years ago, he too was a well-known local hockey player called The Blond Flash. That was when he courted Bobby's mother.
A duck to water
It was on the ice of the Bay of Quinte just outside the door of the Hulls' house that Bobby himself learned to skate, to whack a puck straight and hard toward a makeshift goal and to use the strength he found in his stocky legs.
"We gave Robert a pair of skates for Christmas when he wasn't quite 3," said Hull Sr., helping himself to white meat and dressing. "I took him over to a frozen pond near home, and I'll be darned if he wasn't taking a few strides within a half hour.
"He learned to swim just as fast. One day he just waded out into the water and started paddling away. Begad, I had to wade in after him, clothes and all."
"Hey, Maxine," said Jackie Hull to another older sister of Bobby's, "remember the time Bobby threw a tomato at you and hit you in the eye? There never was a time when we could handle him."
"Robert was always fast on his feet," said Hull Sr., picking up a wishbone and the thread of his reflections. "And strong. When he was 16 or so Robert worked in the plant here. On one job he had to use a jackhammer—way up high, above his shoulders—to loosen some firebrick in a kiln that was being shut down. I didn't see it, but a man told me he handled that jackhammer as if it was a toothpick."
After dinner some of us called on Mrs. Hull at the hospital. She turned out to be a pleasant, ample woman with soft, dark hair and obvious pride in her healthy, happy brood. "I've never lost a night's sleep over Robert or any of my children," Mrs. Hull said. "I'm only sorry that Peg here [the youngest, aged 13] wasn't twins. I've always wanted to have twins."
Just like a father
With his family's encouragement, Bobby, like most Canadian youngsters, played hockey endlessly both at home and at school. He was 14 when a Chicago scout, Bob Wilson, spotted him and won him for the Hawks' system. In his mid-teens he played Junior B amateur hockey, then Junior A for two years for the St. Catharines, Ont., Teepees, who were then coached by the present Chicago coach, Rudy Pilous. Now a left wing, Hull at that time was a hard-skating center with no great reputation for reliability or teamwork. He recalls that at least once Pilous suspended him "for a couple of weeks."
"I reprimanded Bobby," says the Chicago coach, "just as some father would his own son for tromping on the living room rug with his muddy shoes. We were trying to get him to move the puck, to help set up plays, but he was headstrong and couldn't see things our way."
When, at 18, Hull took that giant stride from St. Catharines to Chicago, he was still far from mature, on or off the ice. Domestically, he embarked on an unhappy marriage that fizzled out in divorce. (His second wife, whom he married last spring, is a pretty, red-haired former ice-show skater.) Professionally, he found it hard to give up the old take-the-puck-in-alone habit that had angered Pilous in St. Catharines. He was a sensational rookie, delighting the crowds and scoring a solid 47 points in his first big league season and 50 in his second, but he was still inexperienced enough to think he had to do it all himself.
The grand tour
Then came the trip to Europe and the lesson in the virtue of cooperation that turned Bobby Hull from a merely good to a potentially great hockey player, one who uses his head as well as his stick. Despite his new status as a traveling hockey star, Hull was as awed as any other tourist when he arrived overseas in 1959 to play a series of exhibition games. Even though his schedule called for 23 games in 25 nights, Bobby was determined not to miss a thing on the way. He saw virtually every sight there was to see between London and Vienna, doggedly walked through every museum and climbed every recommended staircase, including the one that leads to the top of France's Eiffel Tower. "After that," says Bobby in thoughtful reminiscence, "I was so tired that I couldn't have taken the puck down the ice alone and put it in if I'd wanted to. I had to learn to pass it off. And the best part of all was that I still came out the leading scorer."
His lesson learned, Bobby Hull de-emphasized his rhinoceros charges and spruced up his team play so remarkably last season that he collected 39 goals and 42 assists, beating Boston's Bronco Horvath for the scoring title by a single point on the final night. He did "the hat trick" (three goals in a single game) three times, and in one game murdered Toronto with four goals.
Shortly after the season opened Bobby was given Red Hay, 25, a big, rawboned Colorado College star, as center, and compact, dark-haired Murray Balfour, 24, as right wing.
They went together like ham, eggs and home fries. Playmaker Hay won the rookie-of-the-year award, and Balfour turned out to be the kind of hard-digging corner man every good line needs. He and Hay both scored 18 goals, a record roughly equivalent to a .300 batting average in baseball.
At this point General Manager Tommy Ivan says he wouldn't take a million dollars for the Hull line and, as if to prove it, he has done all he can to back it up. Goalie Glenn Hall, three times an All-Star, is as good as any in the league. Chicago's defensemen are seasoned and truculent. If Center Ed Litzenberger has recovered from the emotional crisis of an automobile accident in which his wife was killed last winter, he should again be the 30-goal man he used to be. Aging Center Tod Sloan is a steady balance wheel. Ab McDonald, Stan Mikita and bellicose Reg Fleming are among the league's most promising young forwards.
A sound team and certainly an entertaining one, the Hawks at this point fall just short of being a really superior one. It is distinctly possible, however, that the tide of power in the NHL may be slowly swinging from Montreal to Chicago, just as it swung from Detroit to Montreal not so long ago. In recent weeks the Canadiens have faltered time and again. They have lost the great Rocket Richard, and their veterans are fast growing old. For example, Defense-men Doug Harvey, 36, and Tom Johnson, 32—the NHL's best—are in their 14th and 11th seasons, respectively. When the time comes, it will be hard to replace them.
All over the league, coaches and managers are praying and searching for signs of greatness in their youngsters. In 22-year-old Carl Brewer, Toronto has a defenseman who has the potential to be one of the finest. New York has Jack McCartan, the Olympic hero, and Jack not only has great promise but real magnetism at the box office. Montreal, of course, has its great reputation. But right now none of them has what Chicago has, for Chicago has Hull, and Hull has everything.