The puck was pinned against the sideboards in Detroit's Olympia Stadium during a tense game last week and three determined hockey players were jostling and scuffling with each other to free it. Two were members of the hometown Red Wings defense. The third was an enemy alien from Chicago: the handsome blond left winger of the Black Hawks, Bobby Hull (see cover). In itself there was nothing particularly notable about this situation. Game after game during the current NHL season it has been two to one against Bobby Hull. What made the moment remarkable was the fact that the fanatically loyal Red Wing fans suddenly began chanting, "Go Bobby!, Go Bobby!, Go Bobby! Go!" And the man from Chicago promptly went. With one move he kicked the puck away from his pursuers. With another he drew back his stick and slapped a 60-foot shot toward the Detroit goal. The net bulged, the red light behind it lit and Bobby Hull, the best single act in the 1964-1965 hockey season, had scored his 35th goal of the season.
At the age of 25, Bobby Hull has enthralled the casual hockey fan, the nonfan and the fanatic fan as few, if any, hockey players have before. Even those padded acrobats who perform on the ice with and against him are stricken with awe at his skill. Only three players in NHL history have ever scored 50 goals in a season, and even those three—Maurice Richard (1944-1945), Bernie Geoffrion (1960-1961) and Hull himself (1961-1962)—all stopped at 50 as if that number represented some strange, impassable barrier. Gordie Howe, the ageless wonder of the Red Wings, once got to 49 goals with two games left to play and could not top the magic mark. The way Bobby Hull is going this year, he seems certain not only to reach 50 goals but to skate right on past to 55 or even 60. "Bobby never really gets started until a few weeks after Christmas," says his brother and teammate, Dennis Hull. Last season, despite his characteristic late start, Bobby scored 43 goals to lead the league. During the 70 games he played he got only 408 shots at the net for an average of just under six shots per game. This year Bobby is averaging the same number of shots per game.
In most cases when an athlete goes after one of the valid records of sport (Roger Maris' pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record, for instance) his efforts generate violent partisanship among fans and players. Hull's push for the scoring record has stirred up no hard feelings whatever. He is tremendously popular with the fans, and enjoys the almost unanimous respect of the players. "I have played with Bobby for 10 years," says Stan (Stash) Mikita, the peppery Black Hawk center who beat Hull out for total points (goals and assists) last year, "and the only thing about him that has changed is his ability. When you come from a family of 11 in Pointe Anne, as Bobby does, you don't really ever understand the words prima donna."
As a hockey player Hull is notably unlike that earlier hero, Rocket Richard, an often sullen old elf who could find a loose puck in a pile of coal during a blackout. Richard was a superb player, but he was at his best only in the enemy defense zone. Gordie Howe has been called the finest all-round player of all time, but any judgment of Gordie must be tempered by the realization that he often skates over the outer edges of the rules. Bobby prefers to behave himself, and he plays all over the ice. So far this season he has collected only 20 minutes in penalty time. "It is silly," he says, "to get penalties. You can't score from the penalty box, and to win you have to score."
The Sports College of Canada and Fitness Institute has described Robert Marvin Hull as the "perfect muscular mesomorph." Hull stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 195 pounds. His biceps measures 15½ inches—bigger than that of either Cassius Clay or Floyd Patterson. His skating speed has been timed at 29.2 mph, the fastest in the NHL.
Perhaps the most fascinating statistic about Hull reveals that his wrist shot is faster than his slap shot. The slap shot is hockey's flashiest weapon and the one which brings the roars from the crowds. In launching one, the player stops the puck, brings his stick back in the same fashion a golfer uses when hitting a three-iron, then slaps the puck with all his might toward the net. At 95 mph Hull's slap shot is the fastest in the league, but his wrist shot, that seemingly easy flick he uses when in full flight, has been timed at 105 mph. Glenn Hall, one of Chicago's two alternating goalies, was asked recently how he feels during the hours of practice when he has to defend against Hull's attacks. "There are days," says Hall, "when you just step aside and leave the door wide open. It is a simple matter of self-preservation."
Opposing goalies have found that even when they get in front of a Hull shot or get their glove on one the puck can break away from them. "Sometimes she climbs," says Jacques Plante of the New York Rangers, "sometimes she dives. What the hell?" Time and time again this season goalies have caught a Hull shot in their gloves only to have its momentum snap their wrists back, allowing the puck to dribble into the net.
Bobby Hull's secret scoring weapons are three. He can change speed on the ice better than anyone in the league. Often an opposing defenseman will try to gauge Hull's speed and meet him in mid-ice, only to have Hull suddenly shift gears upward and get to the planned rendezvous well ahead. Bobby's second weapon is his great strength, which, coupled with that ability to change speed, makes him an almost impossible target for body checking and serves to deter most casual attackers.
Bobby's third weapon is his remarkable fortitude. Most NHL forwards spend about two-thirds of their game time resting on the bench. This season Hull has been averaging about 40 minutes of ice time for every 60-minute game. Billy Reay, the Black Hawk coach, not only makes Hull perform his regular first-line duties with Wingman Chico Maki and rookie Center Phil Esposito but uses him on the power play and as a penalty killer as well. Some question Reay's wisdom in using his already overworked star for this sort of thing, but by doing so Reay has put an offensive thrust into what is normally a defensive situation. When the Hawks are a man short, Hull's speed in skating and stick handling against opposing defensemen in close to the attacking zone often can lead to a break away and a clear shot on the net.
It is often assumed, and not without cause, that when a team in the NHL gets a high scorer who steals the headlines, dissension quickly grows on the rest of the club. The pride of Canadian hockey players is thick and often resentful. Moreover, goals scored can mean money banked. Hockey salaries and bonuses are adjusted on the basis of goals and assists. At contract time the general manager of a club will often set the number of goals which he thinks a player is capable of getting. If the player goes beyond that number he gets a bonus for every goal scored above the agreed figure. Recently hockey has added another fine scale for judging the worth of a player. Statistics now are kept on man-to-man performance—and if the man you are matched up with scores more goals than you do, Harry, look out.
Although other individual Hawks are normally jealous of their own totals, they genuinely want Hull to break the scoring record for a quite simple reason: whenever Hull scores, the whole team moves a little bit closer to that elusive first NHL championship it came so close to winning last year.
Thanks in part to Hull's performance and in part to an idea of his, the Black Hawks stand a pretty fair chance of breaking the alltime team scoring record of 259 goals set by Montreal in the season of 1961-62. The gimmick Chicago is using to accomplish this trick is Bobby's own "hooked" hockey stick. Unlike most sticks, whose blades are almost flat, Hull's has a curve in it, which, he says, enables him to get better control of the puck. Actually the curve is only five-sixteenths off the straight, but it gives the shooter the feeling that he is catching the puck and then throwing it at the goal, like a lacrosse or jai alai player. Most of the Black Hawks are now using these hooked sticks. "They used to take the old sticks," said Dennis Hull last week, "and put them under their doors at night so they would get a little bend in them. Then they started to have the manufacturers bend them for them. Most of us can feel the difference in sticks, and the bent ones do give you more control. But Bobby," added the star's brother in sudden solemnity, "could score with anything."
Bobby himself has a sort of intuition about his talents. "There are nights," he says, "when I can tell long before a game how it is going to go. When you first go out onto the ice in the warmup you can tell. If your legs feel light you kind of smile to yourself and you take great joy in skating around and getting warm. When I go back down into the dressing room 15 minutes before the game I often say to Dennis, 'I feel he's got it tonight; I feel he's got it tonight.' Dennis laughs and sometimes he kids me by sending the word down the line, 'The Rolls-Royce is going to roll tonight.'
"I guess it all begins the morning of a game when Billy has his meeting. Sometimes it's in the hotel, sometimes it's at the arena. He goes over the opponents and talks of the good things we did the last time we played them and the bad things, too. I think about it all and slowly begin to get myself up for the game. I don't growl or pound my fist into my hands. The enemy just stays in my mind and I think about what I might do and what kind of mistakes they made on me last time.
"Sure, I sometimes think about Pointe Anne and how I used to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning when the house was dark and I'd take my skates and go on the ice alone. I guess I was no more than 5 years old. It used to be cold when I got back and I would build a fire to get my hands warm. For a non-Canadian this might seem silly but not for a Canadian. I think of my father and how he gave up what might have been a great career in pro hockey to raise a family. I thank him. I remember the games I played in the Juniors at St. Catherine's and how he and Mum would come to the games, and Mum would sit at one end of the rink and my father would sit at the other.
"He would take the end where we would be shooting on the net twice and when the games were over he would say, 'You only had two goals, you should have had five!' Mum would say, 'Nice game, son.' I think things like this when I am getting myself up for a game, and my wife says that when we are on the way I'm like some stranger who does not see what she sees because my mind is out on the ice.
"People ask me do I get tired of being interviewed or interrupted on my days off," says Bobby, "and the answer is no. If people think enough of me to want to shake my hand or talk to me or interview me then time must be made for it. Everyone asks, 'Do you think you can break the record?' I think so. I hope so, but it doesn't seem to be putting pressure on me. The goals are in the stick. All I have to do is shake them out."