The most closely watched player in the National Hockey League skated onto the ice in Chicago Stadium last Saturday, tapped the thick protective glass at rinkside in greeting to his pretty wife and acknowledged with a wave of his stick the ovation from the expectant and adulatory Black Hawk fans. Then, in an agonizing replay of recent history, Bobby Hull and the Black Hawks skated through two more periods of scoreless hockey against, of all teams, the fifth-place New York Rangers. The agony was shared by almost everyone present, because Hull, having shot a record-tying season total of 50 goals for the second time in his career four games previously, was going for No. 51. But, ever since that 50, he had been dogged by fate and defensemen, who clung to him like the sense of sin to a penitent.
At last, nearly six minutes into the third period, the great moment finally came—as everyone knew it must. With the Rangers ahead 2-1, Hull got the curved blade of his stick on the puck on a power play well back of his own blue line, started toward the goal, squared off like Arnold Palmer getting ready for a tee shot and drove—right past Ranger Goalie Cesare Maniago.
The official scorers credited Lou Angotti and Bill Hay with assists on the play, but Angotti had another opinion. "When I'm 65," Lou said afterward, "I'll sit around and tell my grandchildren how I got an assist on Bobby Hull's big goal. I'll tell them how I helped him score it while I was sitting on the bench. That's right. That's where I was.
"I kicked the puck over to Bobby, then skated for the bench and sat there watching as he went up by himself and scored."
Maniago, a onetime Toronto Maple Leaf, holds the distinction of having been the goaltender when Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion shot his 50th goal of the season. He does not enjoy the fame that this has brought him and scarcely ever speaks of it. About the only thing he would say of last week's exploit was that Eric Nesterenko, Chicago wingman, did him a dirty trick. "Nesterenko lifted the blade of my stick and the puck went under it," Maniago said, more or less ruefully.
When the red light that signifies a goal flashed on, the more than 20,000 fans in the stadium lost control. They littered the ice with debris that ranged from hats—both men's and women's—to confetti. As he skated toward the Black Hawk bench, Hull picked up one of the more ludicrous hats and put it on, getting a laugh because, after all, he was Bobby Hull, and no man in the history of the National Hockey League, give or take 50-game or 70-game seasons, had ever made such a goal before. The joyously relaxed Hawks then went on in that same period to score two more goals and win the game 4-2. At that point, it didn't seem to matter much that Montreal was still ahead in the race for the league championship. What did matter was that every one of the Hawks felt himself a part of a moment in history.
The stick that fired the historic puck, a puck that Hull plans to have encased in gold, was no ordinary stick. Five years ago Hull's teammate, Stan Mikita, decided to try a stick with a blade curved somewhat on the order of a banana. The innovation worked fine and other forwards in the league have since copied it, each with his personal variations. Hull's variations are quite special. He likes a curve that is sharper, less rounded, than Mikita's. The theory is that the curve in the blade transmits spin to the puck and causes it to drop sharply just before it goes into the net. No one has proved this, any more than anyone ever has proved that a baseball can be made to "drop" just before it gets to the plate. But hockey's curved blade is relatively new and quite a few goaltenders believe in it. Before this game Hull and the Hawks' assistant trainer, Don (Socko) Uren, spent about two weeks trying to get the Northland Company in St. Paul to put just the right curve in the blade. The sticks that came back to them did not satisfy Hull. "We made all kinds of calls to the factory over the last week," Uren said.
"I could tell they weren't right in the warmups," Hull said. "I wasn't shooting right."
Dreadful. All one of those defectively curved sticks did was break a record that had stood for 21 years.
The new scoring champion set the new record in his 56th game of the season. By that time Hull's team had played 61 games, but Bobby missed five of them because of a torn knee ligament. During the last weeks of mounting pressure, he minimized the continuing effect of that injury just as he minimized the strain of the pressure itself and the handicap of a right hand bunged up in a moment of wrath when he flung a flurry of punches at Detroit's Gary Bergman on the night of February 9.
The assumption had been that after achieving his 50th goal—against Detroit in his 52nd game of the season—the pressure would be off Bobby. "The monkey is off the back now," he said. Then came the Toronto game, in which the Maple Leafs battered the Hawks 5-0. Next opponent was Montreal and on the afternoon of that game Hull, glooming about his living room, was addressed by his wife. "Don't talk to me," he said, and Joanne, a former professional skater well aware of the tensions of sport, understood. She let him alone. That night the Canadiens' Gump Worsley, a former Ranger himself, treated the Hawks to their second straight shutout. After the ignominious whitewash by the fifth-place New Yorkers three nights later, a banner headline in the disgruntled Chicago Sun-Times asked piteously: WILL HAWKS EVER SCORE AGAIN?
Despite such pessimism, there were plenty who were certain that in the 10 games still to be played Bobby Hull would somehow break the hex. Most certain were those who shared the 50-goal record with him—Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, who is now a Montreal business executive, and Geoffrion, now coach of the high-scoring Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League.
"When I first set it, I didn't think that record was going to last very long," Richard said before Hull scored his 51st, "but it has lasted 21 years. If somebody has to break it, Hull is the right guy."
Richard believes that Hull has the best shot in hockey today, but he doesn't think he is the best player. "Not any more than I was," Richard explained. "I scored a lot of goals, but there were lots of better players. My brother Henri, for instance. He is better than me as a stickhandler, better in many ways. Stan Mikita, Jean Beliveau, my brother Henri—there may be 25 better stickhandlers in the NHL today than Hull, but Bobby has a great thing going for him: the thing that puts the puck in the net."
"It is hard to compare scoring titles," says Geoffrion. "The quality of play in the league isn't always the same. In some ways my style differed from Hull's. He is a better skater than I ever was, and he has a great shot, but I was quicker to take off. And I was shooting for the net more often. When Hull first came into the league, you could tell that he could be great, but he didn't shoot enough. Now he is hitting that net all the time."
As to the relative values of the records set by Hull and Richard, there presumably will be dispute forever. When Richard set his record in the 50-game season of 1944-45 the rule, since changed, said a penalized player must serve his full two minutes out of the game even though the opposition might be scoring goal after goal while he was in the penalty box. Under the new rule a player serving a minor penalty is permitted to return to the ice as soon as a member of the opposition scores.
Thus it has been speculated that The Rocket's high-goal total for that season might owe something to the fact that under the old rule he had a better chance to score on power plays, i.e., against an opponent that was a man short, than today's shooters. But, in fact, this argument is academic.
Richard actually scored his goals in 34 games, though he played in the season's full 50. He failed to score in 16 games, but he made up for that with a five-goal game and three hat tricks.
A point to be considered about all these records is that the closer a man gets to the critical milestone, the more circumstances are altered both for and against his success. "All the people have their eyes on you, and they expect you to score whenever you get the puck," says Geoffrion. "When you are coming close to a record, you get that extra help from your own team, but the opposition is playing harder because they know you're going to try for it."
Hull's path to his new record was not flower-strewn. Throughout the league, defensemen and checking forwards made him their target, and some of them, to the vast indignation of Coach Billy Reay, put more zeal into their work than the rules allow. The Boston Bruins' Ed Westfall was particularly clinging, but wherever the Chicago club moved around the circuit the situation was pretty much the same. Claude Provost was always on top of Hull in Montreal. Reg Fleming, the former teammate who helped Hull score his 50th in 1962, was assigned as his nemesis in New York.
Hull conceded that Westfall and the others had hampered him with their bodyguard tactics but criticized Westfall only for refusing to abandon him to go after the puck when he had a chance to take the offensive. To Hull's mind this was not playing hockey.
Whether such purely defensive tactics were effective can be disputed, for Hull did get his record, did become the league's leading shooter and the Hawks led all other teams in scoring. But they also fell behind Montreal in the standings and, some Chicago fans feared, were sacrificing a chance at their first championship in history in order to give Bobby his record. It did seem, as the 51-goal record was neared, that teammates were passing the puck to Hull with unnecessary frequency, relinquishing chances to do their own shooting. And the situation was not without precedent. Last year Gordie Howe and his Detroit Red Wings were in a position comparable to that of Hull and the Hawks. Detroit was trying for its first NHL championship in nine years when Howe scored his 543rd goal—one short of Richard's career record. Howe hit a dead streak of 10 games before he tied the mark and another five before he got No. 545. A day or so before, Coach Sid Abel had complained, "Damn it, I'll be glad when this is all over with so we can get back to playing hockey."
The night after his 51st, Hull scored No. 52 to help beat Toronto 5-1. The Hawks were playing hockey again.