ONE SKATE IN VALHALLA

The mightiest scorer and most electrifying player in hockey today, Bobby Hull (opposite) is the only one with the stature of postwar greats Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard. But he has lost his zest for the game and may soon retire—to farming, his idea of a warrior's heaven
February 12, 1968

The shock of wavy blond hair that made people call him the Golden Jet is thinning now. The powerful Greek-god body still gives Bobby Hull (see cover) more strength and speed than anyone else in hockey, but it is frequently racked by pains that the stoical Hull finds hard to ignore. The face remains ruggedly handsome after countless bruises and stitches, and Bobby still smiles a lot—at friends, at kids who ask for autographs, at almost any stranger who approaches him after even the roughest game or workout. But now the smile is polite, restrained, sometimes even forced; it is no longer the exuberant look of a kid in love with everything he is doing.

At 29, Hull has reached a stature that only two other men in modern hockey—Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe—have attained. A prolific goal scorer and dynamic gate attraction, he is the most exciting player in the game today. He is also a new kind of superstar, a person very different from Richard or Howe, or almost anyone else before him. Hockey fans can spend hours debating about which player is the greatest of all. But before you even begin to compare the styles or statistics of the three men, you should understand that Bobby Hull doesn't need or want to be matched against any player or record. He is succeeding on his own terms.

Recently Bobby scored his 400th regular-season goal. At his age he could presumably look forward to 300 or 400 more goals, and all the scoring records there are. "I couldn't care less about getting 500, or 600, or any other number," he said last week. "I never have been concerned with breaking anyone's records, or catching up to anyone. I'm only concerned with using hockey to set me up in other things. I want to retire without having to go to work for anyone else. As soon as I can do that, I'll quit."

This is not phony contract talk designed to scare general managers, and it is not bitterness at having to play 40 minutes a game, 70 or so games a year, with opposing players grabbing and hooking and, in all the other ways, fouling him more than anyone else has ever been fouled. Bobby is very appreciative of what hockey has done for him. He just happens to be equally aware of what he can do for himself. He looks at hockey as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved he will not hesitate to stop playing—even if he has just finished a 60-goal season.

This kind of thinking would seem sacrilegious to Howe or Richard or their ardent fans. To them, hockey is life itself. Casual talk about quitting can only make them shudder. Richard played on aging legs, fighting weight problems and grasping for flashes of his old greatness in his last (18th) season when he was 39. Howe is still an All-Star in his 22nd season and, at 39, he isn't even thinking about the end. "They're much more dedicated hockey players than I am," Hull said. "It's what they love. I have many more outside interests. I don't think you can say which approach is right or wrong. It's just the way a person thinks."

Like most of the Canadian kids who leave home at 13 or 14 and spend their young lives in hockey camps, hockey schools and hockey games, Hull was not a noticeably independent thinker when he began leading the scorers of the National Hockey League. Now in his 11th season with the Chicago Black Hawks, Bobby has lost none of his modesty or charm. But nobody who knows him well would ever say he was simple.

Hull is a complex, intelligent man with a perspective much wider than the world of hockey. For him, success can no longer be defined in terms of goals scored or records set in a game. He is a farmer, a businessman and a father. As he has matured, these facets of his life have become more important and satisfying to him. Once he wanted to be a very great hockey player. Now that goal is behind him and hockey is just hard work. "I'm doing this," he said, "so that soon I can be doing what I really love." What he loves is life on his southeastern Ontario farm, where he can spend much of his time with the three sons he feels he has neglected because of hockey. But this is no country kid yearning for a quiet bucolic existence. Bobby brings the same fierce ambition to farming that he brought to hockey. "I want," he said flatly, "to become the best breeder of polled Hereford cattle in history."

To help finance the kind of cattle-breeding operation he dreams about, Bobby has parlayed his sports fame into a number of profitable business ventures. Hull was the first to use hockey the way American athletes use their fame in golf, pro football and other sports. He endorses everything from sportswear to cars, tractors and steel fencing. Kids in Canada can play his recommended hockey game, read his book, use his equipment. He is already an officer of several companies, and new offers keep coming in. "Only the hair-cream endorsement ran out," he said, "and that was when my hair started to run out."

Added to his regular salary of about $40,000 a year, these endeavors leave Hull well short of Arnold Palmer's income but far ahead of all but Howe in hockey history. (Richard's top salary from the Canadiens was only $25,000, but that was thought a handsome take in those days.) They also impose upon him an exhausting schedule of traveling, speaking and keeping appointments. "Hockey itself isn't really becoming that laborious," he said. "It's the other responsibilities that make me anxious to get away from the game. They can really make you mentally tired."

Last year Robert Hull Sr., who raised the 11 Hull children in Pointe Anne, Ont. and is still a foreman in a cement factory there, gave his most successful son a jolt. "My dad worked harder than any man I ever knew," Bobby said. "But one day he said to me, 'Robert, you're going to kill yourself. You don't ever let yourself relax.' When he says something like that, it's enough to scare you."

Hull conceivably could decide to retire from hockey after this season. It is more likely that he will stay with the Hawks for another two or three years. He may approach or even surpass the lifetime records of Richard, who scored 544 goals in his 18 years, but certainly not those of Howe, who had a grand total of 673 last weekend and probably will play at least a quarter of a century. But Bobby's achievements in his relatively brief career will rank him as one of the three dominant figures in hockey's post World War II era. At the age of 21, Bobby became the second youngest player to win an NHL scoring title. The youngest was Busher Jackson, who was 16 days his junior, in 1932. In his fifth season Bobby joined Richard and Boom Boom Geoffrion as the only men ever to score 50 goals. Four years later, in 1966, he broke that record, overcoming the psychological and physical strains that had made 51 goals seem like hockey's most severe challenge. This year, barring a crippling injury or sudden slump, Hull will pass that once-impossible barrier for the third straight time.

Bobby's most loyal fans argue that these feats make him the greatest scorer in history, if not the greatest all-round player. They do not, however, say this very loud in Montreal. Even if statistics could prove that either Hull or Richard was the best, the arguments would go on—and unfortunately statistics do not settle the matter. A survey of the first 10 years of each man's career gives Richard a slight edge. The Rocket scored a goal for every 1.62 games he played, while Hull needed 1.82 games for each goal, and Howe 2.05. But Hull's supporters point out that the Rocket's most sensational season—50 goals in only 50 games—was in 1945, against wartime opposition that was admittedly inferior. The Rocket, Canadien fans retort, did not need the curved stick that has done so much for Hull.

The 10-year survey, however inconclusive, brings out several interesting facts. Howe scored the fewest goals, but the most game-winning goals and assists. Hull had a better power-play scoring record than Richard, although the Canadiens' power play was considered one of the best of all time. The Rocket, known for his flair for sensational single-game performances, had the highest percentage of games in which he scored more than one goal. In fact, if you had to pick one man to play one important game, you would undoubtedly choose Richard. The analysis on page 34, based on each man's first 400 goals, arrives at the same conclusions.

Red Kelly, the Los Angeles coach and a 20-year veteran, remembers playing defense against Richard in many Stanley Cup games. "With a lot at stake," Kelly said, "Richard came up to the occasion in fantastic fashion. It was very difficult to keep him under control in a money game. You just couldn't ride him off." Montreal is full of tales of the Rocket, his face bloody and his eyes flashing, dragging several defenders from the blue line to the front of the net to score a goal that would win a big game. Those moments, augmented by his dark good looks and explosive Gallic temper, made him the most magnetic player of all time.

Hull has a similar appeal. As an all-round player he cannot do as many-things as a Howe, or as his teammate Stan Mikita. In fact, Mikita probably is the most valuable player in the game today. But it is Bobby who can lift any crowd as he takes the puck from one end of the rink to the other to set up a goal, guiding the disk in the curve of his stick with one hand and pushing off defenders with the other. And it is Bobby who can shoot from anywhere in the offensive zone and have a good chance to score. Mikita is needed to make the whole Chicago attack work smoothly, but Hull can be an attack all by himself. Some coaches would rather have Stan, but the ticket managers would all take Bobby.

If the Rocket specialized in one-game bursts, Hull has been the most dangerous over a season or part of a season. When Bobby is hot he can have amazing streaks. "I've had a number of bad starts in my career," he said. "I really go through hell until I get untracked." Then the other teams go through hell. In 1961-62, his first 50-goal season, Bobby managed only 13 goals in his first 31 games, then scored 37 in his last 39. Last year he started slowly because of an extremely painful back ailment, then began a goal-a-game pace that lasted 42 games and helped the Hawks break the NHL race apart.

Gordie Howe lacks the striking looks and flair of Richard and Hull. Even at the height of his career, he never had the sudden dazzling speed or sensational shots of the two flashier goal scorers. Gordie seldom excites casual fans with his moves or his goals; yet hockey people are unanimous in their opinion that Howe is the best all-round player ever.

Frank Selke Sr., who was general manager of the Montreal Canadiens during most of Richard's career, did not hesitate when asked to choose among the Rocket, Howe and Hull: "If I want a perfect type of player, I would have to pick Howe. He is a mechanical player who always turns in a good game." Billy Reay, Hull's coach in Chicago, agreed. "Hull and Richard are more colorful, but, in my opinion, to date Gordie Howe is the greatest player." "Richard and Hull don't dominate a game the way Howe does," added Toronto Coach Punch Imlach.

Howe's style is subtle, smooth and extremely painful for those who arouse his wrath. He is extraordinarily strong, and he uses his power to inflict sometimes unnoticed but always effective punishment upon anyone who gets in his way. At various times both Richard and Hull have been stopped briefly by "shadows," persistent checkers with the sole assignment of harassing and intimidating the star. Until the last few years Hull tended to accept the unseen fouls and injuries that such defenders gave him—and so he was occasionally held in check by men he should have been skating over. Richard, on the other hand, accepted nothing; but his temper outbursts often drew penalties, making the opponents' strategy effective. But Howe has never been bothered much by shadows. He does not lose his temper and he does not accept fouls. He just quietly destroys the man who fouls him.

A superb playmaker and checker as well as scorer, Howe played on what may have been the best forward line ever, the Red Wings' Production Line. Ted Lindsay was generally considered the finest of all left wings until Hull arrived; at center, Sid Abel, and later Norm Ullman, worked beautifully with Howe. Jack Adams, who managed the Wings during Howe's greatest days, appreciated what Howe could do for his linemates. "Just the specter of Howe makes an opponent change his game," Adams said. "When he was in his prime I could send him into a corner and he'd take two guys with him. That way we could always shake somebody free. And if a younger player was having a tough time scoring, I'd put him on the line with Gord for a few days and he'd invariably come to me and marvel at Howe."

While Howe did a lot for his linemates, Richard may have profited more from his. The Richard-Toe Blake-Elmer Lach line can be compared with Howe's line—and with Mikita's Scooter Line in Chicago now—as one of the best ever. But it had a style all its own. "Unlike Hull," said Red Kelly, "Richard seldom carried the puck the length of the ice. He was always looking for the pass and a pass back to get the break on you."

In defense of Hull, some people—including his coach, Reay—insist that Howe and Richard benefited from better linemates. Bobby wants no part of this argument. "The guys I've played with have always made things easy for me," he insisted. "Billy Hay and Murray Balfour were good, and Phil Esposito and Chico Maki suited me even better. The day Phil, Chico and I were first put together, the team went on a 13-game winning streak. I know there have been a lot of great lines, but I think we made picture goals to match anyone."

Bobby paused and added, "I'll never understand how anyone could break up a combination like that." Black Hawk General Manager Tommy Ivan broke it up last spring by trading Esposito, along with Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge, to Boston. Esposito had never been one of Reay's favorites, and Stanfield never pleased Ivan very much. Hull has taken the loss of Esposito personally. "Phil and Chico and I were hardly ever away from one another off the ice," he said. "And they knew how to bring out the best in me. I need the puck a lot to be effective, and they got it to me. We may have acted careless or looked bad in practice, but we always knew we could do the job."

With Esposito gone and Maki out of action for much of the season, Bobby has been forced to work harder than ever this year. He has shown his ability to rise above the situation by scoring 36 goals in the first 52 of the season's 74 games—but he has also known some discouraging times. In his rare moments by himself, he does not think of records or his standing with the alltime greats; he thinks of the end. "Last year we looked like we were establishing a dynasty," he said. "Now we're just another team fighting for the playoffs. I had hoped my last years in Chicago would be great ones. Instead, they're going to be the toughest ones of all."

THREE PHOTOSTWO SUPREME MOMENTS OF HOCKEY: IN 1963 HOWE (9) SCORES HIS 600TH GOAL; RICHARD IMMORTALIZES 1958 WITH HIS 500TH GOAL

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HOW THE BIG THREE GOT THEIR FIRST 400 GOALS

HOWE

HULL

RICHARD

GAMES PLAYED

795

713

690

WINNING GOALS

71

55

63

TYING GOALS

18

21

20

POWERPLAY GOALS

90

100

92

SHORT-HANDED GOALS

8

11

6

TWO-GOAL GAMES

65

60

69

THREE-GOAL GAMES

12

21

21

FOUR-GOAL GAMES

0

4

2

FIVE-GOAL GAMES

0

0

1

GOALS AT HOME

222

230

239

GOALS AWAY

178

170

161

GAMES PER GOAL

1.99

1.78

1.61

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)