For several years now, the flights of Bobby Hull have been more and more turbulent. Ever since he started averaging 50 goals a year, in 1966, the superstar of the Chicago Black Hawks has been acquiring more than the usual number of stitches, sprains and fractures from those straining to stop him. This year—though it may well be his finest ever—is certainly among the most painful. The leading National Hockey League goal scorer and point getter is playing with a broken jaw.
Underweight from taking all his meals through a straw, and playing with his blond hair and rugged features obscured by a makeshift helmet and a football face guard, Hull appears to have lost a stride. His shot has lost some of its steam, and even though he still takes his regular turn, kills penalties and plays on the power play, this is not the Bobby Hull the rest of the league fears so much. Still, he has maintained a remarkable scoring pace: of his 30 goals, eight have come in the eight games he has played since he was hurt.
Nobody—not even Hull himself—is sure exactly how the fracture occurred. Hull remembers coming away from a rough game in Detroit on Dec. 19 with soreness in his jaw, but nothing, he thought, to require X rays. He played the next game against Pittsburgh, and then, on Christmas night, he caught an elbow from Toronto's Mike Pelyk flush in the mouth and backed away in excruciating pain. There were X rays this time, and they revealed a fracture below Hull's right ear. The doctors wired his jaw together. He skipped one game but has been playing ever since.
"I've got to be careful," Hull said last week. "I don't go blasting into the corners the way I usually do, and I've got to keep my elbows up. I've got to keep people away from my face. Trouble is, I can feel myself getting weaker—especially when we're playing as often as we have been [four games in five nights, then three more in five]. I've lost 15 pounds already, and they say I'll keep losing weight until the wire comes off."
January 20, 1969
Hull's normal playing weight is a robust, body-beautiful 195, kept stoked by the steaks he likes to eat (medium rare) and fit from work on his Ontario farm during the off season. But now his wife, Joanne, whips up Hull's meals in a blender and he sips them through a straw. The recipe? Well, it would not be found on the menu at the Red Carpet.
A Hull meal, which he calls "brownish ugh," consists of three-fourths of a pound of ground beef, a cup of half-and-half, a can of barley soup and half a cup of milk. For variety, Mrs. Hull occasionally tosses in a raw egg or two. Hull takes the blender with him on the road, where his teammates get to play chef. "It tastes terrible," says Eric Nesterenko. "Really I don't see how Bobby can eat it."
A Chicago doctor says Hull will probably be down to 170 pounds before his jaws are de-wired four weeks from now. "He isn't getting enough protein," says the doctor. "He's on a strong carbohydrate diet, and a good athlete like Bobby burns that up in no time at all. Without protein he'll continue to suffer a degree of muscle deterioration, and I doubt if he'll be able to get back to his normal weight before the season is over." The reason is that Hull was all muscle when the season began.
So Hull continues to play with an injury that would sideline many hockey players. Bobby's current state, in fact, reminds one of the 1963 Stanley Cup playoffs, during which he played with a nose so severely smashed that the fracture extended into his skull. With the Hawks one game from elimination, Hull ignored the orders of his doctors, checked out of a Chicago hospital and flew by himself to Detroit. That night—with both eyes blackened, his nose encased in tape and blood draining into his throat—he played against the Red Wings. He scored three goals and an assist, but even that heroic effort was not enough to avert a 7-4 Chicago loss.
The Hawks were in St. Louis to play the Blues last Saturday, and Hull emerged from a team meeting around noon. Despite the green turtleneck and heavy parka he wore, he was visibly underweight; his cheeks were sunken and his face was greatly in need of the color it gets every once in a while during junkets south in behalf of the Jantzen company. With his jaws completely immobilized, Hull had to speak through clenched teeth, like a ventriloquist.
"They've been laying off me lately," he said, in a voice scarcely above a whisper. "I haven't been getting hounded as much as I usually do. Maybe they feel sorry for me."
But as it was with Montreal's immortal Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Hull is rarely without company in a game. Everywhere he goes somebody either goes with him, or tries to. In recent years this has become a particularly sore point with the normally good-natured Hull, for as his goal production has expanded so has the fouling by his escorts. Four years ago Hull won the NHL's Lady Byng Trophy, given annually to "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct...." It is unlikely he will ever win it again; Hull has to fight back continually merely to survive.
"Everybody knows Bobby's shadows," says Scotty Bowman, the coach and general manager of the Blues. "Bryan Watson, when he was with Detroit, Ed Westfall of Boston, guys like that. They're put out there just to slow Bobby down, trip him up, foul him if they have to. Bobby always compliments Claude Provost, his shadow in Montreal, because Claude will skate with him and go for the puck if he gets the chance. Well, Claude watches Bobby as close as anyone; he's just a lot less noisy about it. We play Bobby in a similar manner. I saw his father in Chicago the other night and he said, 'Scotty, I respect you and your team; you don't haggle Robert like the others do.' We don't exactly leave Bobby alone, but we don't want to make him mad, either. Sometimes I'm almost tempted to tell my guy to hum to him, sing to him if he has to—just don't make Bobby mad. You make a Hull or a Howe or a Mahovlich mad and they'll kill you."
In back-to-back St. Louis-Chicago games last week the effectiveness of this tactic proved to be only so-so. Bobby scored the winning Black Hawk goal in the first game but was shut out in the second as the Blues romped 6-1.
Ironically, the player who has made Hull the maddest this year is a Montreal teammate of Provost's. John Ferguson is one of the roughest scrappers in the league, and his careening style invariably brings him in contact with everybody at one time or another during a game. Last Dec. 7 he and Hull provided the main event on a card at the Montreal Forum, Hull coming away with blood streaming from a deep gash on the bridge of his nose. Hull said Ferguson inflicted the gash with his stick; Ferguson denied it. So, on Jan. 4—despite Hull's already fractured jaw—they fought again in Montreal.
Chances are they'll meet again, but whether his jaw has healed or not, Bobby will not consider himself fully fit. The problem is a finger on his right hand—the one that is still stiff from a car accident of several years ago. When the gloves come off, Hull can't make a complete fist with his right hand, which adversely affects his overhand right cross. When he is asked about the undue turbulence, Bobby flexes that right hand and says, "If only this finger would bend."