After the sorriest of beginnings, a couple of nice things happened to the Chicago Black Hawks last week. First, they proved they would not be 0 and 76 for the season. They played a tie game with New York on Wednesday and on Saturday beat the champion Canadiens—in Montreal—by the unlikely score of 5-0. Second, their biggest star and the National Hockey League's top box-office draw appeared to be on the verge of ending his holdout. Returning to his Ontario farm from a cattle-buying trip to a remote town in western Canada, Bobby Hull said: "This whole dispute is over something so small it's hardly worth speaking about. I hope I'll be playing soon."
In the meantime, Hull's absence dramatized the unhappy state of Chicago hockey—the clique-ridden Hawks fell from first place in 1967 to the cellar last spring—where one of the bitterest cases of player-management friction in hockey history rages on.
If the point at issue with Hull was so small, why wasn't it settled before the season began? The answer seems to be that Hull and the Hawk owners, Arthur and William Wirtz, are all stubborn men, and the Wirtzes are demonstrating the iron control they undoubtedly have over the team. What little they have said about the affair has not been conciliatory: "Hull has a contract with us and we expect him to live up to it."
In contention is an informal rider to a four-year contract Hull signed last fall after skipping the first game of the season. During the holdout he caused some alarm by announcing his "retirement" from hockey. Terms of the contract were not made public. The hockey world incorrectly assumed them to be $100,000 for one year, not learning until this fall that Hull had put retirement so far out of his mind that he had re-upped for four.
"I'm not disputing my contract," Bobby said last week. "Our differences are over the way we had agreed to put my money to use investmentwise. It was what Arthur Wirtz said he was going to do with the money and what he did not do. Wirtz still has a piece of paper, initialed by both of us, that spells out our agreement. But he's not living up to it. Unfortunately for me, that piece of paper isn't a contract, so legally they've got me in a bind."
Hull also feels that the Wirtzes are smarting over an interview he gave in August to a Toronto sportswriter in which he used the words "puppets and Bumsteads" in describing the Hawk management. (In a recent letter to Alan Eagleson, the players' attorney, William Wirtz wrote, "P.S. This puppet wrote this letter all by himself. Yours, Bill Bumstead.")
"I probably shouldn't have popped off like I did," says Hull, "but they really get you down after a while. We've had everything all set and agreed upon so many times, and then they go and back out."
"If management can't afford the amount of money Bobby wants," said Hull's brother Dennis, a Hawk left wing and one Hull who is playing, "they can give it to him and take the extra amount out of my salary." Another player, standing nearby, was asked if he'd go along with that. "On the record, hell no. Off the record, hell yes."
Despite Saturday's uprising against Montreal, the Hawks sorely miss Hull's big stick. Winless through their first six games, they were outscored 22-7. The ultimate insult came from three expansion teams—St. Louis, Oakland, Minnesota—who laid it on 13-4. Minus Hull the team was not drawing normally, either. In Toronto scalpers who usually get $18 to $25 for a pair of $5.50 tickets when Hull is playing were lucky to get $13, while on the streets outside Chicago Stadium business wasn't much better. Two scalpers—fixtures in the area—both got stuck with fists full of tickets when Minnesota came to town.
Fans who usually watch the team on television are dropping out, too. At Freddie Caserio's place in Forest Park, where a Black Hawk team picture adorns the wall and a bus departs for the stadium before each home game, the television set is dark. Even some members of the Black Hawk Standbys club—the team's closest followers—have other things to do. At his apartment on Elgin Avenue, Jack Riordan, having called a meeting of the club's social committee, moves his television set out of the living room to make space for more chairs. "If Bobby was playing I suppose I'd be watching," Riordan says. "But without him in there, and the way the team has been going lately, I guess I'm not as fired up as usual."
The Standbys think the Hawk owners should have handled Bobby better. That the man who scored a record 58 goals last year should be out West looking over a bunch of beef when the team is hurting is something they find especially galling.
"They owe something to us, too, you know," says Tom Faille. "Most of us have season tickets. Some of us have paid as much as $480 for them. A lot of us bought them to see Bobby play, but he's not playing. It's like seeing a Broadway show when the star is out sick. But the Wirtzes don't seem to care. The club finished in last place last year, they raise ticket prices and the stadium is still sold out. They've got us over a barrel and they know it. If I don't buy my tickets, somebody else will gladly pick them up."
"I'm not going to lead any cheers for the Wirtzes," says another Standby, Glen Beaver, "but I don't think Bobby comes out of this looking too good, either. Bobby is one helluva guy, we all know that. He's a big star. I'm a lowly fan—why does he have to do anything for me? But I can imagine how his teammates must feel. I got up early in the morning a lot of times to play hockey myself, and I know how much effort it takes to play the game. You watch our guys in training camp. It's drudgery, pure drudgery. They hate training camp. Where was Bobby during training camp? Up in Canada on his farm, or out somewhere buying cattle. That has to grind on the guys a little bit. I know I'd wonder about it. Stan Mikita is in training camp every year, and so are Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau. Big star or no big star, a guy belongs in camp with his team. But Bobby's out in the boondocks buying cattle."
And the discussion goes on. "You're right," says Chris Czurylo, "but there's really never been a star in hockey like Bobby. All you have to do is watch the people. Whatever it takes to turn them on, he's got it. Remember last spring when he was doing color on TV during the playoffs? In one game in Boston he had to go down through the crowd to get to the locker rooms, and when the crowd saw him they went wild. Those people stood up and must have cheered him for five minutes. And I remember one trip we made with the team to Toronto. Those Toronto fans are so sophisticated, so composed, you'd think nothing in the world could turn them on. Well, after the game I was standing outside where our players come out, and when Bobby came out all I heard was Toronto fans whispering to each other, 'There, there he is. That's Bobby. That's Bobby Hull.' You'd have thought they were seeing a god."
"Let's face it," says Charley Wilson, president of the Standbys. "There's a Bobby Hull clique, a Stan Mikita clique and an antistar clique. It's just like it is up in the seats. You either love Bobby or you love Stan or you wish the Hawks were more of a team than a bunch of individuals. Personally, I happen to think Stan is a better all-round player than Bobby—and Bobby knows it."
At home in Canada, the absentee star is concerned about his public image. "It's bothered me lately," he says, "wondering what people are saying and thinking about me. That's a big reason I want to come back, just to show everybody that I'm not just some ungrateful heel trying to squeeze out every dime that I can. I'm a farmer at heart. I love cattle and farming. But I'm the first one to admit that hockey has been the means through which I've acquired everything I own. It's not easy, you know, watching the season open and your club going badly. I feel a little like I let the side down."
He has three years to go on that contract and he intends to play those years. But then he will stop and take a long look at his situation.
"I don't want to play hockey any longer than I have to," he says. "My trip out west last week, if anything, just reaffirmed some beliefs I've had all along. I'm relaxed on farms and in the small towns. I like the people and I don't bump into so many phonies. I don't want people to think I'm ungrateful or anything, but I'm really a small-town guy."
As the week ended, Hull's lawyer was due back from a business trip to Greece to confer with Bobby. The Wirtzes were keeping mum in Chicago but undoubtedly were aware of Hull's less militant stance, and a settlement seemed on the way.