For a first-place hockey team, there can be few fates worse than losing back-to-back games to the Buffalo Sabres, unless it is losing back-to-back games to the Los Angeles Kings. So imagine how Bobby Hull felt last Friday morning in frosty Buffalo when he was reminded that his Chicago Black Hawks had just been beaten two straight by the Sabres.
"Everything's awful, bloody awful," Hull mumbled as he stirred some awful-looking coffee. "The club has been playing terribly. I haven't scored a goal in two weeks. And I was on the ice for two Buffalo goals last night. Right now I'd like to find a hole somewhere and crawl into it."
For two months Hull and the Black Hawks have been coasting listlessly to another West Division championship, winning, it seems, only often enough to stay 10 or 12 points ahead of the Minnesota North Stars. The Hawks have a perfect 5-0 record against the Stars, but they have won only two of the 13 games they have played with Boston, New York and Montreal—the three top teams in the East. Worse yet, they have become exceedingly generous to some of the very weak teams, which is no way to tune up for the Stanley Cup.
Last week, in an exotic display of ineptitude, the Black Hawks somehow managed to score all three goals in a game with the Sabres in Chicago and lose 2-1. The first Buffalo goal was tapped home inadvertently by Chicago's Jim Pappin, and the winning Buffalo goal was scored in much the same witless way by Chicago's Christian Bordeleau. But there was more to come, as the Hawks continued their scoring binge. In Buffalo the next night the game was tied 3-3 with 2:01 left to play when Pat Stapleton, a Chicago defenseman, deflected a harmless shot by Sabre rookie Rick Martin into the Black Hawk net for what turned out to be the winning goal. "The Sabres deserve the Purple Heart," Bobby Hull said. "I won't say what we deserve." What the Black Hawks got was a verbal lashing from Coach Billy Reay. At last, on Saturday night back in Chicago, Hull helped restore normalcy to the ice as he scored his 40th goal of the season and led the Hawks to a 3-0 victory over the California Golden Seals.
First place and 40 goals have not made Hull a happy hockey player, however. "Every day the game loses some of its appeal," he says. "Expansion has diluted the old pride that gave such prestige to playing in a six-team, 120-man league, and I'm afraid that pride may never be regained. The game is big business now, run by money men, not sportsmen. They are in the game so they can tell their wives and friends, 'Come on. I'll take you down so you can meet the boys.' Fortunately, the longer part of my career was the good part—before expansion. And the travel; well, it's just murderous."
What bothers Hull most of all about expansion hockey is the fact that he has been unable to perform in the same electric style that juiced his goal-scoring records of the 1960s. "Maybe it's not realistic, maybe it's stupid to look back to those days," he says, "but it's impossible not to think about them." Since expansion Hull has performed under two peculiar handicaps. The Black Hawks have been unable to locate a center capable of adjusting his style to complement Hull's, and all the new teams shadow him with rugged kids who have orders to more or less trip, clip or mug him the instant he gets his stick on the puck.
"I'd love to play one season—just one season—as an ordinary left wing," Hull says. "I sit on the bench and see all the other left wings. When they get the puck there's no one within 50 feet of them. When I get it there's always someone right next to me. As far as I'm concerned, it's absolutely senseless for an expansion team to check me like that. Here they are trying to sell tickets, and they advertise that, well, Bobby Hull is coming to town. Then the people come out to see what they advertise, and what do they see instead? Some guy out there preventing you from doing what the people came to see. If I owned an expansion franchise and was trying to sell a lot of tickets and generate interest in the game, I'd build up the product by putting the worst bunch of players I could find out there on the ice whenever the advertised player came to town. That's what the people want to see, don't they?" His is not a totally unselfish viewpoint, but belabored Bobby has a point.
Around Chicago the joke is that Hull plays on the Donut Line. For five years Billy Reay has been trying desperately to find the ideal center for Hull and Right Wing Chico Maki. "You'd think that any center would be glad to have Bobby for a linemate," Reay says, "but it's not that easy to work with a star hockey player. I mean, you can't be very egotistical because you have to think more about feeding the puck to Bobby than keeping it yourself. And that is a problem with a lot of players."
Hull's center difficulties started at the end of the 1966-67 season when the Black Hawks traded Phil Esposito to Boston and Bill (Red) Hay retired. "I need a big, strong center, someone like Phil or Bill, who can hang onto the puck and wait for the right instant to feed me," Hull says. "I can't have a center who's always going to lose the puck when he gets hit." In the last five years Reay has tried, in alphabetical order, Lou Angotti, Andre Boudrias, Terry Caffery, Bryan Campbell, Gerry Goyer, Andre Lacroix, Pit Martin, Stan Mikita, Danny O'Shea, Paul Terbenche and Jim Wiste between Hull and Maki without prolonged success. Hull laughs when the names are recited. "It's so much easier to play the game when you have a regular center, someone who knows you," he says. "That makes the game fun."
Hull started the season with Campbell as his center. When the Black Hawks acquired Lacroix from Philadelphia they gave him a fling. Unfortunately, Lacroix not only was too small, he also was much too slow. "I told him that he was the first small Frenchman I'd ever seen who was not a great skater," says Reay. When Lacroix failed, Reay moved Martin onto Hull's line. "They had tried me with Bobby when I first came to Chicago in 1967 and I felt like the switchman on a railroad," Martin recalls. "Everyone told me to get the puck to Bobby, so when it would come to me I'd just switch directions and send it over to him. But Bobby doesn't want a center like that. If he was a pushy guy he'd have told me to keep the puck for a few moments and then get it to him when he broke free. But Bobby's not that way. He's not going to tell someone else how to play even if it might mean more goals for him."
For a time the Hull-Martin-Maki line was effective. "I've changed," Martin claims. "I'm not afraid to hang onto the puck, because I have more confidence. If Bobby's not in the clear, I don't force the puck to him. I try to make the play for myself." In any case, Reay removed Martin last week and installed Campbell once again.
To the layman, the answer to Hull's center dilemma might seem obvious: give the job to Stan Mikita, who is, after all, one of the best in the game. "I've tried it on occasion," Reay says, "but they don't work well together. Both Stan and Bobby need the puck, and there is only one puck to play with." Mikita agrees. "Bobby wants the puck 15 or 20 feet before he hits the blue line," he says. "I want to keep the puck until I get across the blue line. Our styles are so different that we could never play together regularly."
Hull and Mikita often appear on the same line during a Chicago power play but, as Mikita points out, a power-play situation is much more patterned than the usual rushing offense. "When we're on the power play," Mikita says, "I tell Bobby, 'Find a hole somewhere and I'll get the puck to you,' and then I try to set him up."
Despite the confusion around center ice, Hull continues to be a consistent goal scorer. The one difference is that whereas he used to beat goalies most often with long, 100-mph shots, he now scores many of his goals on rebounds and deflections. "Bobby has had to change his style," Mikita says. "I see him taking suicide passes, where he gets blind-sided as soon as he touches the puck. In the old days he never had to do that. He may not want to now, but he does."
Even if Reay someday finds the new Phil Esposito or the new Bill Hay to fill the hole in the Donut Line, Hull is not certain that he could duplicate the old Hull. "I was like a can of worms in the old days," he says. "I was wriggling all over the place. But I have left a lot of blood, sweat and tears between those boards. Don't forget, I'm 33 years old now. With my new style, I'll probably be good for another five to seven years."
If not in Chicago, then perhaps with Winnipeg in the new World Hockey Association? Who knows what a hemmedin superstar might do.