Outside the dressing room in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, Bobby Hull greets his son Brett with a slight verbal jab.
"You looked a little tired out there," says the elder Hull. The date is Dec. 11. The St. Louis Blues, for whom Hull's son plays, have just lost a third period lead and the game to the Maple Leafs, 3-1.
Brett, sporting an angry gash across the bridge of his nose, courtesy of a Maple Leaf stick, retorts in his best don't-pick-on-me voice: "Are you kidding? I could have gone all night."
It was an interesting exchange—and not only because it reflected a bit of the good-natured rivalry between father and son. The fact is, as recently as last season, Brett, 25, may not have been able to talk about playing an entire game. He was always too lazy and too overweight. His father, 50, is a Hall of Famer, the greatest left wing ever to play the game. But until this season, Brett, a right wing, was pretty much a one-way player. Now he is a surprising second in the NHL in goals scored—with 25—and is quickly polishing other aspects of his game as well.
Last summer, at the Blues' behest, Hull embarked on a training-and-conditioning program that gave him a new shape and attitude. His defensive as well as offensive play, goal total and leadership skills have since been improving with the speed of the slap shot for which the Hull name became famous. Through the Blues' 3-3 tie with the Edmonton Oilers last Saturday night, Hull was second in goals to Luc Robitaille of the Los Angeles Kings, who had 26. Hull led the league in shots attempted, with 146, ranked seventh in scoring, with 45 points, and, significantly, had improved his plus/minus rating from an abysmal-17 last season to a +11 this year.
"He's a young man in a position to score a lot of goals in the NHL, and it was up to him whether he wanted to be an ordinary hockey player scoring 40 goals or be a damn good hockey player, improve in other areas of the game and score 55 to 65 goals," says Blues coach Brian Sutter, who as a player was known for his work ethic. "He's responded in all the things we wanted him to do."
Being the son of a man who scored 610 goals in 16 NHL seasons is a heavy enough load to carry, but Brett also must be compared with his father in the way he scored. The Golden Jet used to gather the puck in the defensive zone and skate up ice with a rare combination of grace and speed, blond hair flowing, stick cocked high above the shoulder a moment before he struck. Then came the booming slap shot, which in '65-66 helped make him the first NHL player to score more than 50 goals in a season.
Brett has the same bright, piercing blue eyes as his father, the same shock of blond hair and a slap shot reminiscent of Bobby's. But that's where the similarities end. Bobby's skating ability and intensity were matched by few. Brett skates with short, choppy strides, as though he's always trying to catch up to the play, and until this season his intensity left much to be desired. The most noticeable difference, other than Bobby's having a lefthanded shot and Brett a righthanded one, is in physique. Bobby, now a cattle rancher in Ontario, looks like Popeye after a jolt of spinach, his chest stretching the seams of his sweater. Brett's build is less impressive.
Brett and his father have had a distant relationship since 1979, when Bobby and Brett's mother, Joanne, went through an acrimonious divorce. Brett has long since come to terms with the breakup, and he also has put the father-son comparisons into perspective.
"It works both ways," says Brett. "Compare me to him favorably and I say, 'That's great being compared to a legend.' Yet it can work the other way when people say, 'How could you ever be as good as someone in the Hall of Fame who had that many goals?' We're two different people with two different styles in two different eras of the game. How can you compare?"
Before he was ever given the nicknames the Golden Brett, the Great Brettzky and the Incredible Hull, Brett was known as Pickle, a reference to his bulbous shape. By age 18 he was 5'10" and packed nearly 220 pounds.
"I'm basically a lazy person," Hull admits. His sloth almost cost him his career. After he finished midget hockey in '81, the 16-year-old Hull's prospects were so dim that he virtually dropped the sport. He finally latched onto a Tier II junior team in Penticton, B.C., and began opening eyes.
In 1984 Hull accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota at Duluth, where as a freshman he scored 32 goals in 48 games. "He scared the hell out of every goaltender in college," says New York Ranger scout David McNab, who followed him as a scout for the Hartford Whalers. "At every level he could get by on talent and that shot. The thought was that if he could get himself in shape and work hard, he'd be a star."
Hull showed up at his first training camp, with the Calgary Flames in 1986 (the Flames had made him a sixth-round draft choice in '84), looking like the Pillsbury doughboy. He did appear in 57 games for the Flames over the next two seasons, scoring 27 goals, but played lackadaisically and was shipped to St. Louis in a 1988 deal that brought defenseman Rob Ramage and goalie Rick Wamsley to the Flames.
"He would score, but he was one-dimensional," recalls Blues general manager Ron Caron. "But I liked what I saw and made the trade. His future is unlimited if he keeps working."
Last season Hull scored a team-leading 41 goals and had 84 points, but his labored skating and lack of attention in the defensive zone were liabilities. After the season, Sutter took Hull aside and told him how important he was to the club and how much he could improve if he concentrated on it.
It worked. Brett says he cut back on his partying, dieted and spent the summer running, doing aerobics and skating with members of the U.S. Olympic team. Instead of red meat, he ate chicken; instead of a baked potato, he went for rice. Brett reported to camp at 197 pounds, the roll of flab around his waist a bad memory, his attitude new and improved. Although he weighed only eight pounds less than he did in 1988, he added muscle and redistributed the weight to the right places.
The results have had an immediate impact on his game. Hull's skating is dramatically better, and while he's still not end-to-end fast, a new quickness is evident. No more does Brett depend solely on his slap shot. "I think I scored one goal with it this year," he says.
Hull's quickness allows him to dart in and out of traffic, and as often as not, he can be found in the slot waiting for center Peter Zezel or left wing Sergio Momesso to pass him the puck.
That's how Hull scored the first of the Blues' goals in a 3-1 win over the Rangers on Dec. 13. With time running out on a St. Louis power play, Momesso took the puck from Ranger defenseman Ron Greschner and backhanded a pass to Hull, who had his back turned to goaltender Bob Froese. In one quick motion, Hull turned and snapped the puck over Froese's shoulder. It was truly a goal scorer's goal.
Eight minutes later, Hull held the puck behind the Ranger net and waited patiently until center Adam Oates worked himself free at the side of the cage. Hull then put the puck on Oates's stick, he scored and the Blues led 2-1 on their way to the victory.
"There are very few players in the game like Brett Hull," says Sutter. "When he puts his mind to doing something, he's scary."
"All anybody has to do with that kind of talent is work at it," says Bobby. "I think he's at the point where he realizes that if he comes to play every game, he can amount to something special."
Father knows best.