Our cocktail waitress this afternoon is chewing gum and straining to their outermost limits the seams of her black micro-miniskirt. For the last 15 minutes here at Quincy's Pub in downtown Philadelphia, she has been sneaking glances at a rugged-looking blond with cobalt-blue eyes and terrific dimples. When the object of her interest gets up to feed the juke box, she inquires of his drinking partner, "Who is he? Where have I seen him?"
Informed that she has been side-eyeing Brett Hull, the NHL's leading goal scorer and the most valuable player on the St. Louis Blues, she seems vaguely disappointed. "I thought maybe he was an actor," she says.
Perfectly understandable. As recently as three years ago, hockey experts were also disappointed with Hull, then a spare part with the Calgary Flames, saying he was an NHL pretender, a plodding, oneway player whose naps in the defensive zone offset his knack for humiliating goaltenders. Three seasons and 194 goals later, Hull has joined Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the rarefied aerie of NHL stars who transcend hockey.
Hull is the toast of St. Louis, the city's most popular sports figure since Stan Musial. If the regular season ended now, the 77 goals he had scored through Sunday would give him the fourth-highest single-season total in NHL history. (The record belongs to Gretzky, who scored an extraterrestrial 92 in 1981-82.) If the Blues finish first in the NHL's overall regular-season standings—at week's end, St. Louis and the Chicago Blackhawks were tied with 90 points—Hull should be a shoo-in for the league's MVP award. Earlier this season he was easily the biggest vote getter in the annual popularity contest that is the NHL's all-star balloting. He had already secured the affection of many of his NHL peers, partly because he is a swell, self-effacing, regular guy and partly because the contract he signed with the Blues last summer—$7.1 million for four years—has helped force niggardly owners to pay their stars relevant salaries.
March 18, 1991
In the big picture, Hull, 26, is a godsend for the NHL. Though Gretzky has played splendidly for the Los Angeles Kings this season, he is on the far side of 30. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Lemieux has suffered from a bad back for two years and—through no intentions of his own—from a lack of charisma for his entire career. Meanwhile, the league is negotiating a new television contract (the current deal with SportsChannel America expires after this season) and will add three teams in the next two seasons despite critics who claim expansion will dilute the NHL's talent level. That's debatable. This isn't: The NHL acutely needs a fresh, high-profile face.
That mug is Hull's. An American playing in an American city, he has helped sell the game in the States. He is a pure goal scorer, a home run hitter in a league starved for such glamour boys. Hull is a major reason why the Blues franchise, which has spent more time on the ropes than Rock Balboa, has increased its average attendance by almost 2,000 per game and is now profitable.
Of course, his pedigree is also too good to be true: His father, Bobby, the great blond brute who patroled the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers in the '60s and '70s, remains the best leftwinger in NHL history.
"It helped me unreal having my Dad who he was, because I learned very early that I was never going to be him," says Brett, the youngest of the Hall of Famer's three sons. "So I didn't even try. The sooner I figured out I was Brett, not Bobby, the better off I was gonna be."
Growing up in Chicago, then moving to Vancouver when he was 13, Hull played the game for fun. When he was 18—at which age Gretzky and Lemieux were burnishing international reputations—Hull dropped out of organized hockey to play in a juvenile league in Vancouver with a bunch of his buddies. To this crew, staving off thirst was as important as staving off defeat; beer was available on the bench during practices and in the dressing room after games. While ascending the steps to his destiny—from the Vancouver club team to Tier II junior hockey in Penticton, B.C., in 1983, to Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA a year later, to minor league Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1986 and, finally, to the NHL—Hull streamlined his once panda-shaped physique and saw his game improve by quantum leaps and bounds. Yet to this day it is clear from the way he smiles through practices, from his reluctance to come off the ice after his shifts and from the exuberance of his postgoal celebrations that there remains in Hull a bit of the Vancouver beer-leaguer.
His style is the polar opposite of his father's. Lowering his voice to a husky, macho baritone, Brett describes Bobby's game: "He was Mr. Physical, Mr. Aggressive, real flamboyant." Now the voice rises several octaves and takes on an affected dreaminess. "Me, I just hang in the weeds, biding my time, nice...and...passive."
By adopting a playing style so dissimilar to his father's, was Brett turning his back on Bobby? After an acrimonious divorce from Brett's mother, Joanne, in 1979, when Brett was 15, father and son had little contact for the next eight years.
"No, I wasn't trying to get back at him," says Brett. "See, that's a weird thing about me. I don't really get ticked off at anyone. I've never been in a fistfight. Don't have it in me."
Brett's distinctive style was part necessary adjustment—he is nowhere near the skater the Golden Jet was—and part defense mechanism. "This way, if anyone said to me, 'You're not as good as your Dad,' I could say, 'I don't play like him, so how could you compare us?' "
Well, we could start with numbers. In 16 NHL seasons, Bobby scored 610 goals. At his current pace, Brett, a right wing, will reach that number in less than nine seasons. He has put together two successive 70-plus-goal seasons, a feat previously accomplished in league history only by Gretzky and Lemieux. The elder Hull never cracked the 60-goal barrier.
"We have represented other 70-goal scorers," says Mike Barnett, the International Management Group agent who represents Hull and Gretzky. "Bernie Nicholls and Lanny McDonald [he actually scored 66]. No one other than Wayne has generated the corporate interest Brett has." In addition to an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola, Hull is a spokesman for a brand of trading cards. This summer, Tiger Electronics will unveil its Gretzky versus Hull hand-held one-on-one video game.
Gretzky has long been regarded as an ambassador for his sport. Hull is in the process of having such a role thrust upon him, and he's taking the added responsibilities in stride. After a recent off-day practice, most Blues showered and went home. Hull spent an hour answering fans' requests for autographs then drove to Granite City, Ill., a depressed steel town 10 miles north of St. Louis. Hull's assignment: to sign autographs at the grand opening of the new Shop 'n Save. He arrives, sits, takes a felt-tipped pen in his left hand and is transformed into an autographing machine.
"You say your name's Rat?" he asks a seven-year old. "That's a funny name."
"No, Matt", M-a-t-t."
"Nice hat!" Hull tells a youngster in a Seattle Sea-hawks cap. Hull is partial to the Seahawks.
The boy is speechless. "What do you say," his mother hisses. The young man issues a feeble "Thank you, Mr. Hull." A surprising number of the kids fail to say thank you. They're not ingrates; they're just totally awed. And not everyone today is speechless: Three decidedly unbashful young women in Granite City High letter jackets make sure that Hull is well within earshot when they take turns passing judgment on him:
"He is fine."
From Granite City, Hull drives to a hotel in downtown St. Louis, where he spends two hours posing for pictures with a hundred or so local Coca-Cola retailers. After everyone has had his picture taken with him, Hull collapses onto a couch, massaging his smile-fatigued face. "My cheeks are killing me," he says.
Were all the appearances starting to wear him down? "As long as I can get my quality relaxation time, I'm fine," he says. "If it ever comes to a point where you can't relax your mind, you're in a world of hurt."
The next night, Feb. 28, a crack appears in Hull's calm. Despite shelling New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter with 11 shots, including a point-blank cannon blast in overtime, Hull failed to score in a 4-4 game. "Did he even see that shot?" demands Hull, annoyed with himself for hitting Richter and not a corner of the net.
Down the hall, Richter is ebullient in stalemate. "The more I play against Brett," he says, "the more I realize, it's not the heaviness of his shot—up here, a lot of guys have a heavy shot—it's his release. It's so quick! Also, Brett is incredibly skilled at getting open. Somehow he's always sneaking into the slot, quiet as a mouse, and getting tap-ins."
Richter and Hull were teammates on Team USA at the 1986 world championships. Then a sophomore at Minnesota-Duluth, Hull joined Team USA, he recalls, as "pretty much an unknown carrying around a big name." His fondness for taking quality relaxation time in his own end did not endear him to coach Dave Peterson, who would scream at him, "Hull, we know you got a big goddam shot, now show us what else you can do!"
Richter can't recount those days without laughing. "Peterson's telling the team to skate hard, hustle, go in the corners, and there's Brett, this guy nobody's even heard of, doing figure eights, making the puck come to him and putting it in the net."
Hull's laid-back attitude and his seemingly effortless style have annoyed coaches throughout his career. "My personal philosophy has always been to expend more brain energy than body energy," he says. But after drafting him in the sixth round in 1984 and signing him in '86, the Flames didn't care much for Hull's personal philosophy. What they did care about was, Could he backcheck? Muck along the boards? Fit in among the team's legions of grinders? When it became clear that Hull couldn't—or wouldn't—his days in Calgary were numbered.
March 7, 1988, was the date of the deal that Flames apologists will rationalize into the next millennium. Hull and winger Steve Bozek were shipped to the Blues for back-up goalie Rick Wamsley and defenseman Rob Ramage. Informed hockey opinion said the Flames, who won the Stanley Cup the next year, had gotten the better of the deal. Going against the grain was Gretzky, who said, "It's a great trade for St. Louis. I wish we could have gotten him. He's going to score a ton of goals." It evidently takes a Great One to know one.
Rather than benching him for his defensive lapses, as the Flames had, Blues coach Brian Sutter showed Hull videos between periods of his mistakes—"Next time, pick up this guy here," Sutter would say, "or come back a little deeper here"—and sent him right back out. "Rather than taking a 40-goal scorer and trying to turn him into a solid, two-way, 20-goal man," says Sutter, "we tried to make him a 60-goal scorer and more of an all-around player."
As his reward, Sutter ended up with a potential 80-goal man whose popularity throughout the NHL has reached Gretzkian proportion. At the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 2, scores of youngsters in Brett Hull jerseys showed up to root for their hero. That is loyalty. Saturday-night Flyer games at the Spectrum have never been mistaken for Pee-wee's Playhouse, and this game was no exception. When this message flashed across the electronic scoreboard: MINA, WILL YOU MARRY ME, LOVE SKIP, raucous chants of "No! No! No!" filled the air. Definitely a tough crowd.
"I just admire the way the guy plays," said Keith Lapp, a junior at LaSalle High, who wore his Hull jersey even though his mother had pleaded with him not to. "She is afraid I'll be killed," he said.
Four minutes into the third period, Hull scored his 70th goal of the season, deking a Flyer defenseman to the ice, catching goalie Ron Hextall moving, then wristing the puck between Hextall's legs. Lapp stood and cheered while his buddies Joe Degovann and Brian Sutcliffe watched his back.
As his feats take him ever closer to hockey's uncharted waters, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Hull is only three years removed from that panda-shaped underachiever, the unknown lugging around a burdensome name.
"Funny thing about the name," says Brett Hull. "It's getting lighter all the time."