Brett Hull isbehind the wheel of his silver Infiniti, en route to his new restaurant, on theoutskirts of St. Louis. As is his wont, Hull is interviewing his interviewer."You know what the worst thing about St. Louis is?" he asks.
Would it be thatits hockey fans have lately been booing his close friend Adam Oates, thebrilliant but disgruntled St. Louis Blues center who has set up roughly half ofHull's 136 goals in the season and a half that they've played together? Wrong."It's the 'on' ramps," says Hull as he executes a ticklish merge ontoI-40. "They're too damn close to the 'off' ramps. You've got about fiveseconds to get left, or you're screwed."
Noticing thestrange, vaguely alarmed look on his passenger's face, Hull explains. "Iworry about the little things," he says. "That way I'm too distractedto worry about the big things." Such as:
•His numbers.After 49 games through last weekend, Hull had 49 goals. The NHL goal-scoringrace is all but over—the next closest guy, the Chicago Black-hawks' JeremyRoenick, was 13 goals back at week's end. On Tuesday of this week against theLos Angeles Kings, Hull had a chance to ascend to Wayne's World, that is, tobecome the only player in league history other than the Kings' Wayne Gretzky toget 50 goals in 50 or fewer games in consecutive seasons.
•His mouth. Acannon on the ice—Hull has one of the NHL's top five slap shots—he is a loosecannon off it. Twice this season, after scoldings from Susie Mathieu, theBlues' vice-president-director of public relations, Hull has retractedinflammatory statements. He has verbally sparred with just about everybody: St.Louis's front office, the league, Blues fans, even the Golden Jet, his father,Bobby.
•His feistiness.Through Sunday, Hull had 44 penalty minutes, about double his full-seasonaverage for his five previous years in the NHL. This doesn't mean he has takento taping tinfoil over his knuckles before games, but it does reflect anewfound aggressiveness.
Hull, 27, beganthis, his most contentious NHL season, on a cranky note. His summer was long onappearances—television commercials, hockey camps and banquets—and short on theoff-season activities at which he excels: golf, softball, vegetating. Theoff-season was truncated by the Canada Cup, in which Hull's performance forTeam USA was desultory, and his desire and attitude were questioned by hockeyobservers. "I don't need this," he grumbled after the series.
That grouchinesshad started a couple of weeks earlier, when the Blues lost their premierdefenseman, Scott Stevens, as compensation to the New Jersey Devils for havingsigned restricted free-agent Brendan Shanahan earlier in the summer. When thearbitrator, Judge Edward Houston, awarded Stevens to the Devils in a decisionthat heavily favored New Jersey, Hull was furious. "The fix was in," hesnapped, meaning that with his ruling, Houston was punishing the Blues forhaving signed a free agent and was thereby discouraging movement by future freeagents. Hull's remark reached the office of NHL president John Ziegler, who didnot smile. Take it back, said Ziegler. Hull did, in a statement that didn'texactly resonate with contrition.
When Hull openedthe regular season with a whimper—three goals in eight games—the sports talkshow sniping in St. Louis began in earnest: Hull, in the second year of afour-year, $7.1 million contract, had become fat and happy. Last season was afluke. Hounded by the opposing team's top checkers every night, he wouldn'tcome within a two-line pass of 86 goals, which he had in 1990-91.
Forty-six goals,six hat tricks and six game-winning goals later, Hull has muzzled his critics,even as he has confounded the gimmick defenses of Blues opponents. Half theteams that St. Louis plays assign a player to shadow Hull. When he is shadowed,Hull often skates into the low left circle, occupying two skaters, the tail anda defenseman. That opens the ice for a teammate. "Brett never getsfrustrated, never loses his cool," says Buffalo Sabre shadow ColinPatterson. "He knows his scoring chances will come."
Many of hisgoals, though, are coming at a cost. Hull is taking more hits than ever."But it's cool," says Blues tough-guy Kelly Chase, "because Brett'sstarting to give it back."
Hull gave as goodas he got last month against the Minnesota North Stars. Minnesota goalie DarcyWakaluk slashed Hull, who had been trespassing near the crease, across theshins. Skating away, Hull whacked Wakaluk in the back of the head with hisstick. This is the Brett Hull who won the 1989-90 Lady Byng Trophy, given forgentlemanly play?
While behind thePhiladelphia Flyer net early in the season, Hull, not exactly known for hisphysical play, knocked Flyer forward Rod Brind'Amour off the puck and thenpassed to Oates, who fed Hull for an easy goal. Brind'Amour, who playedpreviously with the Blues, fixed his ex-teammate with a stare that said, Brett,is that you?
A newfoundmachismo has not been the only thing out of the ordinary for Hull this season.Around Christmas, his father was quoted in a Canadian Press story as sayingthat Brett needed "to get his head screwed on straight." Brett had somechoice words to say about his old man, none suitable for publication. Earlier,St. Louis G.M. Ron Caron had also done some bashing. "Hull and Oatesfloat," said Caron. "They're not happy unless they play 30 or 40minutes."
The fans' abuseof Oates came to a head on Jan. 14, when the Blues played the WashingtonCapitals at home. Oates is perhaps the best passer this side of Gretzky, yetwith a $420,000 salary this season, he is only the fifth-highest-paid St. Louisplayer. Oates wants to renegotiate his contract, which he has already donetwice since signing it in 1989. Every time Oates touched the puck in St.Louis's 6-1 loss to the Caps, he was roundly booed. Afterward Hull was furious."Anyone who booed tonight is a loser," he said. "It made mesick."
One fan held up asign during the game that read ADI-OATES. Hull called him "a fat,bald-headed bastard" and said, "I felt like climbing up there andripping his head off."
A day later, atMathieu's prompting, Hull phoned a local sportswriter to issue an apology—andthen proceeded to pump in five goals in his next three games. Clearly, neithercontroversy nor front-office miscalculations nor dark of night can keep Hullfrom the completion of his appointed mission: filling the net the way no oneelse in the NHL can.