The St. Louis Blues officially “retired” Brett Hull’s #16 this week. He had a larger impact on the franchise than any other player in its 40-year history, and he was the best player on the team from the moment he arrived to the moment he left. But he never became my favorite player. This week I’ve been reflecting on why.
First, probably every thing I loved and hated about Hull is best represented here: in a nice collection of anecdotes about him from former teammates, compiled by the dedicated but painful-to-read-or-listen-to Andy Strickland. Still, while all the humor, the talent, and the obnoxious selfishness is well-represented in Strickland’s post, I’m going to continue to exorcise my Hull demons by processing my own picture of him and the 10 years of personal memories he created.
The tide turns
As a talent, Brett Hull thrilled me from day one. On March 7, 1988, the Blues acquired him after getting new ownership that was determined to replace the destructive firesales of the preceding six years. I still remember the excitement I felt from seeing his and Steve Bozek’s mug shots on the front of the sports page that day. In the mid-’80s, one by one, the team had dealt every star (save the real heart-and-soul, untradeable duo of Brian Sutter and Bernie Federko) to pinch pennies. Due to ownership uncertainty, the team even did not participate in the 1983 draft, setting the franchise back immeasurably. I watched as favorite stars — Mike Liut, Joey Mullen, even coach Jacques Demers — were all let go over money.
Fan favorites Rob Ramage and Rick Wamsley were dealt, too, but this time it was different: we got a budding star, Hull, in return.
He literally could score from anywhere. Players invented new ways of cheating just to keep him from getting his shot away. But he had such a quick release, and was so good at reading a developing play, that a mere split second of freedom was all he needed to get a stunning, deadly shot off. It’s impossible to smother an opponent for every second of every shift of every period, and Hull was a master at turning those few lax seconds of each game into scoring opportunities. He was by no means fast; but he saw the field of play the way brilliant stars in any sport always do: with an almost omniscient perspective that few understand (except afterwards on video replay, from a much broader angle). That vision mitigated the importance of his speed. He racked up gobs of goals no one could ever have imagined would come from a human in a seemingly cursed Blues uniform.
Media darling, devout fan’s scourge
Alas, he was also a character, a blow-hard, a media puppetmaster, and a player all too aware of his talent and all too willing to abuse the liberties that talent earned him. He had public run-ins with every Blues coach he had (something that didn’t change when he moved on to Dallas), and he played Post-Dispatch beat writer Dave Luecking like a toy, as Luecking was always willing to print Hull’s mouth-fart quotes rather than focus on the damned game.
The line I’ve heard about Hull more than anything else — including “star,” “sure Hall of Famer,” or “goal machine,” was “a sportswriter’s dream.” Ack! Fie! A plague on your publication! Few things in sports irritate me more than a lazy writer happy to cover the B.S. and the controversy of a star personality rather than the game itself. I guess I’m in the minority, but I don’t follow sports for gossip or reality-show off-field drama. Controversy and me-first high-jinks, while occasionally entertaining, are not why I watch. Don’t give me “I am the greatest.” Don’t show me the damn money. But with Hull, that was the baggage that came with the goals.
Anyway, Hull came in with a reputation for being unfit and lazy, and though he didn’t exactly play lazy (you can’t fight through that much opposing checking without working your tail off), he did have a very narrow, self-centered view of his responsibilities: score goals, period. Let the other players handle the defense. Even though he ripped less-talented teammates relentlessly, few teammates seemed to ever challenge Hull to behave and backcheck — the kind of thing necessary to win, no matter how many goals you score. Probably because they all knew his unbelievable talent made *one* part of their jobs easier, and also because, by all accounts, he was a character and friend to be around off the ice.
So if the teammates can’t discipline the star to behave in the interests in the team, what does that leave? The coach. But whenever a coach tried to fit Hull into a team plan, Hull resisted, he bit back, he pouted to the media, and he even — inexfuckingcusably — stopped trying. That doesn’t exactly maintain team morale when the team’s leader is acting like a five-year-old.
You can win a Cup with Brett Hull, sure; you just can’t win one with Brett Hull as your leader
The line about Hull while he was with the Blues, constantly creating controversy and stirring a roiling debate among the fan base, was that “you can’t win a Cup with Brett Hull.” Imagine! The best, most electrifying player in a franchise’s history, and a good portion of the fan base can’t stand him and/or wants him out of town “so the team can win”!! What sins and daily irritants must a flatteringly covered, media darling superstar commit to elicit such a response?
But the naysayers only had it half-right: you can win a Cup with Brett Hull. You just can’t win one when he has the run of the locker room.
So it was ironic and predictable: Mike Keenan (and, probably, other Keenan-supported teammates) finally got Hull to backcheck, but he still hated Keenan so much that he sabotaged the situation as much as possible, in the process earning himself almost as much of the blame for the waste that was the Keenan years as Keenan himself. Joel Quenneville, too, got Hull to play responsibly, but Hull still had major run-ins with him in front of the whole team — including the legendary incident when he fired a puck at his coach during practice. That era was finally the last straw, and the Blues let the team’s Best.Player.Ever. walk as a free agent. I personally hated to see him go; I knew we were letting a still-thriving legend walk. Yet part of me was also very, very relieved to be rid of him.
He signed with Dallas — home to another coach, Ken Hitchcock, who wanted him to play responsible defense — and he pouted and raised hell again. The difference this time was that he wasn’t the locker room’s alpha male. In Dallas, there were already established leaders who not only helped keep him in line but also set the tone for the other role players that this sort of laziness and petulance would not stand. They won the Cup his first year.
But — shock! — three years later, Dallas let him walk, too. He wasn’t washed up; he hadn’t “lost a step” (there was no step to begin with), yet Dallas let him leave without compensation. In Detroit, he won another Cup, but Detroit had even more stars and locker room leaders, and another hard-nosed coach in Scotty Bowman (who was in some ways similar to Keenan yet without the debilitating pathological streak), so he was kept largely in line.
And that is why, even though he was the most exciting player my favorite team ever had, even though I have more great sports memories associated with him than anyone else, even though he did magical things in a three-year run with linemate Adam Oates that I will never s
ee again, and even though I of all people could sometimes laugh at the things he said…that is why I will always have a bitter taste in my mouth when I think of Brett Hull.
He was such a prolific scorer. He made hockey so exhilarating. His honors are all well-deserved. The sound of Dan Kelly or Ken Wilson saying, “He shoots, he scores! Brett Hull!” still brings a sentimental tear to my eyes, as does the memory of John Kelly shouting “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” after Hull ended a long playoff overtime game.
And yet…and yet. I will always wonder what could have been if the superstar hadn’t tainted his highlights by behaving like a spoiled, whiny little brat.