Column: Bobby Hull was a Chicago Blackhawks legend, but he leaves a complicated legacy

Column: Bobby Hull was a Chicago Blackhawks legend, but he leaves a complicated legacy

Few things in sports were as memorable as a rush up the ice by the Chicago Blackhawks with Bobby Hull handling the puck at Chicago Stadium.

A goal by the man with the hardest shot anyone had seen, combined with the acoustics of the original Madhouse on Madison, led to a sonic explosion that may never be replicated.

It was that incomparable slap shot, once measured at 118 mph, that separated Hull from the other top scorers in NHL history and helped build his reputation as the greatest Blackhawks player of all time.

A statue of Hull outside the United Center, next to one of longtime friend and teammate Stan Mikita, exemplifies his importance to the franchise and its part in the culture of a storied sports town.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led the organization’s revival in the 2010s and will go down as two of the most influential players in Hawks history. But for fans of a certain age, there was nothing quite like those Hawks teams of the 1960s and early ‘70s, when Hull, Mikita and Tony Esposito owned the town and play-by-play man Lloyd Pettit described the action with a breathless fury that kept you on edge every night.

Hull, who died at age 84, left a complicated legacy to be sure.

To his many fans and admirers, the stamp Hull left on the game, along with the contributions he made to charities over the years, including his involvement with the Special Olympics, should be the sole focus of reports on his death. He was generous with fans and the media, gregarious and loud, the proverbial life of the party.

But off-the-ice incidents, including allegations of domestic abuse by two of his wives, could not and should not be ignored when chronicling his life. Neither should a post-career interview with a Russian newspaper in which he allegedly praised Hitler and made racist remarks, though Hull issued a denial the next day and said he was misinterpreted.

Some legends weren’t meant to be icons.

Even so, the darker episodes of Hull’s past didn’t prevent the Blackhawks from making him a team ambassador or erecting the statue that still stands outside the stadium, showing Hull in his famous windup that terrified goaltenders with or without masks.

Hull’s athletic career was one most kids dream of. He was a prolific scorer with 610 NHL goals, including 604 in 15 seasons with the Hawks. He helped lead the Hawks to the Stanley Cup in 1961 and was tough enough to play with a broken jaw in 1968, wearing a football helmet with a face protector in an era before mandatory helmets.

And he became the face of a new league when he made the shocking jump from the Hawks to the World Hockey Association in 1972, a decision that helped future NHL players reap financial rewards while sealing the “cheapskate” reputation of the Wirtz family for years to come.

Before Michael Jordan brought his unique talents to the West Side, Hull was the most exciting athlete most of us had seen. My favorite moment came in Game 5 of the 1971 Stanley Cup semifinals against the New York Rangers, when Pit Martin won a faceoff with Walt Tkaczuk with 6½ minutes left in overtime and backhanded the draw to Hull, who rifled a 35-foot wrist shot past goaltender Ed Giacomin.

There may have been louder moments in Chicago sports, but none I can recall.

”It truly was a death struggle that ended suddenly,” Tribune Hawks reporter Ted Damata wrote. “The shot puncturing the overinflated tension balloon, the crowd coming up with the ‘pop’ and the players sagging in relief more than symbolically.”

The Hawks made it to the ‘71 Stanley Cup Final against the star-studded Montreal Canadiens and held a 2-0 lead in the second period of Game 7 at the Stadium when Hull’s shot dinged off the crossbar. The collective “Auuuuugh!” from Hawks fans, rising from the box seats on the glass to the second balcony, remains etched in our collective brains.

The Hawks wound up losing a heartbreaker that night. A year later came the most gut-wrenching loss of all, when Hull fled to the Winnipeg Jets on June 27, 1972, for a then-record 10-year, $2.5 million deal.

“This whole thing has made me wonder what the hell they were thinking,” Hull told the Tribune’s Bob Verdi upon signing. “They must have thought I was bluffing, or they must have thought they’d gamble that the Winnipeg offer would fall apart.”

Hawks owner Arthur Wirtz issued no comment. The team said the league had asked it not to respond.

It was a crushing day for every young Hawks fan, the first time many of us realized our heroes could leave for more money. What would we do with our No. 9 sweaters? How could the Hawks let their best player leave?

When Hull, Mikita and Esposito were honored before the final regular-season game at the Stadium in 1994, Hull conceded that leaving the Hawks after 15 years was the biggest regret of his career.

“I think a lot more good things would’ve happened here in those eight years I spent up in Winnipeg,” he said.

We’ll never know whether the Hawks would’ve won another Cup or two had Hull stuck around. We do know that didn’t happen until Kane and Toews arrived nearly four decades later.

The departure of Hull led to a long, cold war with the Hawks, and even his number retirement ceremony in ‘94 couldn’t fix the relationship. It wasn’t until current Chairman Rocky Wirtz, Arthur’s grandson, took over the team in 2008 and hired President John McDonough that Hull, Mikita and Esposito were brought in as team ambassadors.

Hull had come full circle, and it looked like the “Golden Jet” would spend his golden years back where he felt he always belonged. But the Hawks quietly removed him as team ambassador in early 2022 without explanation, later saying they were “redefining the role” after the deaths of Mikita and Esposito.

Some fans were upset by the decision, which came during the fallout from the team’s handling of sexual assault allegations in 2010 against then-video coach Brad Aldrich. Others wondered why Hull was allowed to represent the team after the domestic abuse allegations from his past.

Either way, he was seldom heard from after the role ended.

Rocky Wirtz paid tribute to the Hawks legend Monday, and the team will have a chance to honor Hull when it returns to the United Center after the All-Star break.

Hull will have one more moment on the West Side. The memories he made on the ice won’t soon be forgotten, and nostalgia is still what the Hawks do best.