Few things have shaken up the hockey world more than when the NHL lost one of its biggest stars, Bobby Hull, to a rival league. Such a thing was thought to be impossible. The NHL carried more prestige and power and hockey players across Canada dreamed of making the league and becoming a star.
As unthinkable as it was, that is exactly what happened when Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet, left the Chicago Blackhawks to play in a new league that had not even played a single season yet.
First, a bit about Bobby Hull.
Debuting in the NHL in the 1957-58 season with the Chicago Black Hawks, Hull would quickly emerge as one of the best players in the league on a team that included players such as Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. From 1957-58 to 1971-72, Bobby Hull played 1,054 games, recording 608 goals and 555 assists for 1163 points. In the process of recording those amazing numbers, he also won the Stanley Cup in 1961, the Art Ross in 1960, 1962 and 1966, the Hart Trophy in 1965 and 1966, the Lady Byng in 1966 and two All-Star game MVP awards in 1970 and 1971.
Other than possibly losing Bobby Orr, the NHL could not have thought of a more shocking situation than losing Hull to the WHA.
At the time, Hull was unhappy with his poor salary with the Black Hawks despite being one of the biggest stars in the league. The World Hockey Association was ready to launch and put pressure on the professional stranglehold held by the NHL and they needed someone of huge star power. That person was Bobby Hull.
At the time, Hull believed that he could get $250,000 a year for five years from the Blackhawks. At the time, he was making $90,000 and feeling underappreciated. One story of how he feels underappreciated, was when at training camp when the owners of the Blackhawks wouldn’t allow his two young sons to skate on the practice ice. He left training camp after three days because of it. In addition, since he was only 32, he still had several good hockey years ahead and he was devoted to the only team he had ever played for.
When the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA came to Hull asking him to join the team in 1972, he joked that he would do it for $1 million, the same amount that he hoped to get from the Hawks. Hull said it as a joke, since it was a sum of money beyond anything a hockey player had made before, especially as a signing bonus. For the Jets’ owner Ben Hatskin, he saw bringing Hull over to the league as a great way to immediately lend legitimacy to the league and to put the NHL on notice. Hatskin then gathered the other owners in the league and asked them to contribute to the $1 million so that they could nab Hull.
Once he had the money, Hatskin signed Hull as a player-coach to a contract worth $1.75 million over 10 seasons, including an immense $1 million signing bonus. At first, Hull thought it was a joke, like the joke he had made to them. He said, quote:
I pretended to go along with it, just to scare Chicago. Then my agent said, ‘Bobby, these guys are serious.’”
Chicago had thought Hull was bluffing, but they were soon to see that it was also very real when Hull signed the contract.
Hull would say, quote:
“If I told you that the big contract had nothing to do with my singing. I’d be lying. It made the future secure for my family. Then there were some things that disenchanted me in the NHL and the way the Hawks handled their attempts to sign me. They just didn’t think I’d consider jumping.”
In Chicago, there was anger at the Blackhawks for not keeping their superstar. Bob Verdi, the sportswriter at the Chicago Tribune, wrote on June 28, 1972, quote:
The big event was held in a huge press conference held at the intersection of Portage and Main in Winnipeg. At the event, a giant $1 million cheque for his signing bonus was presented to Hull.
The NHL would file litigation over the signing of Hull, which delayed his debut with the Winnipeg Jets. The move of Hull to the WHA also changed the face of the NHL. Now teams were forced to deal with the fact that they needed to pay their players more to keep them from moving over to the WHA. In response to Hull moving, the NHL would not allow Hull to participate in the 1972 Summit Series, nor any other WHA players.
When he finally joined the league, he took it by storm. In 1972-73, he played 63 games with the Jets, recording 103 points, and that wouldn’t even be his biggest year. In 1974-75, he had 142 points in 78 games and 123 points in 80 games the following season. In 1977-78, he had 117 points in 77 games. In the 1974-75 season, his 77 goals set a new professional hockey record, one more goal that the NHL record set by Phil Esposito in 1970-71. His goal record would not be surpassed until Wayne Gretzky scored 92 goals in 1981-82. Even today, his 77 goals remain the fifth highest professional hockey goal total behind only Wayne Gretzky, his son Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux.
The move to Winnipeg was not always easy for Hull, who would develop ulcers in response to the stress of playing several games on consecutive nights under conditions considered poor compared to the NHL. In addition, the WHA was always in danger of folding and teams were constantly relocating.
By joining the Jets and the WHA, Hull helped increase his profile in Canada even more. In 1975, he would be the official opener of the Calgary Stampede along with Premier Peter Lougheed.
In 1976-77, the players in the WHA were allowed to compete in the 1976 Canada Cup. In that series, he was the top scoring forward for Canada with eight points in seven games and he was considered the best player of the series next to Bobby Orr, who had nine points in seven games.
Over the course of his WHA career, Hull had 303 goals and 335 assists for 638 points in only 411 games. In the process he was named to the WHA First All-Star Team in 1973, 1974 and 1975, and the Second All-Star Team in 1976 and 1978. He also won the WHA Most Valuable Player award in 1973 and 1975, and led the Jets to the Avco Cup in 1976, 1978 and 1979. By the time the league folded and four teams joined the NHL, he ranked second in WHA history in goals, sixth in assists and third in point. In joining the NHL, he would play 18 games in the 1979-80 season before he was traded to the Hartford Whalers where he played with Gordie Howe, a player Hull grew up idolizing.
Hull’s 1,018 goals in the NHL and WHA rank third all time behind only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, who have 1,109 and 1,071 goals respectively.
After the merger, Hull ended his playing career in 1979-80 with a season split between the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers. In 1983, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1988, the Winnipeg Jets retired Hull’s jersey, and he was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1997, he was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. In 2016, he was inducted into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame.
The irony is that it was the Winnipeg Jets who opened up the wallets of NHL owners with their deal for Hull. A quarter century later, the Jets would be forced to move the team to Phoenix because they could not longer keep up with the increasing salaries of the NHL. Thankfully, the team would return thanks to a relocation for Atlanta nearly two decades later.
The move to Winnipeg also had another large impact on the NHL. After Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg joined the Jets and played on a line with Hull, the Jets developed a more European hockey focus. One person who saw that style and liked it was Glen Sather. Sather would use the style of the Jets to help the Edmonton Oilers win five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990.
In the years since his retirement, while he has been celebrated as a man who never refused to give an autograph, allegations of physical abuse of his wives have come to light, including some truly scary experiences. There was also the unfortunate incident when he seemed to praise Hitler and genetic breeding. While his on-ice accomplishments should be celebrated, we can’t forget the off-ice issues because no amount of skill as an athlete gives a pass to terrible behaviour as a human being.
Information comes from The Hockey Writers, ESPN, Wikipedia, Chicago Tribune, Blackhawklegends.com, Hockey Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, Sports Illustrated,