“He said to me … in a few minutes when the lights go out and everything goes quiet and the spotlight goes on that No. 9 flag, you’re not going to be able to talk,” Hull said. “He was absolutely right.”
On Tuesday night in St. Louis, it will be Bobby Hull’s turn to comfort the person standing next to him at a similar ceremony. Only this time, it should be even more emotional, as he watches the No. 16 of his son, former Blue Brett Hull, climb to the rafters at Scottrade Center.
Not in the 89-year history of the NHL has a father and son each had his number retired. Brett Hull will become the sixth player in Blues history to receive that honor, in a lavish ceremony preceding a game against the Detroit Red Wings.
“I was choked up and I bet that Brett will feel the same way,” Bobby Hull said.
Brett Hull, 42, is less prepared for Tuesday night than he was during 11 incredible seasons with the Blues, a franchise he joined in 1987 and, according to NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, “saved” with his deft scoring touch and alluring personality.
Asked this week if he had his speech ready, Hull replied, “Honest to God, I have no idea what I’m going to say. Obviously, I’m going to thank a lot of people, and show my appreciation to the city, the players that I played with and my family. It shouldn’t be too hard, but … you just hate to miss anyone because there’s a lot of people who were integral to my success and the great times in St. Louis.”
Hull said he’s looking forward to a night with family, fans and former teammates, including Adam Oates, Garth Butcher and Kelly Chase. Unfortunately, the person responsible for Hull playing in St. Louis, former GM Ron Caron, can’t make the trip from Montreal because of health reasons.
“I spoke to Mr. Caron a few days ago,” Hull said. “We just talked about the old days and how he’s doing, and how the new game is. He was probably the most integral part of my success in St. Louis because he’s the one that traded for me and gave me the opportunity to be a real full-time player in the league.”
Hull was playing with the Penticon Knights of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League when Caron took notice of him in the early 1980s. “When he was very young, someone showed me Brett Hull playing hockey, and I said, ‘He’s not showing me much,’ ” Caron said last week. “I could see he could shoot, but I said, ‘He’s lazy.’ ”
Caron learned that Hull would attend Minnesota-Duluth and felt that would be important to his career.
“I knew very well what happens in college because I was a successful scout in college,” Caron said. “I thought Brett was much different after he went to college … he became a passionate player.”
Drafted by Calgary in the sixth round of the 1984 NHL draft, Hull went to work for the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate. In 1986-87, he scored 50 goals in 67 games with the Moncton Golden Flames. In 1987-88, Hull was summoned to Calgary and scored 26 goals in 52 games. At age 24, he had potential, but the Flames needed experience as they closed in on a Stanley Cup.
Caron knew that.
“Ron kept saying, ‘I’m going to get my guy, I’m going to get my guy. I’ve got what they need,’ ” former Blues great Bob Plager remembers.
Calgary needed defense and goaltending, and on March 7, 1988, the Flames agreed to deal Hull and Steve Bozek to the Blues for defenseman Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley.
“We poured over the trade because you had Ramage and Wamsley … quality players,” former Blues chairman Michael Shanahan Sr. said. “But we were looking for an identifiable name to rejuvenate the Blues. It worked out great for everybody. Ramage and Wamsley got Stanley Cup rings (with Calgary in 1989) and Brett came and led the Blues’ resurgence.
“The first night Brett played for us, there were probably 300-400 people waiting around the railing in warm-ups. He skated out and they gave him a huge ovation. Looking at Ron Caron and (team president) Jack Quinn, I said, ‘I think we made the right move.’ The rest is history.”
Hull & Oates
The “Golden Brett” era began in 1988, but it took off a year later when the club traded for center Adam Oates. The two formed one of hockey’s best duos and their popularity soared. Kids carried backpacks and lunch boxes to school with the names “Hull & Oates,” a takeoff on the band featuring Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Hull said his chemistry with Oates began “the minute he got there and we started playing together. We kind of had the same … I don’t know if you want to call it, mind-set.”
Oates agreed that it was an instant connection.
“No question, we both felt that feeling right away,” Oates said. “The trust factor between the two of us was incredible. It was almost a ‘he knew that I knew that he knew’ thing. I made plays where I thought Brett would be.
“So we started asking Brian (Sutter) to play us together more. And the ‘Hull & Oates’ thing had a good ring to it, so that didn’t hurt.”
In 1989-90, Hull scored 72 goals and Oates had 79 assists. The following year, Hull netted a career-high 86 goals and Oates notched 90 assists.
“They were like the black and white keys on the piano,” Shanahan said. “They made great music together.”
Detroit general manager Ken Holland, then a scout for the Red Wings, said: “You kept looking at the scoring summaries and they said: ‘Oates 2 assists, Hull 2 goals.’ It went on for weeks and months and years.”
Oates told Hull one day, “I would rather pass and watch you score than score myself,” Hull said. “It was just the dead opposite for me. There’s nothing better, I felt, than hammering a shot and beating the goalie. We were almost a perfect pair.”
Oates said that he never felt slighted because of Hull’s popularity.
“No, not at all … zero,” he said. “Some guys are destined to be presidents and some vice presidents. He was a goal-scorer, a superstar. There are v
ery few superstars in life.”
Said Bobby Hull: “Brett Hull and Adam Oates were the greatest 1-2 scoring punch in the history of hockey. Stupidly, some hockey people didn’t think they were good enough to play together, and they broke it up. That was one of the biggest travesties in Brett’s career.”
In February 1992, 54 games into the season, the team traded Oates, who had wanted to renegotiate a contract that he signed the previous summer. “I think clearly if we played a lot longer, we would have had some incredible numbers, no question,” Oates said. “Who knows where we would have gone?”
Flying solo, Hull’s numbers never reached quite the level they did with Oates, but his legend grew even greater. From his funny one-liners to his back-and-forth bickering with Blues coach and general manager Mike Keenan, there was never a dull moment for fans or teammates.
One of Chase’s favorite stories came at the expense of brothers Rich and Ron Sutter, who were from Viking, Alberta.
“One night, we were playing, Richie got a breakaway and missed the net,” Chase said. “He back-checked like crazy in a shorthanded situation and got the puck back to Ronnie. Ronnie takes off, he gets a breakaway and he misses. Brett’s on the bench in a miserable mood, turns around and says to (coach) Bob Berry, ‘Oh my gawd, Bob,’ … in that whinny voice … ‘How many 0-0 ties were played in Viking, Alberta?’ ”
Hull became the “hook” that Shanahan, Quinn and Caron were looking for when they made the trade. Attendance rose again in the mid-1990s, and in 1995, the team moved into a new arena.
“I can remember … you didn’t see many fans standing outside after the game looking for autographs in the pre-Brett Hull days,” Shanahan said. “And then you saw lines of them. When the team went on the road, we had to smuggle Brett on the plane.”
“We were driving home one New Year’s Eve, and we got lost and went into East St. Louis,” Chase said. “All the folks were out in the streets, celebrating, and they started yelling, ‘Hey, Brett … it’s Brett Hull. You’re the Michael Jordan of hockey.’ It was just fun to know that he touched that many people.”
Although Hull knew he was wildly popular during his Blues career, he said last week that he never realized the real impact until recently.
“We never really took any time — or at least I didn’t — to soak anything in,” he said. “I just lived by the seat of my pants. It was just one big, never-ending circle of fun.”
That changed later in Hull’s career, after the Blues brought in Keenan to run the club. Hull declined to go into detail about his sparring matches with Keenan, saying, “There were just too many.” But he said that Keenan’s dictator style made it “no fun to play anymore.”
Hull moves on
In the summer of 1998, Hull’s days in St. Louis ended when the team chose not to re-sign him. Hull reportedly wanted a no-trade clause, and the team wouldn’t offer that.
“He called me and said, ‘You know what, they don’t want me back,’ ” Chase said. “I said, ‘No, no. They just want you to take less money.’
“He said, ‘No, I accepted what they offered, and they didn’t want me.’ It hurt him. But you know there’s different reasons why teams do what they do, and it worked out good for Brett.”
Hull became a free agent and signed with Dallas, where he won the first of his two Stanley Cups in 1999, scoring the clinching goal in triple overtime of Game 6 against Buffalo. After three seasons with the Stars, he moved on to Detroit and won his second Cup.
That answered the question of whether you could win a championship with Brett Hull.
“After we won in Detroit … I said, ‘Someone (Keenan) kept saying you couldn’t win a Cup with Brett Hull,’ ” Hull said. “Now, it looks like you can’t win one without him.’ ”
“When he won his first Stanley Cup,” Gretzky said, “I was as happy for him as I was when I won my first Cup. You get this sort of label of being an MVP or an 80-goal scorer, and until you win a Stanley Cup … you’re not branded as part of the group. So I was very genuinely happy for him.”
Hull, who retired last season after five games with Gretzky’s Phoenix Coyotes, would finish his career as the third-highest scorer in NHL history. Between him and Bobby Hull, who is No. 12 all time on the league’s scoring list, they combined for 1,351 goals.
“Obviously, it’s the greatest goal-scoring family in the history of the NHL — by far,” Holland said.
Both will be standing on the Scottrade Center ice Tuesday.
“It was my dream to play in the NHL, and to play professionally was the thrill of a lifetime,” Bobby Hull said. “Then all of the sudden here comes Brett Hull and he becomes the third-highest scorer in the history of the NHL, and I can tell you that every time I saw Brett play, he thrilled the hell out of me. Anytime I watched him the buttons popped off my shirt. No one played the game any better — the way it should have been played — than Brett Hull.”
Hull scored 527 of his 741 NHL goals in a Blues uniform. “There were so many moments,” Caron said. “Every time I saw him play, he excited me.”
Gretzky says that without Hull, the Blues may have left the city.
“Maybe I’m biased because I’m good friends with him, but I don’t think the St. Louis Blues franchise or this building would be here today had he not been traded to the Blues,” Gretzky said.
Hull countered: “I guess you would say that’s the ultimate compliment by the ultimate hockey player. I can’t really believe that because I know the people of St. Louis … they would have rallied behind someone, and the great people that were running the franchise at that point would have gotten a different Brett Hull. But I feel very fortunate that it was me.”