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Bobby Hull: Still smiling after all these years

You often wonder what it will be like to meet a “celebrity”. Will they be nice? Will they blow you off?

I can’t absolutely pinpoint the year, but I’m going to say I was 12 or 13 and in grade 7, which would put us back to the 1965-’66 National Hockey League season.

There was an ad in the paper saying that Bobby Hull was going to be at the Canadian Tire in Windsor (Ontario). For us, that was about a 20-25 minute drive from our small hometown of River Canard in Essex County.

I no doubt bugged my Dad to take me, and he relented. Games in those days of the 6-team NHL were usually on a Wednesday or Thursday (in addition to Saturday and Sunday), so it must have been the case that the Blackhawks were scheduled to play in Detroit on a Thursday night, and this was the night before. Canadian Tire would have paid Hull a small fee to appear and draw people into the store.

While Hull would have been among the highest-paid players in those days, no one in the NHL was making anywhere near the $100,000+ annual salaries like the top baseball stars were receiving in that era, guys like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and a few others. So, making extra cash through commercial endorsements or appearances was important.

As anyone who followed hockey in the pre-expansion days knows, Hull was one of a handful of players who were true superstars in those days. Rocket Richard had retired, Gordie Howe was nearing the end of his brilliant career. Frank Mahovlich was a wonderfully talented player but considered something of an enigma. Bobby Orr was to come shortly thereafter.

But at that time, Hull was the man. While not overwhelmingly large, and certainly not so compared to today’s players, he was unbelievably strong. He loved to take the puck from behind his own net and make the rink-long rush. He had the hardest shot in the game, and along with Stan Mikita and Andy Bathgate were really the first guys to use the ‘curved stick’ regularly. Though his great Hawk teams won only one Stanley Cup (in 1961, while beating Montreal in the semi-finals and breaking a run of 5 straight Cups for the Habs) they were loaded with names I remember to this day: Glenn Hall, Mikita, Pierre Pilotte, “Moose” Vasko, Bill Hay, Kenny Wharram, former Leaf Eric Nesterenko and many others.

But the guy who gave the Hawks that swagger was Hull. He was media-friendly and had a magnetic presence about him. (We’ve included a great old photo of Hull after he scored 50 goals in a season for the first time near the end of the 1961-’62 season.)

His may have been the first “cross-over” hockey star, in the sense that he had broad public appeal and attracted companies anxious to use his name and appearance to boost sales. I recall that, in the mid ‘60s, he appeared in print ads with big names from other sports, such as Frank Gifford and Bob Cousy.

Hull was known to sign autographs after games for as long as kids were willing to wait for his signature. The stories in those days were many of teammates who grumbled about the team bus having to wait for Hull, but Hull obviously recognized that without fans, where would he be? He did this for years, and the players who complained were among those who benefited from the stature Hull gave the game, the revenues he helped generate and the salaries he helped to drive up.

As I think back, I remember inviting my grade-school friend Gary to join us that night. My Dad was always willing to give one of my friends a ride, and so we picked Gary up that night and headed to Windsor. When we got there, there was already a line up waiting to meet Hull. We sat in our car in the store parking lot, and waited. We waited because my Dad was not a fan of standing in line, so we listened to the car radio and talked. My Dad read his ever-present newspaper.

We kept peering in through the windshield to see what was happening in the storefront window, but the line never seemed to get shorter. Finally, after sitting in the cold car for more than two hours, and realizing the time that was promoted for Hull to be on hand (probably 7:30-9:30pm) was coming to an end, we decided we better get into the line up, for fear that stragglers like us would be cut off.

We were almost the very last people in the now shortened line, and we hoped Hull would stay to the very end. What stays with me to this day is that, after what was probably 3 hours of ‘meeting and greeting’ people, he was still so friendly, smiling. He shook hands with all of us, talked farming with my Dad. (Hull was raised in a small farming community not far from Belleville, Ontario). He even signed the hockey puck my buddy Gary had brought along. (I wasn’t smart enough to bring anything to sign.) I’m pretty sure it was not to be a night for autograph requests, in order to keep the line moving. But again, it was the end of the night and Hull was kind enough to stay and sign for Gary.

I bring this up in part because, only a very few years ago, I brought my youngest son to a memorabilia show near the airport in Mississauga. My son and I stood in line to have Hull sign a photo for my son. I was happy to pay the fee involved, as this brought back wonderful memories for me, and would be a lifelong memory for my son. Hull, then well into his 60’s, couldn’t have been friendlier with my son, still flashing that great smile of his 40 years after I first met him, albeit briefly, at a small Canadian Tire store.

But you know what stood out about this last “meeting” with Hull at the memorabilia show? As we were leaving, a fan who had also waited quite some time in line asked Hull to sign an item that was not sold on site by the company that had paid Hull to appear. The organizers tried to send the man away. But Hull quietly spoke with the man, and told him where he could go to meet Hull outside after the event was over in a few minutes. Hull offered to sign the item for the man.

I have no doubt that Hull signed the item—for free—just as he did (and also wasn’t “supposed” to) for my friend Gary 40 years before.

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