Wanna blog? Start your own hockey blog with My HockeyBuzz. Register for free today!
 

One Hull of a Life

January 30, 2023, 10:26 PM ET [3 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulStewart22

I found myself getting a little misty-eyed several times today, whenever I'd think about Bobby Hull. The Golden Jet touched so many lives both as a player and as an ambassador for the game. Along with Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, Hull is someone that I feel blessed to have watched play and gotten to know.

When someone dies and we get teary, are we crying for the person who passed or are we, to some degree at least, crying for ourselves and time we'll never get back? I think it's both. After the news broke today about Bobby Hull passing at age 84, a lot of memories came flooding back to me all at once.

For my 14th birthday, my father bought tickets to a Bruins vs. Black Hawks game at Boston Garden. It was the next-to-last game of the 1966-67 regular season: March 30, 1967 (my birthday is March 21). The Black Hawks, who finished in first place during the regular season, beat the last-place Bruins by a 3-1 score. Bobby Hull's brother, Dennis, broke a 1-1 tie late in the third period on a play set up by Phil Esposito. In the same game, a rookie Bobby Orr made a dazzling play that set up a Tommy Williams power play late in the first period. Espo tied the game in the second period and then Dennis Hull won it. Chicago scored an empty netter in the waning seconds.

After the game, Bobby Hull made a point of seeking out Orr before he left the ice to shake his hand. The Bruins were about to go home for the summer, while the Black Hawks were moving on to play the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hull took advantage of the chance to speak to Orr. That made a strong impression on me.

Another early memory of seeing Hull play: After there was some scuffle or another on the ice, several fans pelted the ice with litter. Someone else batted a beach ball onto the ice. Hull corralled a puck and shot it at the beach ball. The thing just about exploded!

When I was a student on the hockey team at Groton, I wore Number 9. As much as I admired Gordie Howe, I specifically choose it because of Bobby Hull. In my dream of dreams, I'd have been able to shoot the puck the way Hull did. Recently, I was able to get possession of my old No. 9 jersey. I plan to donate it to The Sports Museum in Boston, which has interest in it as an item from local sports history.

A few years later, when I was a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to the World Hockey Association game between the Philadelphia Blazers and the Winnipeg Jets at the Civic Center (adjacent to the Penn campus). It was early in the 1972-73 season. I remember that because Derek "Turk" Sanderson was still with the Blazers during his short stint with the club before going back to the Bruins.

At any rate, at one end of the Civic Center rink there was a stage. At the other end, there was traditional hockey seating behind the boards. During the second period, Hull got the puck near the defensive blue line, skated out a long stride and from his side of the red line, fired off a scorching full-windup slap shot. Blazers' goalie Bernie Parent never saw or reacted to it. The puck whooshed right into the net.

Rather than the Philly crowd booing Bernie, they cheered Hull for his 100-foot-goal. Honestly, given the way goalie equipment was back then, Parent was almost fortunate the puck didn't hit him. The NHL by this time had adopted curvature limits on stick blades but the more entertainment-oriented World Hockey Association had no such rule. As such, Hull could use the same banana-curve blade that players like Stan Mikita and Hull himself had helped popularize before the NHL changed the rules. The puck flew at almost jai alai speed off the stick of someone like Hull. Bobby was fond of, for his first shot attempt of the game, deliberately sending it whizzing just wide of the goalie's head.

I met Bobby Hull for the first time early in my own WHA playing career. I said hello to him and he actually asked me to stay around for a bit because he wanted to talk to me about something. I couldn't believe that Bobby Hull, all-time hockey great, had interest in talking to ME. Who the hell is Paul Stewart, anyway?

"I hear you're a tough guy on the ice," Hull said. "Just remember that tough guys should fight other tough guys."

"I try to be a player, too," I replied.

"I have a tip for you," he said. "Look between the dots. If you can keep your check to the outside and prevent him from scoring on you, you'll play for a long time."

Hull also told me, "You're going to be just fine."

To this day, I'm floored that Bobby Hull took enough interest in me to offer some advice. It was one of the most validating moments of my playing days. So many people had told me I wasn't good enough and I'd never be a pro. To have Bobby Hull offer me a veteran-to-young-player tip by way of encouragement is something I will carry with me the rest of my life. We owe so much to those who help us even in small ways. The only way to pay it back is to pay it forward to others.

As a member of the Cincinnati Stingers, I rarely saw the ice for any purpose other than to fight. When I played against Winnipeg, there was one game and one game only that I got out on the ice against Hull. Otherwise, Jets enforcer Kim Clackson (whom I fought once, and can testify was one tough customer) used to wave to each other from the ends of our respective benches. I'd sit there all game, not skating a shift. Jacques Demers would dress me for the game in case of trouble, but not send me on the ice. Jets coach Larry Hillman did the same with Clackson.

At any rate, the one time I actually played against Hull rather than sitting and watching from the bench all night I lined him up for a body check. The only problem: I was the one who took a seat on the ice. It hurt. Hull was every bit the physical specimen he was touted to be. He glanced behind him and then took off with the puck.

Later, I had him lined up again. I did not want an instant replay.

"Look out, I'm coming!" I shouted. He deftly sidestepped me. Thank goodness.

Chuckling, he skated away.

Years later, I invited Bobby to attend the golfing fundraiser in Boston named in memory of my late father, Bill Stewart Jr. He not only attended -- that year and for the next decade that followed -- he'd hold court afterwards at the Eire Pub in Dorchester. When Bobby Hull was around, no one wanted to leave. They'd crowd around and just listen to him to tell stories, me included.

I met Dennis Hull many times over the years, too, and I refereed many of Brett's games. I like them all.

Just a few months ago, I was honored to be invited to the Quebec Nordiques' 50th Anniversary. I saw a host of WHA and NHL legends there. Bobby Hull, in a wheelchair, was there. Once again, I had that "who the heck are YOU?" feeling when I was invited to sit at an autograph signing with the likes of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Marc Tardif.

I mean, really? These guys were 50 goal scorers. I scored less than 10 goals -- combined -- between the NHL (two) and WHA.

During the reception I said, "We all owe a big debt of gratitude to Bobby Hull for what he did for our game and for us. He was like our Moses. He led us to the promised land."

Since Hull could no longer walk over to me, I went to over to him. I shook his hand. Then he planted a kiss on my cheek.

I'm tearing up again writing this. I'm just glad that I got a chance to express to the man himself how much he'd meant to me and to our sport. I'm fully aware that Bobby Hull was an imperfect human being who led an imperfect life. Hull and alcohol didn't mix well.

I choose, however, to remember him for all the good things, of which there were so many. We're all profoundly imperfect in our own ways. In the end, remembering someone at their best is a gift. I will always be grateful to Bobby Hull.

**********

A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of
being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Join the Discussion: » 3 Comments » Post New Comment
More from Paul Stewart
» Take a Stand... for Being a Teammate
» On Goalie Interference and Coddled 'Tenders
» Holiday Stew
» HHOF: A Culmination and a Continuation
» Officiating: Being Part of the Solution