Brett Hull: In Defense Of Detroit
After a decade of dominance, Brett Hull is happy to do whatever it takes to make his opponents see red.
You might not know much about hockey, but if youve heard of The Beatles you can easily appreciate the Detroit Red Wings. Captain Steve Yzerman is John Lennon, the contemplative leader; Brendan Shanahan plays the role of Paul McCartney, the talented teen heartthrob; Nicklas Lidstrom is George Harrison, the quiet professional. And Brett Hull is the Red Wings Ringo Starr: a blast of fresh air, quick to provide comic relief at press conferences.
Hull typically sports a day-old beard, the kind of spiked haircut favored by mischievous teenagers, a glint in his eye and a cheese-eating grin that tells you he is pulling your leg, but he hopes you get the joke. Hull would rather laugh with you than at you, but if you dont get it, he figures thats your problem, not his.
But like Starr, Hull has often been trivialized as a one-dimensional talent. Starr had to leave the most famous band in the world to prove he wasnt merely a court jester with a drum set, but a well-rounded musician. Hull, ironically, had to join the most famous hockey team in the world to prove he isnt just a great solo act with blazing one-timers and sharp one-liners, but a complete player. The Surprising Scion
Despite being the third son of Bobby Hull, the famed Golden Jet whose 610 goals ranked behind only Gordie Howe when he retired, no ones more surprised by Brett Hulls success than Brett Hull. It wasnt like I dreamed Id be an NHL player, says the 39-year-old right wing. It was never my plan. But I think that actually helped to get me to this spot, because I never put that kind of pressure on myself. And my dad certainly didnt.
Hull quit his team at 17 simply because he felt like it, he admits. I had no direction, I didnt know what I was doing with my life, and no teams wanted me. It was his friends, not his father, who persuaded him to start playing again. Within months, Hull was scoring goals and being recruited by U.S. colleges.
Hull naturally selected the least likely school on his list, the University of Minnesota at Duluth, because the team had an excellent skating programhis weaknessand Duluths a great little town right there on the bay and I loved it, right off.
In his sophomore season, Hull led the nation with 52 goalsstill a school record. He wanted to try the next level, which, in the spring of 1986, meant the World Championships in Moscow. But should he play for Canada, his fathers native land, or the U.S., his mothers? Team Canada turned him down, but since he claimed dual-citizenship, the Americans were only too happy to give Hull a uniform. No one in Canada seemed to care until 1996 when Hull helped the U.S. upset Canada in the World Cup, prompting Canadian commentators to call him a turncoat. Hull is characteristically unmoved by such protests. Canada got first dibs, but their coach said I was no good. And the U.S. said, Well take him. And I said, Thank you very much. Would you think more of me if I took that opportunity from Team USA in 1986, and then, when I got better, told the Americans to bugger off, Im playing for Canada? Or would you like me to show my loyalty to the people who gave me a great opportunity and stick with them like I did? I dont know if Id be here if it wasnt for U.S. Hockey.
Leading the 1986 U.S. team in goals convinced Hull to turn pro. Once again, however, his career was almost derailed before it got started. The Calgary Flames drafted him, but having just won the Stanley Cup, they didnt need him. That was not the way I wanted to start, Hull says, when I knew I could play for 20 other teams.
The Flames eventually shipped Hull to St. Louis, where he bagged 86 goals in 1990-91, setting a mark only Wayne Gretzky has beaten, and earning Hull the MVP award. Hullies dangerous because hes got the ability to score from four feet or 40, like a basketball player who can dunk and shoot the three, explains Shanahan, Hulls teammate in St. Louis and Detroit. If it comes down to just one shot, hes the guy.
But all that scoring stereotyped Hull as all offense, no defense. Of course, its hard to be considered much else when youre averaging 55 goals a year for a second-tier team, so Hull agreed to go to Dallas in 1998. In 2000, his triple-overtime goal earned him the only thing he was missing: the Stanley Cup. Hockey Town Calls
In the summer of 2001, Hull was a free agent with little to prove. He had records, a Stanley Cup, nice homes in Dallas and Duluth, a swing Golf Digest describes as PGA Tour-caliber, and three kids in Minneapolis he visits frequently.
But the veteran right wing still believed he had some hockey left in him. Problem was, only Montreal agreed. I was just hours from telling Montreal that Im there, when I get a call from Detroit, Hull says. I thought, What kind of an idiot are you not to go play there? In Detroit youve got a chance to win the Cup! Id already won one, but once its gone, you want to win the next one.
There would be a price to pay. Future Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Shanahan went to Detroit knowing theyd be expected to sacrifice their stats to cover their man, kill penalties and block shots. Were like the Yankees, says forward Darren McCarty. Your priority here is winning. But could The Golden Brett find happiness in Hockey Town, among a cast of future Hall of Famers?
When Hull pulls up to the Red Wings training facility in Traverse City, Michigan, at 8 oclock on a Monday morning and sees hundreds of people wearing Red Wings jerseys, sweatshirts and jackets, waiting behind police barriers in the rain to make sure they secure their seats to watch the players practice two hours laterwell, it still stuns him. Many locals take their vacations when the Wings come to town, just to watch their favorite players sweat.
Its scary! Hull admits. We didnt have any people in Dallas watching our workouts. You just gotta shake your head at the attention we get here. This is Hockey Town!
The fans are one thing. The medias another. But Hull is uniquely prepared to handle them, too. In Bull Durham, Crash Davis teaches Nuke LaLoosh all the clichs hell need: Im just happy to be here, We gotta play em one day at a time, and I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.
Suffice it to say, no one taught Brett Hull that lesson. He is unfailingly candid, funny and sharpevery reporters dream, and every coachs nightmare. NHL officiating? Its horrible every night. The state of the league? Its in dire straits. And if you were commissioner? Id fire the commissioner! When asked if he has ever regretted anything hes said, he doesnt miss a beat. Nope. Maybe the way I said it, but Ive never really cared about what anyone tried to tell me about the off-the-ice stuff.
Its one thing to win over the fans and reporters. Its quite another to win over teammates whove already won two Stanley Cups without you. In Detroit, scoring 50 goals doesnt necessarily impress. Breaking your back to catch your man to protect a 2-1 lead does. Bretts a very astute, very heady player, says former coach Scotty Bowman. He knows how to play by the score. And you cant coach that.
Prior to getting to know him, the impression was that Brett was a lazy, selfish hockey player, Red Wings coach Dave Lewis says, but hes at the exact opposite of the spectrum. He cares an awful lot about the game, about the team and about winning. He can still win a game for you on a single shot, but he also brings the kind of leadership and experience that help us win other ways, too.
Defense is just an attitude, Hull says. If you want to do it, and you have any hockey sense at all, you can do it. And when youre relied on to do it, its actually kind of fun.
In the course of a nine-month season, when players spend more time with their teammates than their families, chemistry counts, too. What changed when Hull, a wind-up comedian, crashed the Red Wings party? The quiet in the locker room, Shanahan says. Gone. Forever.
Its a wonderful, wonderful feeling, Hull says, to look around the locker room and see Shanahan and Lidstrom and Yzerman.
They seem to like seeing Hull there just as much. The band wouldnt be the same without him.