Years ago (might be 10, might be 20), I was at a destination card shop in downtown Toronto and got into a conversation with the owner. I don’t remember the full context, but the subject came to Bobby Hull. The shop owner’s reaction to the name was visceral. The second it was mentioned, his face creased with disgust and he spat, “Hull! He was a mean drunk and beat the shit out of his wife!”
I remember being taken aback.
It’s not that we didn’t know. We knew. We knew that Bobby and Brett had been estranged and it had to do with Brett’s mother. There were stories about how Bobby would chase her around the house in a rage. We knew that there had been a very nasty, very public divorce and that spousal abuse had been a key allegation of it.
Yet even the word “abuse” somehow sanitizes the action. It doesn’t really capture the reality of Joanne Hull’s swollen face. Saying he beat the shit out of her – that captures it.
Gare Joyce wrote a book a few years back entitled “The Devil and Bobby Hull.” It came out of a series of interviews he did with Bobby over a period of time and the portrayal is of a person who is, to put it charitably, not easy. He comes across a person who can charm a room and be everyone’s best friend, then turn around and stab a family member in the back. He can be generous to fans and harsh to teammates. He talks of Joanne and expresses resentment about her (that she still uses his name is a huge sticking point for him) but I can’t recall seeing anything like remorse.
I don’t really know why we value sports the way that we do. It’s nothing new. This sort of thing goes back as far as the Greeks. We want heroes, we find them in sports and sports is only too happy to market them right back to us. This was certainly true of Hull. Handsome, young, immensely talented and telegenic, he was hockey’s Mickey Mantle. In a game that could be brutish, Hull was speed and skill and grace combined with raw power in the form of an unmatchable shot. Joining a team that had been a train wreck for a decade, he was a fresh start and the face of the future.
The relationship between players and media was mutually beneficial. If the players were heroes, the papers would sell. If the papers sold, the interest was raised and everyone got to make money. It even shows up in the cards. For most of Topps’ run as a producer of hockey cards up to this point, Bobby Hull was their number one draw. On every one of his cards from 1958 through 1963, his card is the best-looking card in the set. In every picture, he’s a bronzed god. This card always stikes me as interesting because it’s the first time he’s ever shown with what could arguably be called a lousy picture. It’s also the first set where Topps had the rights to the entire NHL. I don’t know whether it means anything, but it’s interesting.
Sometimes the people we lionize are legitimately heroes. Sometimes they’re just very good, solid people. Sometimes they just happen to be really, really good at a sport we happen to like but lack any other quality we find desirable. Sometimes they’re great actors and we take that as the reality, finding out years later about drug-based rapes and assaults or broken ribs from what the assaulter claims was just “kinky” sex. Then we’re shocked and ask “Why didn’t we know about this?” when odds are that we should have.
Any tell-all sports book you read will depict women as things – things that were won, things that were earned or came to you as tribute for being awesome. It’s a sickness that infects not just sports and celebrity – it’s everywhere. It infects our kids, whether they’re playing junior hockey in small-town Ontario or high-school football in the States. We punish the girls who speak out about it. It’s insane.
Bobby Hull is arguably the best left wing of all time and quite likely the most significant player of the past 50 years. Gretzky allowed the sunbelt strategy to exist, but Hull allowed an entire league to come into being and survive. Four teams directly owe their existence to his decision to jump to the WHA and another four were caused indirectly as the NHL sought to capture new markets before the WHA got there. He shattered the system by which teams owned the rights of players and ushered in the free agent market we see today.
These things are all out there.
So are the pictures of Joanne’s face.
They’re the ones I’m going to remember longer.