Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull went on a little shopping spree last Thursday in Vancouver at Leone Fashions, a haberdashery so swank that the price tags could masquerade as multiyear contracts. Hull would try on something, and Gretzky would critique it. Then Gretzky would model something, and Hull would toss in his two cents. They giggled. They cut up. They weren't simply the greatest passer and the greatest shooter in the NHL killing time on the morning of their first game together. They were Tiffany and Amber at the Valley Mall.
Not that Gretzky and Hull were simply out for a lark. On the taxi ride to the store, they held an impromptu business meeting of such import that the whole excursion should have been tax deductible.
Hull: "Where do you want me to set up on the power play?"
Gretzky: "Doesn't matter. Just get open. I'll read off you."
They will be on the same page soon. As St. Louis Blues coach and general manager Mike Keenan put it last week, Gretzky and Hull see the same game. You take Gretzky, the center with a sixth sense of hockey's swirling geometry, and marry him to Hull, a right wing with a heavy shot and an unrivaled talent for finding creases in the attacking zone, and you have the makings of one of the great partnerships in sport.
To spirit away the modern-day Mr. Hockey from the amateurs who run the Los Angeles Kings, the Blues gave up three prospects and two draft choices, essentially a bunch of nothing. Was it worth it? The Blues have substantially improved an offense ranked 24th in the league and have given themselves a boost for the playoffs. The problem may be finding the $21 million or so that will be needed to keep Gretzky, an unrestricted free agent this summer, in Boss and Armani for the next three seasons.
"I've played with some of the worst centers in the world, and now I'm playing with the best center in the world," Hull crowed the day of the trade. Of course some of the worst centers in the world are still with the Blues, but then Hull has always been a loose cannon even when he's not taking a slap shot. There is no seven-second delay between his brain and his mouth as there is with the political Gretzky, who is as calculating with his words as he is with his passes. Gretzky is the sport's ambassador; Hull is a gunboat diplomat. Gretzky once told him, "One reason I like you, Hully, is that you say all the things I wish I could."
On the surface they seem as if they could hardly share the same planet, let alone the same wavelength, but they do have much in common—a love of golf and laughter, and a sense of humor that is hard to define if you haven't been to a Weekend at Bernie's movie marathon. They were introduced by their mutual agent. Mike Barnett of International Management Group, and their friendship blossomed during the 1994-95 NHL lockout, on Gretzky's barnstorming tour through Europe. During Christmas week of 1994 the Hull family joined the Gretzky family at Sun Valley, Idaho, and Gretzky, with only one day's practice himself, dragged the novice I lull to the bunny slope. "My wife was standing at the bottom with four older gentlemen," Gretzky said, "and one of them told her, 'I can't believe those are two of the best athletes around, and they're going one mile an hour with petrified looks on their faces.' "
Ever since rumors of a Gretzky trade surfaced in January, Hull has been privy, through Barnett and sometimes the Great One himself to the machinations of Gretzky and the Kings' management. Hull let Keenan know of Gretzky's growing disenchantment with the organization. "I told Mike to keep those pokers in the fire with L.A.," Hull says. Of course Hull had a rooting interest besides finding a pigeon for $2 Nassaus. In 1989-90 and 1990-91, when he had the sweet-passing Adam Oates as his center ( Oates has since been traded to the Boston Bruins), Hull scored 158 goals, the most prolific two-season scoring performance in NHL history by somebody not named Gretzky. Without a gifted playmaker, Hull's talent was being squandered. "There were so many times Brett would come to the bench and say, 'How come they can't see me, how come they can't get me the puck? I'm wide open,' " Keenan says.
Early in their first game together, a 2-2 tie against the Vancouver Canucks, Hull told Gretzky that he hadn't liked a soft pass Gretzky had made. "Jari [Kurri, Gretzky's linemate in Edmonton and Los Angeles] liked it soft and a little outside so he could one-time it," Gretzky says. "Brett wanted it crisper, in tight, so he could snap it. That's just an adjustment period we'll go through."