At 2:45 a.m. on the silver anniversary of the day he signed the contract that ignited hockey's most hilarious revolution, Bobby Hull is roaring merrily in the parking lot of a mock-Tudor tavern while a friend of one of his innumerable sons drives golf balls into the heavily populated night. Dimpled spheres fly past a distant Amoco sign toward the cars on Clayton Road as the rest of Hull's entourage—a young handler from a hockey-card company and I—gloomily prophesy the headline in the morning Post-Dispatch: KILLER SOUGHT IN GOLF BALL DEATHS.
Meanwhile, the Cheshire Inn, at closing time, is extruding dozens of tipsy twenty-something couples, and as they pause to kiss under the street lamps right in the flight path of the golf balls, they are counseled by an incorrigible frat boy of a Hall of Famer. "Hey!" Hull calls out to them. "Get a room!"
It is June 27, 1997. Exactly a quarter century earlier, amid a delirious throng in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hull endorsed his $1 million bonus check. That was the ante collectively coughed up by all the franchise holders of an upstart association whose every hope was riding on the mile-wide shoulders of hockey's Golden Jet.
After a decade as the NHL's most flamboyant, virile and marketable superhero, Hull had first broached jumping from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Winnipeg Jets as a canard, a gibe at the Blackhawks' owners. After all, what lunatic would pay him 10 times what he was earning? But the WHA's offer proved valid, and with sons Brett (the future NHL goal-scoring champion), Blake, Bobby and Bart looking on, the man put pen to paper on that warm June day. The prairie crowd went loco. Hull committed himself to the Jets even though on another occasion his spouse, Joanne, not knowing that she could be heard by Ben Hatskin, the 300-pound jukebox magnate who owned the new team, had angrily demanded of her mate, "Why would you ever want to live in Winnipeg and play for that fat Jew?"
Twenty-five years later Joanne is another man's missus in Vancouver, Hull's pockets are bulging with fistfuls of $20 bills from a couple of autograph sessions, and his prodigious appetite has been slaked by chicken wings and cabernet. He has finished reciting, from memory, The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service. Dawn is fast approaching, and Hull recalls his tenure as player-coach in Winnipeg with the following judgment: "I couldn't coach a dog out of a doghouse with a T-bone steak."
He is wearing a rainbow seersucker shirt that barely contains his Java man arms, blue trousers stretched over his lumberjack thighs, a tousled blond rug glued above his gray temples and a ring fitted with a gold coin that depicts the late shah of Iran—a gift from some Persian-American fans of the Blackhawks, who haven't won the Stanley Cup in the quarter century since Hull departed. He has spent the evening signing his name in gold ink for a generation of white boys who never saw him explode across the blue line, grinning, head up, legs churning—and for their fathers who did and will never forget it.
"Going to the WHA was not one bit about money," Hull says as we sit quietly for a moment on the patio of another bar, toasting the anniversary. "I had been at war with the Blackhawks' management for years. We hated each other. I had held out for 18 games and called them everything but white men. Then Ben Hatskin drew my name out of a hat when they were dividing up the players the new league would go after.
"I met him in Vancouver, in secret. He offered me $250,000 a year, plus $100,000 more as coach and general manager, plus $1 million to sign. I thought it was a joke. I pretended to go along with it, just to scare Chicago. Then my agent, Harvey Weinberg, said, 'Bobby, these guys are serious.'
"I told Harvey, 'I don't want to go to some frozen place I've never been in my life in the middle of nowhere with an extravagant wife and five kids.' Had I known they were serious, I'd have asked for $20 million."
But one thing led to another, and by the fall of 1972 the Blackhawks had called Hull's bluff, he had signed the million-dollar contract, other NHL stars were jumping to the new league for hallucinogenic amounts of money, and the Jets were in training camp in the resort town of Kenora, Ont. Meanwhile, thanks to a niggling injunction by the NHL, Hull could neither suit up for nor even coach his embryonic team.