Brett Hull tugged back the sleeve of his white practice jersey and looked down at his wrist like a man checking his watch, a hat trick of cheek, insubordination and humor that had his Detroit Red Wings teammates bowing their heads to stifle laughter. Hull suffers neither fools nor Scotty Bowman, at least not when the best coach in hockey history drones interminably about a three-on-two drill, as he did last Thursday. The Red Wings were ready to charge full bore into the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Hull didn't want them charging in fully bored. Their biological clocks are ticking—some Detroit players are so elderly that when they broke into the league, Lord Stanley was a commoner—but the NHL's oldest team proved itself by far the best in the regular season, reaching 100 points on March 9, more than a month before any other team. With nine presumptive Hall of Famers, including Hull, on their roster, the Red Wings are immortals, if not quite mortal locks for the Cup. "I don't expect us to win 16 straight," Hull says about the number of postseason victories needed to take the championship. "There are some good teams, but in a seven-game series I like our chances."
Stunned in six games in last spring's first round by the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit retooled by trading for six-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek, committing serious minutes to 21-year-old defenseman Jiri Fischer, blending in nifty rookie center Pavel Datsyuk and signing two wingers who now rank among the top 10 scorers in history, Hull and Luc Robitaille. General manager Ken Holland assumed that in Hull, the Red Wings would get a find-the-seams winger with a screaming slap shot who also would be the loudest, raspiest voice in the dressing room. They did. Hull, who has spent his life shooting spitballs at the teacher, scored 30 goals and offered more commentary than an op-ed page. Holland assumed that in Robitaille they would get 30 goals as ugly as a train wreck. They did. Robitaille scored 30, and if those goals were lined up one after another, they would stretch little more than a city block. Beyond getting what it expected from Hull and Robitaille, Detroit made some small, delightful discoveries about these venerable scorers.
The Wings learned that the whip-smart Hull, 37, is a deft passer, a capable penalty killer and a solid defender whose soft hands and quick stick along the boards enable him to flick pucks out of the zone. They learned that Robitaille, 36, is strong on his skates and slick enough to roll away from defenders to buy the split second that allows him to make a telling pass. Each, in his way, has proved to be a thoroughbred, not a one-trick pony. Absurd as it may seem, given that they have combined for 1,299 goals, one Hart Trophy and eight first-team All-Star selections (albeit none in the last nine years), Hull and Robitaille are among the least appreciated players in the NHL.
"How can you say that?" Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios replies in mock horror. "What do they get for autographs at shows? Thirty-five bucks? How else would you measure it?"
They signed their names for substantially more when the Red Wings offered them free-agent contracts last summer (a guaranteed $9 million each over two years), but even those deals hinted at the general wariness about them throughout the league after last season. Robitaille had been immensely popular in Los Angeles, where he'd spent 12 of his first 15 years in the NHL, but the Kings offered him a lower base salary than he'd earned in 2000-01, when he scored 37 goals. The case of Hull, who was seventh in NHL history with 649 goals (he's now sixth with 679), was even more curious. He was coming off a 39-goal season with Dallas, but the Stars spurned him in favor of signing free-agent forwards Pierre Turgeon, Donald Audette and Valeri Kamensky. (This season Hull scored three more goals than that trio combined.) Ken Hitchcock, who was Dallas's coach until he was fired in January, praises Hull—"Best passer I ever coached," he says—but concedes that after being swept by the St. Louis Blues in the second round last year, the Stars were seeking new leadership. Hull says that his sources in Dallas told him that when his name came up in the organizational postmortem, Hitchcock said to turn the page, because he didn't want Hull on the Stars in 2001-02.
For more than seven weeks after the start of the free-agent signing period last July 1, no other team seemed too interested either. Hull dallied with the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens, but there was no commitment by a club until the Red Wings, who had maxed out an already hefty budget, decided he could fill a hole on the right side. Hull liked Detroit, but first Holland telephoned wing Brendan Shanahan, who had played with Hull for 3� seasons in St. Louis, and Chelios, who had known Hull from various U.S. teams, to check on his character. Holland wanted a cannon from the slot, not a loose cannon. Chelios and Shanahan gave Hull enthusiastic endorsements. Four players, including Chelios and Shanahan, deferred some of this year's salary, and Hull agreed to backload the deal, taking just $3.5 million of the money this season so the Wings would have two profitable playoff runs before having to pay him off by July 1, 2003.
For 15 seasons Hull has been one of the few NHL players with no seven-second delay between his brain and his mouth. His tongue was always blunt, lashing out at what he considered to be a confederacy of dunces—coaches and the league—that was dumbing down the game he loved with suffocating defensive systems. He was the profane conscience of his teams, which needed thick walls and thicker skin when Hull held court. "Once in St. Louis we called up this defenseman from the minors, a good-natured kid, a rim-it-off-the-glass guy," says Shanahan, describing a player who merely gets the puck out of the zone, "and Brett's complaining about one of our more skilled D in front of the team, including the skilled D and the guy who just came up. Brett tells the skilled guy, 'You make me sick. You drive me nuts because you think you're better than you are.' He points to the young guy and says, 'You suck, but at least you know you suck. That's what I like about you.' As Brett walks away, the young guy says, 'Hey, thanks Hully.' "
Hull hasn't sheathed his gums in the Detroit dressing room, which percolated with personality before he arrived. He has mumbled about the coaches and even assailed the 600 Goal Line—Hull, Robitaille and center Steve Yzerman—which Bowman used for a short stretch in the season's first half. Robitaille says that during one game Hull turned to him on the bench and said, "This is stupid. We can't play together. No one wants to pass the damn puck. Stevie, he's not a good passer, and you, you can't pass the puck at all." Bowman ultimately concurred, playing Hull with a pair of 23-year-olds, Datsyuk and Boyd Devereaux, a line that Hull named Two Kids and a Goat. Hull says that four years ago he wouldn't have tolerated playing with a practically monolingual Russian center and a novice winger. "I would have snapped," Hull says. "I wouldn't have gotten the puck when and where I wanted it, but now it's like, O.K., they're learning. Before I would have said, 'Screw it.' I wanted to score. This is what I live for. Shouldn't I be pissed off that I have only 30 goals this year? Don't tell me I still couldn't get 40 or 50. But I've let the game change me into the kind of player I never wanted to be.
"My tongue needs stitches from biting it. I still love the same things, but when I started changing [while playing in Dallas he finally adhered to Hitchcock's demanding ways, which included all players' concentrating on defense], things would fester so much, I actually couldn't play. My legs would seize up, and I'd get no spit in my mouth. I'd be so damn mad, I couldn't think right to get to the proper spot on the ice. I don't know how that anger escapes now, but somehow it does. It used to be you were a goal scorer or a tough guy or a shadow, which really isn't hockey. Now you have to be a complete player. If you play strong defense and get 30 goals, you're a huge asset, even if you are a pain in the ass like me."
Hull was housebroken in his three years of Stars obedience school, and Bowman trusts him, using Hull to kill penalties and often playing him in the final minute of a tight game. After Brett passed up a shot at an empty net in a game this season, his father, Hall of Famer Bobby, upbraided him in the Red Wings' dressing room. Bowman teased, "Don't worry, Brett. Your dad never made it on [the ice] in the last minute."