The most closely watched player in the National Hockey League skated onto the ice in Chicago Stadium last Saturday, tapped the thick protective glass at rinkside in greeting to his pretty wife and acknowledged with a wave of his stick the ovation from the expectant and adulatory Black Hawk fans. Then, in an agonizing replay of recent history, Bobby Hull and the Black Hawks skated through two more periods of scoreless hockey against, of all teams, the fifth-place New York Rangers. The agony was shared by almost everyone present, because Hull, having shot a record-tying season total of 50 goals for the second time in his career four games previously, was going for No. 51. But, ever since that 50, he had been dogged by fate and defensemen, who clung to him like the sense of sin to a penitent.
At last, nearly six minutes into the third period, the great moment finally came—as everyone knew it must. With the Rangers ahead 2-1, Hull got the curved blade of his stick on the puck on a power play well back of his own blue line, started toward the goal, squared off like Arnold Palmer getting ready for a tee shot and drove—right past Ranger Goalie Cesare Maniago.
The official scorers credited Lou Angotti and Bill Hay with assists on the play, but Angotti had another opinion. "When I'm 65," Lou said afterward, "I'll sit around and tell my grandchildren how I got an assist on Bobby Hull's big goal. I'll tell them how I helped him score it while I was sitting on the bench. That's right. That's where I was.
"I kicked the puck over to Bobby, then skated for the bench and sat there watching as he went up by himself and scored."
Maniago, a onetime Toronto Maple Leaf, holds the distinction of having been the goaltender when Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion shot his 50th goal of the season. He does not enjoy the fame that this has brought him and scarcely ever speaks of it. About the only thing he would say of last week's exploit was that Eric Nesterenko, Chicago wingman, did him a dirty trick. "Nesterenko lifted the blade of my stick and the puck went under it," Maniago said, more or less ruefully.
When the red light that signifies a goal flashed on, the more than 20,000 fans in the stadium lost control. They littered the ice with debris that ranged from hats—both men's and women's—to confetti. As he skated toward the Black Hawk bench, Hull picked up one of the more ludicrous hats and put it on, getting a laugh because, after all, he was Bobby Hull, and no man in the history of the National Hockey League, give or take 50-game or 70-game seasons, had ever made such a goal before. The joyously relaxed Hawks then went on in that same period to score two more goals and win the game 4-2. At that point, it didn't seem to matter much that Montreal was still ahead in the race for the league championship. What did matter was that every one of the Hawks felt himself a part of a moment in history.
The stick that fired the historic puck, a puck that Hull plans to have encased in gold, was no ordinary stick. Five years ago Hull's teammate, Stan Mikita, decided to try a stick with a blade curved somewhat on the order of a banana. The innovation worked fine and other forwards in the league have since copied it, each with his personal variations. Hull's variations are quite special. He likes a curve that is sharper, less rounded, than Mikita's. The theory is that the curve in the blade transmits spin to the puck and causes it to drop sharply just before it goes into the net. No one has proved this, any more than anyone ever has proved that a baseball can be made to "drop" just before it gets to the plate. But hockey's curved blade is relatively new and quite a few goaltenders believe in it. Before this game Hull and the Hawks' assistant trainer, Don (Socko) Uren, spent about two weeks trying to get the Northland Company in St. Paul to put just the right curve in the blade. The sticks that came back to them did not satisfy Hull. "We made all kinds of calls to the factory over the last week," Uren said.
"I could tell they weren't right in the warmups," Hull said. "I wasn't shooting right."
Dreadful. All one of those defectively curved sticks did was break a record that had stood for 21 years.
The new scoring champion set the new record in his 56th game of the season. By that time Hull's team had played 61 games, but Bobby missed five of them because of a torn knee ligament. During the last weeks of mounting pressure, he minimized the continuing effect of that injury just as he minimized the strain of the pressure itself and the handicap of a right hand bunged up in a moment of wrath when he flung a flurry of punches at Detroit's Gary Bergman on the night of February 9.