March 7, 1988, was the date of the deal that Flames apologists will rationalize into the next millennium. Hull and winger Steve Bozek were shipped to the Blues for back-up goalie Rick Wamsley and defenseman Rob Ramage. Informed hockey opinion said the Flames, who won the Stanley Cup the next year, had gotten the better of the deal. Going against the grain was Gretzky, who said, "It's a great trade for St. Louis. I wish we could have gotten him. He's going to score a ton of goals." It evidently takes a Great One to know one.
Rather than benching him for his defensive lapses, as the Flames had, Blues coach Brian Sutter showed Hull videos between periods of his mistakes—"Next time, pick up this guy here," Sutter would say, "or come back a little deeper here"—and sent him right back out. "Rather than taking a 40-goal scorer and trying to turn him into a solid, two-way, 20-goal man," says Sutter, "we tried to make him a 60-goal scorer and more of an all-around player."
As his reward, Sutter ended up with a potential 80-goal man whose popularity throughout the NHL has reached Gretzkian proportion. At the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 2, scores of youngsters in Brett Hull jerseys showed up to root for their hero. That is loyalty. Saturday-night Flyer games at the Spectrum have never been mistaken for Pee-wee's Playhouse, and this game was no exception. When this message flashed across the electronic scoreboard: MINA, WILL YOU MARRY ME, LOVE SKIP, raucous chants of "No! No! No!" filled the air. Definitely a tough crowd.
"I just admire the way the guy plays," said Keith Lapp, a junior at LaSalle High, who wore his Hull jersey even though his mother had pleaded with him not to. "She is afraid I'll be killed," he said.
Four minutes into the third period, Hull scored his 70th goal of the season, deking a Flyer defenseman to the ice, catching goalie Ron Hextall moving, then wristing the puck between Hextall's legs. Lapp stood and cheered while his buddies Joe Degovann and Brian Sutcliffe watched his back.
As his feats take him ever closer to hockey's uncharted waters, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Hull is only three years removed from that panda-shaped underachiever, the unknown lugging around a burdensome name.
"Funny thing about the name," says Brett Hull. "It's getting lighter all the time."