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Our cocktail waitress this afternoon is chewing gum and straining to their outermost limits the seams of her black micro-miniskirt. For the last 15 minutes here at Quincy's Pub in downtown Philadelphia, she has been sneaking glances at a rugged-looking blond with cobalt-blue eyes and terrific dimples. When the object of her interest gets up to feed the juke box, she inquires of his drinking partner, "Who is he? Where have I seen him?"
Informed that she has been side-eyeing Brett Hull, the NHL's leading goal scorer and the most valuable player on the St. Louis Blues, she seems vaguely disappointed. "I thought maybe he was an actor," she says.
Perfectly understandable. As recently as three years ago, hockey experts were also disappointed with Hull, then a spare part with the Calgary Flames, saying he was an NHL pretender, a plodding, oneway player whose naps in the defensive zone offset his knack for humiliating goaltenders. Three seasons and 194 goals later, Hull has joined Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the rarefied aerie of NHL stars who transcend hockey.
Hull is the toast of St. Louis, the city's most popular sports figure since Stan Musial. If the regular season ended now, the 77 goals he had scored through Sunday would give him the fourth-highest single-season total in NHL history. (The record belongs to Gretzky, who scored an extraterrestrial 92 in 1981-82.) If the Blues finish first in the NHL's overall regular-season standings—at week's end, St. Louis and the Chicago Blackhawks were tied with 90 points—Hull should be a shoo-in for the league's MVP award. Earlier this season he was easily the biggest vote getter in the annual popularity contest that is the NHL's all-star balloting. He had already secured the affection of many of his NHL peers, partly because he is a swell, self-effacing, regular guy and partly because the contract he signed with the Blues last summer—$7.1 million for four years—has helped force niggardly owners to pay their stars relevant salaries.
In the big picture, Hull, 26, is a godsend for the NHL. Though Gretzky has played splendidly for the Los Angeles Kings this season, he is on the far side of 30. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Lemieux has suffered from a bad back for two years and—through no intentions of his own—from a lack of charisma for his entire career. Meanwhile, the league is negotiating a new television contract (the current deal with SportsChannel America expires after this season) and will add three teams in the next two seasons despite critics who claim expansion will dilute the NHL's talent level. That's debatable. This isn't: The NHL acutely needs a fresh, high-profile face.
That mug is Hull's. An American playing in an American city, he has helped sell the game in the States. He is a pure goal scorer, a home run hitter in a league starved for such glamour boys. Hull is a major reason why the Blues franchise, which has spent more time on the ropes than Rock Balboa, has increased its average attendance by almost 2,000 per game and is now profitable.
Of course, his pedigree is also too good to be true: His father, Bobby, the great blond brute who patroled the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers in the '60s and '70s, remains the best leftwinger in NHL history.
"It helped me unreal having my Dad who he was, because I learned very early that I was never going to be him," says Brett, the youngest of the Hall of Famer's three sons. "So I didn't even try. The sooner I figured out I was Brett, not Bobby, the better off I was gonna be."
Growing up in Chicago, then moving to Vancouver when he was 13, Hull played the game for fun. When he was 18—at which age Gretzky and Lemieux were burnishing international reputations—Hull dropped out of organized hockey to play in a juvenile league in Vancouver with a bunch of his buddies. To this crew, staving off thirst was as important as staving off defeat; beer was available on the bench during practices and in the dressing room after games. While ascending the steps to his destiny—from the Vancouver club team to Tier II junior hockey in Penticton, B.C., in 1983, to Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA a year later, to minor league Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1986 and, finally, to the NHL—Hull streamlined his once panda-shaped physique and saw his game improve by quantum leaps and bounds. Yet to this day it is clear from the way he smiles through practices, from his reluctance to come off the ice after his shifts and from the exuberance of his postgoal celebrations that there remains in Hull a bit of the Vancouver beer-leaguer.
His style is the polar opposite of his father's. Lowering his voice to a husky, macho baritone, Brett describes Bobby's game: "He was Mr. Physical, Mr. Aggressive, real flamboyant." Now the voice rises several octaves and takes on an affected dreaminess. "Me, I just hang in the weeds, biding my time, nice...and...passive."