|Sunday, January 19
Updated: May 8, 3:30 PM ET
Hull's legacy will include more than stats
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Brett Hull came into the league with a kid's good-times lifestyle, plus a last name and legacy that seemed to lend credence to the suspicions that he might have a hard time growing up.
And now, nearly 17 years after his first NHL game, and with Hull on the verge of becoming the sixth player to crack 700 goals, sometimes it almost seems as if his candor has contributed to a caricature.
He's: Oh, that's Hullie.
It is not that we don't comprehend his extraordinary talent, which goes far beyond that breathtaking shot. (Don't like "breathtaking" because it sounds like we're trying to describe a Monet painting or the Grand Canyon viewed from the rim? Think of seeing Hull play, the pass coming across, now the one-timer ... and your breathing has been interrupted, even if the puck has slid just past the post.)
It is not that we haven't come to understand that for him to stick around this long, and even to be a bona fide contributor in an era he so often seems to disdain, he has had to reconfigure his game -- oh, maybe not as completely and meekly as Ken Hitchcock would have liked, but more than even Hull himself sometimes seems to acknowledge.
His long-documented candor, whether he's dismissing the generally widely respected Hitchcock as an inflexible phony or dissing the Blues for the way they treated him at the end of his perhaps even franchise-saving tenure in St. Louis?
It's refreshing, it's admirable, it's enough to make those of us with tape recorders feel as if we better check in with him every night, or be there when he talks. After all, he might offer up anything from an innovative bankruptcy formula for the Ottawa Senators or Buffalo Sabres (well, he DID say he was the smartest man in hockey), to the latest critique of what he considers the obstruction crackdown charade.
(You get the feeling that if Brett Hull were at the parade, he would have been the first to holler: "ARE THE REST OF YOU BLIND? THE #$%$ EMPEROR IS NAKED!")
But some of that stuff tends to cloud the picture.
Spanning parts of three decades, his career began in that time when Bernie Nichols -- a great, but not an immortal player, could get 70 goals -- and Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky seemingly could have 50 by the All-Star Game. The ice could seem as big some nights as if the game were being played in Moscow, or even at least on the St. Lawrence River. Goalies sure looked smaller, since this was before their pads should have been checked for steroids.
Cut through everything else, getting to 700 goals is amazing. (His father had 610 in the NHL, 303 in the WHA.) The rest of the NHL's 700 club: Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717), and Mike Gartner (708). Lemieux will hit 700 next season, if he remains healthy ... enough.
In a game in which score is kept, it's unfathomable sometimes that "pure goal scorer" can be distorted from a compliment to an asterisk, but Gartner and Hull will be the only members of the group with more goals than assists. They were and are playmakers, nonetheless, Gartner especially because of his incredible speed and Hull with his stealth, savvy and shot. Isn't it a play when the puck suddenly is in the net?
In that sense, we'll come out and say it: Although he has an all-around game that has come around, Hull quickly broke in as one of the the best pure goal scorers in a league in which there was no paucity of scoring, and his longevity, adaptability and even production mean that he deserves to be considered perhaps the top pure goal scorer of all time.
With no asterisk.
"I think it's one of those things where you'd have to wait and let it happen, and then kind of get a real sense for what it would be," Hull said in Denver the other day. "The anticipation is something. I'm looking forward to it. To be among those guys? I don't know how to say it. It's almost like you're undeserving after seeing what they've done in their careers and how long they've played. To be there, I think it will be a real honor."
And after all those battles with Mike Keenan and Hitchcock, among others, his stops at Dallas (even under Hitchcock, who got at least begrudging cooperation from Hull most of the time) and Detroit deserve to add some context to his career.
In the context of a different league, he could contribute on winners in ways that didn't necessarily show up under that goals column. He could be the Goat with the Kids (Pavel Datsyuk and Boyd Devereaux), and he can even step in and do some penalty killing. He's no Selke Trophy candidate, but he also isn't jarringly discordant and -- for all his verbiage -- disruptive on winning teams, as he is trapped in a tighter era. And if the truth be told, it doesn't hurt to have his flammability around for relief.
"I take a lot of pride in that. I also am appreciative that there are some intelligent people in this league who can see it, too. Most of them, you get a label and it's over."
Brendan Shanahan is in his second tour of duty as a Hull teammate.
"He's done what he's done over such a long time, and I think people forget he hasn't missed a lot of games in his career," Shanahan said. "He was kind of talked about not in a great light in his early years in Calgary, and he's proven a lot of people wrong. Aside from the goals he's scored, it's his durability. That's been pretty amazing to go out and score that many goals and have that many guys trying to check you every single night. Brett's been pretty resilient.
"I was one of the guys last year when they talked about bringing him in here, they called in a few of us who had played with him, and I was really excited to get a chance to play with him again.''
"Sure," said Kris Draper, "we played against him in St. Louis and Dallas, but until you've played with him and see him every day, you don't realize what a complete player he is. I don't know if there were critics out there who still thought he was one-dimensional, but for a guy who is going to score 700 goals and be responsible defensively, I think that's a credit to what a great hockey player he is.''
And this pure goal scorer business?
"He can keep scoring until he doesn't want to play," Draper said. "It's just a knack. It's unbelievable. It doesn't matter where you put the puck, he gets the puck off and gets a lot on the shot. Sometimes in practice, you just kind of chuckle, the shots that he makes. You're just glad you're not a goalie most of the time. You're saying, 'Geez, that one looks like it hurt.' But everyone in this dressing room realizes what a two-way hockey player he is and what he means to this club."
And what he's meant to the game.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.