|Wednesday, January 22
Hull's moment as fleeting as his shot
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
It's a jungle out there, in the high slot, where claws come out and teeth are bared, not fit for man nor beast.
"Like the animal kingdom,'' Brett Hull was musing recently. "Adapt or go extinct.''
He has become, oddly enough, one of the game's true survivors.
The onetime soft, lazy, uncoachable kid is now midway through his 16th NHL season, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a team guy, a surefire Hall of Famer, a penalty killer!, and someone on the verge of a major career milestone that only a handful of others can claim.
He continues to entertain us off the ice (when the mood strikes him) and draw appreciative smiles on it.
"I am," he told the national network on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada last month, only, as usual, partly serious, "smarter than everybody in this game, beyond a shadow of a doubt.''
Maybe not smarter, precisely. But craftier, yes, there's certainly a case to be made for that.
"Brett," said New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur during a media conference call Tuesday, "is still the most dangerous player in the league.''
Imagine. Still. At 38.
We had an inkling as far back as Hull's first NHL shift -- during the '86 Stanley Cup final while a member of the Calgary Flames (he beat Patrick Roy with what would become a patented snap shot and hit the post) -- that this one was special for more than just his last name. How special only time would bear witness to.
In short order here, two quick, lethal flicks of his wrists to be precise, Brett Hull will become only the sixth player in NHL history to reach the 700-goal plateau. And when it does, Hull will join Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito and Mike Gartner in the very exclusive Assassins Club.
Marvel in the accomplishment. Because this a feat unlikely to be repeated more than once more in our lifetime.
Oh, Mario Lemieux will get there, if he can as much as stand for another, oh, 40 games or so, being only 26 goals shy of 700. But after that, who? Mark Messier still needs 29. Maybe next season or the season after, if he stays healthy enough. Luc Robitaille, 76. Nope. Steve Yzerman, 42. A pity about the knee, but it's doubtful, at 37.
Age, injury and the changing face of the game have caught up to many of Hull's prolific peers.
Take a check. There isn't a legitimate 700-goal threat on the horizon, as far as the eye can see; not that the game lacks for viable candidates. Jaromir Jagr could score 30 in each of the next six seasons and still not reach the target. Why, even Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic is 198 goals from paydirt. That's five more seasons at roughly 40 snipes per. A lot to ask, even of Quoteless Joe.
Hull was fortunate to blossom during the age of excess, the 1980s. His goal totals from that time -- 72, 86, 70 -- now seem not from another age, but from another game, maybe another planet. Consider that last season Jarome Iginla was the only NHLer to break the 50-goal plane. A lot of that had to do with the obese size of the league -- 30 teams -- and the pressures put upon coaches and GMs to get results, at least be competitive, night after night. Caution went up, goaltenders' equipment got bigger, and scoring dropped off the map.
"In this day and age,'' Chris Chelios told Detroit reporters recently, "with the way goal scoring is down, I don't see too many guys breaking that barrier."
Yet a testament to Hull's consistency that only twice since the mid-90s, when defense-first became the game's watchword, has he failed to score at least 30 goals in any season. He has become the standard-bearer for the sort of game he so champions.
What Hull did, does, better than anyone else, maybe ever, is create space for himself. Often times that's by backing up, actually moving away from the net, out of the congested traffic zone. His secret is in distancing himself from the goaltender, not crowding him. Add to that a Mike Bossy-ish release, those wrists snapping like a wet towel in a cold wind, and you've got yourself a 700-goal scorer. By the time he's done, depending on desire and health, Hull might've moved all the way up to third on the list, trailing only Gretzky and Howe.
He can spot holes in defensive coverage like Joe Montana and, given the chance to strike, is about as forgiving as a puff adder at dinnertime and hits the net more often with his shot than any other front-line goal scorer.
"Does he ever fan?" asked Oiler defenseman Janne Niinimaa in awe and appreciation. "I've never seen it.''
Few have. If they had, they'd remember.
Just as No. 700 will be remembered. It could happen tonight at Skyreach Centre in Edmonton or maybe tomorrow at GM Place, or Saturday at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary. But it will happen. Soon.
Brett Hull's quick on the trigger, mind. So don't blink or you might miss it. A moment of history.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.