The Golden Jet, 1939-2023
by Andrew Podnieks|30 JAN 2023
Canada’s Bobby Hull during a game of the 1976 Canada Cup.
photo: Frank Prazak / HHOF Images
Bobby Hull, the man who single-handedly changed the economics of professional hockey in North America, died earlier today at age 84. Cause of death and location are unknown for now, but the man they called the “Golden Jet” was an icon in NHL circles and a vital contributor to the international hockey world as well.

Hull was born in Ste. Anne, Ontario, which is now part of Belleville, about two hours east of Toronto. Even in his teens he was known for his extreme strength, often attributed to his growing up on a farm. He joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 1957, when he was just 18 years old, scoring 13 goals as a rookie and finishing second in voting for the Calder Trophy. He increased his goal scoring to 18 and then 39 in the next two years, establishing himself as a premier left winger known for his blazing speed and flowing locks of blond hair tearing down the wing. More important, he became the premier practitioner of the slapshot, terrifying maskless goalies with his high, hard blast off the rush. 

In the early 1960s, Hull added a wrinkle to his repertoire, heating his stick blade and sticking it under a door to bend it as much as possible. This “banana hook” made his shot even more powerful – and more unpredictable – giving him a great advantage on goalies who risked their lives every time they had to stare him down.

In his fourth NHL season he scored 31 goals, down from 39 the previous year, but on a roster that included future Hall of Famers like Stan Mikita and goalie Glenn Hall, the Hawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1939. In order to do so, they had to beat Montreal in the semi-finals, the team that had won the previous five Cup titles. It would turn out to be Hull’s only Cup, and Chicago’s last until 2010.

Hull had his first 50-goal season in 1961-62, tying Montreal’s Maurice Richard and Bernie Geoffrion for the single-season record. Four years later, he became the first player to exceed 50, finishing with 54, and a year later he did it again, with 52. In 1968-69, he set a new record with 58, and in the decade of the 1960s he led the NHL in goals seven times. 

Hull’s final season in Chicago came in 1971-72, when he had another 50-goal season, but he achieved this under immense pressure and controversy off ice. Rumour had it that a new league was going to form for the next season, the World Hockey Association, and owners eyed Hull as the number-one player to pursue. 

Hull had longed complained about NHL salaries and the means by which team owners basically “owned” the players, preventing player movement and restricting salaries, so Hull welcomed the opportunity to play elsewhere. The new Winnipeg Jets owner, Ben Hatskin, got all other owners to pay Hull an unprecedented signing bonus of $1 million, and Hatskin signed Hull to a 10-year, $1.7 million contract. With one stroke of the pen, hockey’s economics changed forever.

In the ensuing weeks, dozens of other NHLers fled to the WHA for much higher salaries, but the NHL didn’t go down without a fight. First, they took Hull to court for breach of contract, a case they lost, but one which held up his Jets’ debut.

As well, NHL president Clarence Campbell barred Hull from participating in the historic Summit Series in September 1972, a decision that, as time would tell, almost had catastrophic results for Canada. No more political moment in NHL history ever played out than the night of 6 September 1972, when Canada and the Soviet Union played Game 3 of the Series at the Winnipeg Arena, Hull and his wife watching from the stands.

Hull continued to be a scoring sensation in the new league, but as important he joined forces with two Swedes—Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg—to form hockey’s first truly international forward line. Called the “Hot Line,” the trio scored at will and led the Jets to two league titles. Soon enough, the Swedes were lured away to the NHL, signing the richest contracts in league history with the New York Rangers. 

When four WHA teams joined the NHL in 1979, Hull returned to the Jets for a few games before being traded to Hartford, where he played alongside Gordie Howe and Dave Keon for a few games before retiring. But in the fall of 1981, he attempted a comeback at age 42 with the Rangers, who were coached by Herb Brooks. Brooks wanted to united the legend with Hedberg and Nilsson, who were still with the team. The Rangers played several exhibition games in Gothenburg that September, but Hull decided it was time to retire for good. 

This was not the first time Hull had played for the Rangers. In the spring of 1959, after the NHL season, the Blueshirts and Boston Bruins went on a month-long, 23-game tour of Europe, starting in London and finishing in Vienna. Hull was added to the Rangers’ roster and was a sensation overseas. 

The only time he ever played for Canada in a best-on-best event was at the 1976 Canada Cup. Despite being 37 years old, he co-led the tournament with five goals in seven games and helped Canada win the inaugural event.

Hull retired with 610 goals to his name in the regular season, third all time in 1980 after only Howe and Phil Esposito and leaving the game as one of its greatest scoring stars. He won the Art Ross Trophy three times and the Hart Trophy twice. But his stand against the NHL, and his play in the WHA with two young Swedes, cemented his place in hockey history and made him an invaluable part of the game’s legacy which has been felt every day since he signed with the Jets in June 1972.