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Winging It : Blues’ Brett Hull Takes Life as He Does Scoring Goals--Easily

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brett Hull of the St. Louis Blues sat in a room outside Studio 6A at the NBC-TV Studios, waiting to make an appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

An assistant producer approached to double-check a fact.

“So,” the man asked Hull, “only you, (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux have ever scored 80?”

“Right,” said Hull, smiling.

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Said another assistant, sitting nearby: “Good company.”

“The best,” Hull said.

Once considered a mere commoner by the Calgary Flames, who traded him to the Blues in the last month of his rookie season, Hull has joined the NHL’s upper crust during his three years in St. Louis, enjoying life among hockey’s bluebloods while scoring goals at an almost unprecedented pace.

A son of “the Golden Jet,” hockey legend Bobby Hull, “the Golden Brett” has 84 goals in 76 games heading into tonight’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota North Stars.

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Only Gretzky, who scored a league-record 92 goals for the Edmonton Oilers during the 1981-82 season and 87 for the Oilers two seasons later, and Lemieux, who scored 85 for the Pittsburgh Penguins two seasons ago, have scored more in a single season.

And yet, the surprised Hull said: “I’m not that good a player.”

Modest and unassuming despite a contract that will pay him $7.1 million over four seasons, the blond, blue-eyed Hull still describes himself as “lazy” and “chubby.”

So, how is it that he is such a prodigious scorer?

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“I shoot the puck well,” he said. “I get it away quickly and I don’t aim. I know where it’s going--I shoot to an area. If the goalie’s saving them in practice, I don’t care because I know if I hit the same spot in a game, the goalie’s going to be worried about too many other things to even see it. . . .

“I’m hard to check because I never have the puck. I let everyone else do the work while I get into the openings, into the slots. It’s an instinctive game, and I just go on my instincts. I don’t plan what I’m going to do each shift. It’s a game that happens so fast, you just can’t do that.”

Hull scored 72 goals last season, a record for a wing that he broke again this month. After earning $125,000 last season, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound right wing signed his new contract last summer after threatening to leave the Blues as a free agent.

He knew he would be expected to repeat his glorious season.

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He exceeded it while leading the Blues’ season-long battle against the Chicago Blackhawks for the Norris Division championship. He scored 50 goals in the first 50 games of the season, joining Gretzky, Lemieux, Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy as the only players to accomplish the feat.

Other than Gretzky, the personable Hull, 26, might be the most marketable player in the NHL.

Owner of the game’s most feared wrist shot, he was the leading vote-getter for the All-Star game this season, outpolling Gretzky by almost 120,000 votes. His appeal has helped the Blues increase their average attendance from 15,138 two seasons ago to 17,128 this season. Sports Illustrated portrayed him as a sex symbol. GQ proposed a fashion layout. This summer, an electronics company will introduce a Hull vs. Gretzky video game.

“His side, I’m sure, will win all the time,” joked Hull, seemingly more uncomfortable being compared to Gretzky than to his father.

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“When Brett Hull came here in 1988, he had a great name,” Michael F. Shanahan, the Blues’ chairman, told the Sporting News last season. “Then he grew into it.”

Still, Hull said: “I wake up every day scared to death that I’ll never score again. That’s just natural. I’ve never talked to Wayne (about it), and I’ve never heard him (mention it), but when he first started, he was so awesome, he had to have that inner fear of failure or he never would have done as well as he did. I can’t even sleep at night sometimes.”

Goaltenders about to face the Blues share the experience.

Letterman: “How old were you the first time you had skates on? Your dad, of course, must have had you out there at a couple of games.”

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Hull: “No. To tell you the truth, that’s probably the reason for a lot of my success. I was never pushed into the sport by my folks. My mother and father tell me I was scared of the ice when I was young. It took me a while to get out there. I used to like to run out there (in) my sneakers.”

Two hours before he was to appear on the Letterman show, Hull sat in a corner booth at a restaurant around the corner from the studios, washing down a salad and a bowl of chili with several bottles of beer.

“Pretty darn good, bud,” he told a waiter when he finished.

The amiable Hull is quick to ingratiate, assimilating easily.

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He credits his mother, Joanne, for his easygoing manner.

Winner of the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player last season, Hull is the antithesis of his hard-driving father, an intense man who is credited with bringing the slap shot into vogue and is considered by most to be the greatest left wing in NHL history.

Bobby Hull also won the Lady Byng Trophy one season.

“He’s the total opposite of his father--(in) his personality, his nature, his values,” his mother said. “He is really a good person. He’s an excellent person. He’s honest. He’s generous. He’s thoughtful.”

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Everything his father was not, according to his mother.

The third of five children born to the Golden Jet and the former Joanne McKay, a figure skater from Los Angeles, Brett and his two older brothers, sister and younger brother had no contact with their father for about 10 years after their parents’ bitter divorce in the late 1970s.

“The man never came to see him at all,” Brett’s mother said. “Never sent a Christmas card or a postcard or anything else. He seemed to wash his hands of (the kids). We never heard from him.”

After moving from Chicago to Vancouver, Canada, when he was 12, Brett grew close to Harry Robinson, acting as Robinson’s best man when the insurance executive married Hull’s mother in 1982.

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Wherever he went, though, he was reminded of his father.

“Kids would say, ‘Oh, you’re a hotdog, Hull, you’re not as good as your father,’ ” his mother said. “He wouldn’t even answer. He’d just say, ‘Mom, the only way to get even with them is to put the puck in their net.’ ”

Even then, he had a knack for silencing his tormentors.

Hull’s scoring ability, in fact, has never been questioned. But he was pigeonholed early on as an overweight, one-dimensional player who cared little about anything except scoring.

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His father once described his play as “slovenly.”

When he was 18, unsure of his future, Hull almost quit.

“Nobody wanted me,” he said. “I had nowhere to play.”

At the urging of his mother, who was disappointed when he gave up a promising baseball career, Hull joined a club team in Vancouver, played well enough to attract interest from a Tier II junior team in Penticton, Canada, and eventually accepted a scholarship to Minnesota Duluth.

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In 90 games at Minnesota Duluth, he scored 84 goals.

One day, before a game at Minnesota, his father appeared.

“The ol’ boy just dropped by,” his mother said. “He was changing planes (in Minneapolis). He saw (Brett) beforehand, but didn’t stay for the game.”

Both mother and son said that it would be wrong to imply that, until the last few years, father and son had a rocky relationship.

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“They had no relationship,” she said. “None.”

His father was in the stands last season when Hull scored his 50th goal, making Bobby and Brett the first father and son each to score 50 or more goals in a season.

“I’ve always told him he’s not a 30- or 40-goal scorer--he’s a 50-goal scorer,” the elder Hull, who scored 50 or more goals in five NHL seasons, told reporters after the game. “Watching him play and seeing how well he did everything, I knew with a little more desire it would come out.

“I always knew he had the ability, ever since he was running around with a snotty nose. But I wondered if he had that fire burning bright enough in him to be what he has become. I guess it’s burning brighter than it appears.”

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Letterman: “Let me ask you a technical question: You and your dad, who has more of his own teeth?”

Hull: “I can go beyond that. I’ve got all my teeth and all my hair.”

In time, Hull may have all of his father’s records, too.

In 16 NHL seasons, Bobby Hull scored 610 goals while amassing 1,170 points for the Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers. A Hall of Famer, he was an 11-time NHL All-Star.

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His son, at his current pace of about 60 goals a season, would score almost as many in 10 seasons.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” Hull said of scoring a goal. “It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

It probably has a similar effect on fans of the Flames.

Why did Calgary trade Hull?

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His effortless style, it seemed, was mistaken for indifference. But the Flames, believing that Hull was out of shape, and displeased with his reluctance to check or hit, weren’t the only ones who thought they’d gotten the better of the deal when they sent the former sixth-round draft choice and wing Steve Bozek to the Blues for reserve goaltender Rick Wamsley and defenseman Rob Ramage March 7, 1988.

And a season later, the Flames won the Stanley Cup.

Since then, however, Hull has made them look foolish.

“I was extremely excited,” Hull said of his own reaction to the trade. “Not because I wanted to leave Calgary, but because I wanted a chance to show that I could play better than they ever gave me credit for playing.

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"(In Calgary), I was more disappointed than frustrated because I knew what I could do, but I just wasn’t getting a chance.”

After the Flames had tried to mold him into a more defensive-minded player, the Blues allowed him to flourish as a scorer.

“I’m a better player just from gradual maturity and experience,” said Hull, who also benefited from a more intensive conditioning program. “But (Coach) Brian Sutter helped me immensely. He showed me why I made mistakes. He made it known to me that he knew that I was a scorer, and he let me score. And then we worked on my defense.

“My favorite line in hockey is, ‘Utilize your assets.’ ”

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With the laid-back Hull, the Blues have done exactly that.

“I’ve totally changed my game since (leaving) the Flames,” Hull said. “I was just a guy (filling up) the wing, firing up slap shots. I picked up hitting the net from (Sutter). I used to have a big shot, and I used to miss the net with every shot. It didn’t even have a chance to go in, and no one else has a chance to put it in if it doesn’t hit the net.

“They ask me now how I get so many shots (on goal), and it’s because I hit the net all the time. I rarely miss the net.”

Hull would rather outfox his foes than overpower them.

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“I try to be intense with my brain instead of my body,” he said. “The game is so much mental. I just try to expend more mental energy than I do physical energy.”

He has expended enough of both this season to be a strong candidate for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. His father won the Hart Trophy twice.

It’s a prospect that seems both to amuse and to excite him.

Who would be his choice?

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“Wayne Gretzky,” he said quickly. “Every year.”

Why?

“He’s the greatest.”

He paused.

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“But I would like to win it this year,” he said. “I think I’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Maybe the best chance.

SCORING Single-season leaders in NHL history:

Season Player No. 1981 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton 92 1984 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton 87 1984 Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh 85 1991 Brett Hull, St. Louis 84 1971 Phil Esposito, Boston 76 1985 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton 73 1990 Brett Hull, St. Louis 72 1985 Jari Kurri, Edmonton 71 1983 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton 71 1988 Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh 70 1989 Bernie Nicholls, Kings 70

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