Bobby Hull Was Not Complicated
12:21 PM EST on January 30, 2023
It should be impossible for an athlete as talented and successful as Bobby Hull to have his on-ice accomplishments overshadowed, to the point where they're not even the first thing that springs to mind after his death. But Hull, whose death at the age of 84 was announced this morning, certainly earned the ignominy. Saying Hitler had some good ideas and beating the hell out of your wives will do that. You can't choose how you'll be remembered after you go, but you can surely make it harder to decide than Hull did.
The Golden Jet looked the part of a celebrity, blond hair streaming as he left defenders in his wake. With his speed and his slapshot, the flamboyant Hull felt like he had stepped out of a time machine from a couple decades in the league's future. He led the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961, won two MVPs, and led the league in goals seven times and points thrice. Starting at a time when only two players had previously topped 50 goals, Hull reeled off five 50-goal seasons in eight years. Black-and-white footage will always fail to capture it, but in Chicago and later Winnipeg after seeking WHA money commensurate with his fame, he was a phenomenon.
Would that Hull's headlines could have ended with his playing career. But hard drinking and spousal abuse led to his divorce from his first wife Joanne in 1980; she told ESPN that Hull beat her with a steel-heeled shoe and dangled her over a balcony. After their divorce, Hull was not involved in the lives of their five children, including Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull. In 1986, Hull was charged with assault and battery of his third wife Deborah. Though those charges were dropped when she declined to testify, Hull pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer who was trying to intervene.
Later generations of hockey fans, however, likely know Hull for one thing above all: the Hitler interview. In 1998, Hull gave an interview to an English-language Russian newspaper in which he was quoted as saying the black population in the U.S. was growing too fast, that eugenics was a good idea, and that "Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far." When asked in that interview if he was a racist, Hull is quoted as saying, "I don't give a damn. I'm not running for any political office."
Hull would sue the paper for defamation, as well as others that reprinted the comments, with his lawyer declaring that "it's not just what he said but the way in which he said it; that his demeanor, tone of voice, facial expression communicated nothing but contempt and hatred for Adolf Hitler." I must admit that I am stretching my brain to imagine the facial expressions that would exonerate that quote, and coming up empty. Hull would alternately insist that he had been misquoted, or mistranslated, or set up.
Hull's daughter Michelle, speaking in an ESPN profile that revealed even more instances of Hull's abusive and racist behavior, would say, "The first thing I thought [upon hearing the Hitler comments] was, 'That's exactly like him.'"
Somewhat incredibly, it was after all this, in 2008, that Hull was named a Blackhawks ambassador, a relationship the team wouldn't sever until last February. The ignoring of Hull's past was right in line with a franchise and a league that eagerly puts on blinkers to celebrate hockey at the expense of humanity.
Take note of the Bobby Hull obituaries you see today, and how they weigh his life's actions. Some will confine the "bad stuff" to a single paragraph near the end; some will no doubt call his legacy "complicated." But it's really, truly, not. He was a fantastic hockey player and a horrible human being, and to pretend like one of those is somehow at odds with the other is a fool's math. His legacy is clear.