Golden Jet praises Blackhawks

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

Of all the Chicago Blackhawks fans now digging their faded Bobby Hull sweaters out of the closet, none is happier to pull on No. 9 again than the Golden Jet himself.

Hull, named the NHL Alumni's Man of the Year last night at the Westin Harbour Castle, declared 2008 was already a success in his books because the Hawks, the only team with a Stanley Cup drought longer than the Maple Leafs, are on the rise at last.

With an influx of young talent, the end of the Bill Wirtz days and a truce between Hawks management and disowned stars such as Hull and Tony Esposito, they could be back in the playoffs for just the second time in 10 seasons.

Chairman Rocky Wirtz and president John F. McDonough invited Hull, Esposito and Stan Mikita back as club ambassadors, in Hull's case healing a rift that stretched back to his defection from the frugal Hawks to the World Hockey Association in the early 1970s.

"I've never been more proud to be part of an organization," Hull said. "And all it took was a few months. They've got their games back on free TV, which Bill never allowed, they got rid of (long-time executive) Bob Pulford, they've got season's tickets back up from a few thousand to around 13,000 and they've got some excellent kids, too."

Hull was referring to Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, new defenceman Brian Campbell and new goaltender Cristobal Huet. The team also picked rugged Kyle Beach 11th overall at the '08 draft.

Ironically, current Hawks GM Dale Tallon was given the departed Hull's No. 9 back in 1973 in the hopes the young defenceman would make the fans forget the Jet. Tallon reluctantly wore the number through camp and was booed so much in his first pre-season game that he changed it.

KILLER SHOT

"The new people are doing wonders in a market that wants to win," Esposito said. "I hope Huet does well because they got him partly on my recommendation."

Hull scored 1,153 points in 1,036 games for Chicago and was part of its last Cup in 1961. The Hawks were favoured in '67, but were upset in the first round by the eventual champion Leafs. Yet they stayed competitive enough to make the final in 1971 and '73.

"If Bobby would have stayed and other guys hadn't gone to the WHA, I think we could have had a good run for four or five more years," Esposito said.

Hull's shot off the left wing was his most fierce weapon and before goal masks became mandatory, he worried that one of his 100-plus m.p.h. blasts might kill a goalie.

"He came close a few times," fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bower said with a laugh. "He missed my head and got me in the chest. But his brother Dennis was much more dangerous, because he could shoot just as hard and was far more wild."

Esposito said Hull took it easy on him in practice, knowing how valuable he was to the team.

"But I wouldn't have wanted to be one of our back-ups -- and we went through a lot of them," Esposito said.


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