One Hull of a holiday

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:49 AM ET

For anyone who ever saw Bobby Hull careening down left wing for the Chicago Blackhawks or Winnipeg Jets, the lingering image is one of sheer power.

Sure, the Golden Jet was artistic, too, what with the blazing speed and lightning-quick release. But when it came to total physical domination of an opponent - for a shift or an entire game - Hull was peerless. He could fend off the toughest defender with one arm, bull his way through the slot with reckless abandon or, if the situation called for it, deliver a punishing body check.

What many hockey fans don't know, however, is that most of those skills were learned and polished during a brief tenure very early in his career when Hull wore the sweater of the New York Rangers.

In May 1959, the Rangers and Boston Bruins embarked on a gruelling barnstorming tour of western Europe that saw them play 23 games in 25 days.

Hull was invited to join the tour to fill out the Rangers' roster, and Chicago management quickly agreed. The Blackhawks also provided Eddie Litzenberger, Eric Nesterenko and Pierre Pilote. Former Edmonton Flyers Bronco Horvath and Vic Stasiuk suited up for the Bruins.

The tour was intended to be the forerunner of an NHL-sponsored pro league on the continent, but almost from the outset it was fraught with difficulties.

The promoter, a Swiss businessman named Otmar Delnon, put up $250,000 to cover all the travel and expenses. Each player was guaranteed $1,000 in cash plus a gold watch, luggage and a percentage of the gate receipts.

What Delnon didn't count on, however, was the Europeans' almost complete lack of interest in the NHL product.

There was no advance publicity for the first two games at Wembley Arena in London, and as a result only 1,500 fans showed up for the opener and 4,000 for the second contest. It was somewhat better in Geneva, where the next two games attracted a total of 21,000 fans, but by the time the tour hit Paris in mid-May the novelty had worn off. Only 700 curious onlookers attended the game in the French capital, and the next night in Antwerp, Belgium, the "crowd" was a measly 400.

WINNING DIDN'T HELP

The fact the Rangers had already "won" the tour by the halfway point didn't help matters, nor that the last dozen or so games were more like glorified scrimmages. But Hull, playing the port side on a line with Litzenberger and Eddie Shack, quickly emerged as the dominant player.

"It was on that '59 tour that I really learned how to play the game at the NHL level," Hull recalled in a recent interview.

"I was only 20 years old and I'd scored the grand total of 31 goals in two seasons with Chicago. I played absolutely crazy hockey back then, skating all over the ice as hard as I could with no thought of conserving energy or making plays. Chances are I wouldn't have lasted very long if that didn't change.

"When I went to Europe with the Rangers, I had to learn to pace myself. Twenty-three games in 25 nights is pretty tough, even when you're a kid. I wanted to get in all the sightseeing I possibly could, so I had to discover some way to save energy.

"I started coasting into the slot and letting Litz and Shacky do the work for me in the corners, and the difference was amazing. I was lasting a whole lot longer on each shift and the goals started to go in like clockwork."

LESSONS LEARNED

Hull finished the tour as the Rangers' leading scorer with 18 goals and 51 points in the 22 games he played, but the real benefit for the Golden Jet was fine tuning the offensive style that became his personal calling card for the next two decades. "I finally learned what worked best for me - pumping shots on goal from high in the slot," he said.

"I probably would've learned that lesson eventually, but when I look back on it, I pinpoint that European tour as a real turning point in my career as a hockey player."

Another thing Hull learned while in Paris was not to climb the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower when you're scheduled to play a game that night.

"What can I say? I was a kid from the country who'd never seen anything like the lights of Paris, and I wanted to suck it all in. But I remember I didn't have too much left in the gas tank that night; my legs were pretty shot ..."

For the record, the Rangers won 11 games, lost nine and there were three ties. And even though New York outscored Boston 104-101, goaltenders Gump Worsley and Don Simmons garnered rave reviews for facing upwards of 40 shots each, night after night.

Hull produced the single best offensive performance, notching four goals and two assists in a 7-6 win in front of 5,000 fans in Zurich, Switzerland.

"Playing with so many veterans really gave me a boost of confidence and put me in the perfect frame of mind to start the next season where I'd left off in Europe," he recalled.

"When I went to the Hawks training camp the next fall, I was brimming with confidence. The experience I got in Europe made me believe I could accomplish a lot in the NHL."

Two years later Hull led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1938. They haven't won one since.

Hull should have had another opportunity to showcase his enormous talent on European ice in September 1972, but he was harpooned by Alan Eagleson and the petty politics of the NHL Players' Association.

Originally named to Team Canada for the historic Summit Series against the Soviet Union, Hull was scratched from the roster in June after jumping from Chicago to sign the richest contract in the history of pro sports to that point with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA.


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