WINNIPEG - I first wrote a version of this column eight years ago, when they were about to take a wrecking ball to the Winnipeg Arena.
But even if you remember that one, stick with me — because it's got a new ending.
It was the fall of 1972. Terrorists had marred the Summer Games in Munich, the Watergate scandal was in full bloom and gas cost 55 cents a gallon.
None of that mattered to a 10-year-old kid from small-town Manitoba, though, not on this day.
He, his dad and his big brother were going to see a professional hockey game in the big city. His first pro hockey game.
Check that — the game wasn't the big attraction.
Bobby Hull was.
A new team called the Jets in a new league called the WHA had somehow signed one of the great superstars of the NHL, a man so talented and so popular he transcended the game.
Even if you didn't follow the sport, you knew who Bobby Hull was. His strength was mythical, his slap shot cannonading, his personality magnetic.
When the Jets put that $1 million cheque in his powerful hands at Portage and Main that summer, Hull became an instant Manitoba legend.
Like thousands of others, the small-town boy had come to see him. That Hull wasn't even going to play that night didn't really matter.
The NHL had gone to court to keep No. 9 off the ice, but the boy understood little of that. All he knew was he had to see him, and he had to get an autograph.
On this night, the Golden Jet was standing behind the bench in his suit, as an assistant coach.
So sometime during the game, or maybe it was during the warmup, the 10-year-old worked up his nerve, tore the top off his popcorn box and began to make his way across the magnificent arena.
Not knowing of such things as concourses — the only arena he'd been in was the outdoor rink back home — the kid walked through row after row of seats, asking people to let him through.
Reaching the Jets bench, he got the star's attention, reached up with his box top and asked Mr. Hull if he could please get his autograph.
The man's hands gobbled up the piece of paper, signed his name on it and descended back over the glass to hand it back to the kid.
Numb and speechless, the boy doesn't remember if he even said thank you.
Gripping the prize, he made his way back to his seat to watch the game.
But he never remembered who scored, or even who won — only that he got Bobby Hull's autograph.
For the next few years that piece of paper lay safely at the bottom of a sock drawer, except for those moments when the kid would pull it out to look at it, the image of the stylish 'B' and the looping 'H' imprinted on his brain for life.
Eventually, the paper disappeared, perhaps the victim of an overzealous mother on laundry day or a careless teenager who simply moved on.
But the memory, while faded, never vanished.
Forty years later, the boy, now a sportswriter, found himself on the phone with a 73-year-old man living in Chicago.
He asked the legend why he'd always had time for an autograph, and never said no.
"Because my mother always told me they were the most important people in our business," the man said. "And I always felt that if a person would go out of their way to stay and ask for my autograph, I should be amenable and sign everything they wish to have signed."
The kid decided it was also time to say thank you for one particular autograph he'd signed in Winnipeg, 40 years ago.
"Forty years later I'll say I'm happy I became that part of your young life," the man on the other end of the line said. "And I hope it had some positive effect on your growing up into the man that you are."
The conversation ended with a confession. The paper had been lost, and never replaced.
Five days later, a doorbell in Winnipeg rang, and the sportswriter answered it to find a parcel on his doorstep.
A parcel from Chicago.
Inside was a red-and-white popcorn box.
Across the top, in blue marker, a familiar scrawl: (ital) To Paul. Best Regards 40 years later. (ital)
Along with the unmistakable 'B' and the looping 'H.'
Thanks again, Mr. Hull.