To capture Brett Hull in a single story is to condense an entire landscape into a single frame.
The picture is borderless, bursting with color and controversy, emotional spikes, dramatic moments and franchise-saving skills. The impression left by a "lazy and chubby" kid, one of five children to a sports legend and publicly-ruptured marriage, overflows with content.
There never has been a story like it, in hockey, in any sport. There never has been a son follow his father's trail to the Hall of Fame with such prodigious steps, ones that he has taken toward being enshrined Monday in Toronto. There never has been an athlete in St. Louis with more layers - some gruff, some gracious, all unforgettable.
"I remember we were in Los Angeles one night, and we're tied with less than a minute left to play," former Blues forward Kelly Chase recalled. "And (coach Brian Sutter) wants the checking line out there for a faceoff. But Brett jumps over the board and goes and stands by the dot. So now there's too many guys out there and they're arguing over who should be out there and finally the referee comes over and says, 'OK, one of your guys has to get off the ice.'
"Brett looks at Richie Sutter standing next to him and tells him, 'Richie, get the (...) off the ice.' Finally, Richie skates off, they drop the puck, Brett gets possession, carries it down the wing, cuts to the middle and just rips a shot over Kelly Hrudey's shoulder to score.
"Then he skates back to bench, slides to a stop and says with a smirk, 'As if we're going to play overtime in LA.'"
It was classic Brett Hull, irreverent, incorrigible and at the same time, irresistible. A Hollywood property titled "Hullie" would include credits like 741 career goals and 650 assists, 86 goals in one season, 50 goals in 50-or-less games twice, 33 career hat tricks, 24 playoff game-winning goals, eight All-Star appearances, two Stanley Cup rings and one Hart (MVP) Trophy. And in the background, only one soundtrack would suffice, Frank Sinatra's iconic song, "I Did It My Way.''
"He could be so many contradictions," said close friend and fellow Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. "You would be reading an interview with him about a particular game, or particular play, or incident - he just doesn't hold back. He's just a very honest person, I don't think you can say it any better than that.
"He's definitely unique. You got a full package with Brett Hull, there's no question about that."
GROWING UP HULL
From the beginning, when he began playing youth hockey in the Chicago area, Brett Hull came to an important conclusion - subconsciously or otherwise. He would embrace his father's giant legacy, but blaze his own path.
"I was kind of smart enough when I was young, 14 or 15 years old, to realize that if you're ever going to do anything and step out of the shadow of your own dad - not only in hockey but in life itself - you're going to have to learn you're Brett and not 'Bobby's son.'
"Embrace the fact and relish how fortunate you were to have such a legendary father, all the places you got to go and people you met. But you're going to have to make it on your own. Don't worry what people say or what people think. Be yourself."
Brett watched his older brothers, Bobby Jr. and Blake, grow up Hull. He saw how demanding and unforgiving it could be, heard the constant comparisons to their famous father and well-known uncle, Bobby Hull and Dennis Hull, aka "The Golden Jet" and "The Silver Jet."
Bobby Hull is considered by many to be the greatest left winger in the history of the game, certainly among its handful of most recognizable names. Younger brother Dennis also had an outstanding NHL career, scoring more than 300 goals.
Bobby Jr. and Blake Hull tried to travel the traditional route to the NHL, playing at the major junior levels. Brett observed how they were evaluated, transposed against their father's image, expected to possess the same powerful stride and explosive shot. The microscope was unforgiving, especially for Bobby Jr.
"I watched them and what path they tried to take to the NHL, and I learned that was not the way I wanted to go," Hull, 45, said. "To be Bobby Hull Jr. ... trying to be a hockey player - my God!
"I don't know this for a fact, but to be honest, (Bobby Jr.) wasn't nearly the same skill set my father was. And I think if he would have just embraced being who he was, whether it was a defensive player or whatever, I think he had a chance because he had more heart and desire than I ever dreamed of having."
Brett, an outstanding baseball player, at one point pondered giving up hockey altogether. But when no junior teams showed an interest in him, he played for a club team in Vancouver, then got a chance with a Tier II junior team in Penticton, British Columbia. In 106 games over two seasons for the Knights, Hull had 153 goals and 292 points. He eventually accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he scored 84 goals in 90 college games.
As his mother, Joanne Robinson, explained in an interview years ago, Brett always knew how to answer critics.
"I remember kids used to say mean things to him," said the former Joanne McKay, who divorced Bobby Hull in 1980 amid loud headlines and allegations of physical abuse.
"They would call him 'hotdog' and tell him he wasn't as good as his father. But he would just let it go. He used to tell me, 'Mom, I don't care. I just get even with them by putting the puck in their net.'"
Despite his gaudy numbers, Hull was ignored entirely in the 1982 and 1983 drafts, both for which he was eligible. By the time he was selected No. 117 by Calgary in 1984, 610 players had been taken ahead of him through the three drafts.
To borrow on his own terminology, he got even.
As a rookie with the Calgary Flames in 1987-88, Hull had 26 goals and 50 points with limited playing time through 52 games. But as the season progressed, management felt he was too soft, literally and figuratively, to impact a talented roster that included right wingers Lanny McDonald, Joey Mullen and Hakan Loob and another spectacular rookie, Joe Nieuwendyk.
In early March 1988, Calgary coach Terry Crisp called Hull to his office to inform him he had been traded to St. Louis. Excited about the opportunity, Hull did his best to appear solemn and circumspect. But he couldn't help himself.
"I couldn't keep a big smile from coming to my face," he said. "I was excited."
To list the trade as a mistake by Calgary would be slightly erroneous. The Flames had plenty of scoring at the time. With the help of their acquisitions in the deal, including defenseman Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley, Calgary won a Stanley Cup the following season.
But with that same mischievous smile and delightful inappropriateness, Hull won over an otherwise-traditionalist city and changed a meandering franchise. In his first full season with the Blues, 1988-89, he collected 41 goals and 43 assists in 78 games. When the schedule ended, Hull eagerly met with coach Brian Sutter for his evaluation session, expecting high praise and congratulatory pats. Instead, the tenacious Sutter dressed him down.
"He ripped me from stem to stern," Hull said. "He told me I'm only scratching the surface and that I better come back next season and be ready to pay the price and become a better player. I was like, 'What the hell?'
"But you know what? His attitude toward me opened my eyes to what I had a chance to be. I thought if someone could believe in me that much, maybe I should take that and run with it. Maybe I should try to become that player."
HULL AND OATES
Two ingredients were instrumental in helping bring Sutter's vision to life. Blues assistant coach Bob Berry worked extensively with Hull before and after practices, refining his shooting accuracy, developing his deadly snapshot and uncanny ability to receive a pass and shoot it in one motion. More than any player in hockey, Hull advanced the effectiveness of the "one-timer."
At the same time, in June 1989, the Blues traded longtime center Bernie Federko (also a Hall of Famer) and winger Tony McKegney to Detroit for center Adam Oates and winger Paul MacLean. Hull and Oates became inseparable. They were line mates, roommates and soul mates. They were an NHL version of Lennon and McCartney, a chemical cohesion that produced magic.
"There is one thing about Brett that I don't think people give him enough credit for, because he was so mouthy," said Oates, now as assistant coach in Tampa Bay. "People don't realize how smart he is. He's a very smart player.
"You take that into account with myself - I really liked to pass the puck and he really liked to shoot it. He understood what I was thinking and I understood what he was thinking, and it just was a perfect marriage. In my mind, we were meant for each other."
Over the next three seasons, Hull scored goals at an unprecedented pace for a right winger. He piled up 228 goals in 231 games. His 86 goals in 1990-91 remain a record for his position and earned him the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, the first right winger since Montreal's Guy Lafleur (1977-78) to be so named. The same season, Oates had 90 assists.
Playing on the popular Hall and Oates musical tandem, "Hull and Oates" became local rock stars, the marketing billboard backbone of hockey in St. Louis. Blues attendance soared from an average of 14,505 in 1987-88 to 17,518 in 1991-92.
"We had an appearance one day at a Sports Authority on Watson Road," recalled Susie Mathieu, the Blues director of public relations and marketing at the time. "So I picked up Brett and Adam and I told them, 'I'll drive you around back to the loading dock so you can go in from the back of the store.' And we were getting there early because we knew there would be a good crowd.
"But as I pulled up to that strip mall, we couldn't even get in the parking lot; we couldn't get anywhere near the store."
Mathieu wound up driving farther down the street to another store and calling the manager of Sports Authority to let him know they couldn't get in. He came and got the players and brought them to the store.
BREAKING UP THE DUO
When a relatively-underpaid Oates held out for more money during the 1991-92 season, Camelot came to an abrupt end. In February 1992, Blues general manager Ron Caron sent Oates to Boston for Craig Janney, another play-making center. Hull never reached the 60-goal mark again.
Oates went on to have outstanding seasons elsewhere, but he wonders what might have been had he stayed in St. Louis.
"The biggest thing that always frustrated me was that Brett and I were the same age, and we had Scott Stevens who was the same age," said Oates, who never played on a Stanley Cup winner. "I feel St. Louis was very shortsighted on that."
"... We had a couple of good years together - we could have had 10 good years together. But that was the financial times of our league at the time."
During 10-plus seasons with the Blues, Hull scored a franchise record 527 goals. He is convinced the total would be 150 goals higher had he continued with Oates.
"He's still the most underrated player that ever played the game," Hull said. "It was weird. He knew where I was going and I knew that he would wait for me, and the puck would be there at the right time, and perfectly."
IRON MIKE's ARRIVAL
The most tumultuous period of Hull's career, and the beginning of its end in St. Louis, came when the Blues named Mike Keenan coach and general manager in July 1994.
Having won a Stanley Cup in New York the season before, Keenan came armed with his own large personality and championship credibility.
He perceived St. Louis to be a priority-impaired franchise, an environment driven by individual personalities rather than a team-oriented concept. To bring the town its first championship, he was sought to change that culture and often focused his sights on Hull. The next 2½ seasons became daytime drama, a procession of one-upmanship and public jousts between the two, a period marked by sometimes-stunning trades and constant clubhouse friction.
Keenan attempted to mold the Blues into a gritty, lunchbox likeness of his Cup-winning Rangers. Popular stars such as Curtis Joseph and Brendan Shanahan were moved, battle-scarred warriors such as Guy Carbonneau, Esa Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish and Brian Noonan were added. Although a young Chris Pronger was among those additions, the doctored roster never jelled.
In the midst of it all Hull stood his ground, protecting the turf he had established in St. Louis, going toe to stubborn toe with "Iron Mike."
During those capricious times, every day with the team was a new adventure. One of the most remarkable of those days came on February 27, 1996, when the Blues announced the acquisition of iconic Gretzky in a trade with Los Angeles.
Ask Hull what his biggest thrill in hockey was and he quickly answers, "Standing on the ice during the playing of the national anthem and looking over and seeing Wayne Gretzky standing next to me."
Gretzky, whose wife Janet is a St. Louis native, was nearly as excited.
"When the Kings decided they were going to go the young route, which I understood, they basically said, 'OK, where do you want to go?'" Gretzky said. "We sat down for a day and and talked about it and I called Brett and told him my decision was I was going to come to St. Louis.
"The reason I was going there was two-fold. One, was to play with him and have an opportunity to finish my career playing with Brett Hull and, secondly, my in-laws were all from St. Louis. So I thought it was a perfect match."
It proved to be nothing more than whim, a fancy that passed quickly.
Gretzky scored 21 points in 18 games with the Blues, but he and Hull never clicked in the "Hull and Oates" fashion anticipated. Keenan quickly split the two and, with the exception of power-play duty, played them on separate lines.
Ultimately, even the "The Great One" ran afoul of Keenan, who publicly criticized Gretzky during the playoffs. When the season ended, Gretzky rejected a three-year offer from the Blues and decided New York would be a more comfortable place to finish his storied career.
BYGONES BE BYGONES
Early in the 1996-97 season, Keenan stripped Hull of his captaincy, saying it wasn't personal. Hull responded in the papers, "the hell it's not." Two months later, in December 1996, this reporter was covering a Blues game in Colorado. On the way to the arena, he bumped into Hull in the hotel lobby and greeted him with a, "Hey, Brett, what's up?"
Hull smiled and said matter-of-factly, "Oh, not much. I'm not playing tonight. Other than, that, nothin' new."
Keenan scratched Hull from the lineup that night, then enjoyed the "I told you so" spoils when the Blues defeated the defending champion Avalanche 4-3. But Keenan did not have enough of those triumphant moments. Twenty-nine months after he came to deliver St. Louis to hockey's promised land, Keenan and the man who hired him, president Jack Quinn, were fired.
Twelve years have lent perspective to things. Keenan, who turned 60 in October, has coached for eight franchises, four since leaving St. Louis.
"I was disappointed in myself and the way I handled his overall situation while I was in St. Louis," Keenan said. "He was the player and I was the coach, and I should have stayed in a different place in terms of my relationship with him."
After leaving St. Louis, the roles Hull played in Dallas and Detroit, where he was part of Stanley Cup winning teams, were different. With those teams, stocked with other stars, he was not the face of the franchise; he assumed a
complimentary position. It was the type of role Keenan said he envisioned for Hull in St. Louis, but he blames himself for not getting Hull on board. If he had it to do over, he would approach things differently.
"I probably would have tried to get him to continue to make improvements in his game, but recognize where he had been and where he was in his role in that franchise," Keenan said. "The adage for a teacher is it's always better to understand than to be understood.
"Understanding Brett's role in that community, in that organization and with that team, would have been better served if I had - not done things 100 percent differently - but taken a different road with him. I could have served the team better if I could have just gotten him into a different place to reinforce what we were trying to do as a team."
No bitterness remains, which is gratifying to both. Keenan and Hull bumped into each other at a golf event last year and, "had a very nice conversation," Keenan said.
Hull added, "You know what? I'm 45 years old. I'm not much for holding grudges; life's too short for that."
The professional differences notwithstanding, Keenan never was confused about Hull's talent, a player he said, interestingly enough, he "really enjoyed" coaching.
"He had an uncanny ability to find seams in the offensive zone," Keenan said. "Nobody could identify them as quickly and get to them as quickly as Brett did. He's a Hall of Fame goal scorer."
HEART OF GOLD
Behind the crusty voice and occasionally unpolished demeanor, there is an indulgent side to Hull that enamors him to those who know him best. When the Blues started the charitable "14 Fund" to honor deceased former player Doug Wickenheiser in 1998, Hull put the project on firm footing by donating the sale of personal memorabilia worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The only stipulation he put on the contribution was that it be kept secret, Chase recalled.
"He told me, 'If you let them know that I did it, I'm taking it back. I want to make sure the Wickenheiser girls are taken care of and there is a legacy for 'Wick.'"
There have been other examples of the "Golden Brett's" golden heart.
In January 2008, a longtime member of the Dallas Stars' business operations, Matt McKee, died of cardiac-related causes. Again, without publicizing it, Hull - then co-general manager of the team - donated his salary for the remainder of the season to McKee's family.
"That's pretty big," Chase said. "But he doesn't want people to know. He doesn't want people to be running around patting him on the back and saying, 'What a great job; you're really something.' He just did it. He just said, 'This is the right thing to do.' And it's times like that, when you see him that, you say, 'That's solid.'
"He can be an abrasive jerk sometimes, when he's in a bad mood. But I've been around him enough and a close enough friend to see a lot of that other side, that side that makes him special."
Mathieu said at the height of his popularity, Hull would get 200-300 letters a day. He would insist that all of them be opened.
"... He was always insistent about writing a personal note to any child that was a product of a divorce or broken home," she said, "because he felt there might be something he could say to them that might help them get through it. There is a loyalty in that body and that person is beyond compare. It's astounding, really."
The softer side of Hull took a deep bruising when he departed St. Louis after the 1997-98 season, one season after Keenan was replaced. After allowing Hull's contract to expire, the Blues made a somewhat halfhearted effort to re-sign him, refusing to give a no-trade clause the club since has given to other players. Without publicly coming out and saying so, it was apparent the franchise was ready to move on.
"It bothered him a lot," Chase said. "He really wanted to end his career here. And the two things that bothered him is that he was getting a feedback that 'you can't win with Brett Hull' and obviously that was proven wrong. And he felt like the people who were here, who knew him, didn't want to go to bat for him."
Oates added: "The guy had a swimming pool in his backyard in the shape of a blue note, for crying out loud. So you know it hurt him."
In St. Louis, Hull scored 40-or-more goals in a season eight times. He never reached the 40 mark again. From a production standpoint, there's no question the Blues got the best of Hull's years. From a business standpoint, the team now playing in the building he helped open in 1994, the construction he started with a symbolic slap shot from across the street, has fallen on lean times.
After some winning seasons under coach Joel Quenneville, the franchise went into a swoon that brought ownership changes and a fan-alienating stretch of five seasons without making the playoffs. In 2006-07, attendance dropped to an average of 12,521, the lowest in 21 years.
For his part, Hull once again got even. He went on to win a Stanley Cup in Dallas, scoring the title-clinching goal in the third overtime of Game 6 to beat Buffalo in 1999. The following year, he led all scorers in the playoffs as Dallas went back to the finals. After three years in Dallas, where he still lives, Hull captured another Cup as a member of the Red Wings in 2002. Bottom line, you most assuredly could win with Brett Hull.
"I'm not sure my reputation wasn't based on how I played," Hull said. "Within that kind of 'lazy' looking style, you can't do the things that I did without putting some kind of effort into them, mentally and physically.
"They talk about toughness and talk about work ethic. There's many different versions of that. Because I don't look like I'm skating around as hard as Bobby Bassen doesn't mean my mind isn't working twice as hard as Bobby's mind. Just because I can't fight like Kelly Chase doesn't mean standing in front of the net getting cross-checked and slashed isn't toughness as well."
By the time Hull left St. Louis, there were innuendos, in the press and elsewhere, that he took nights off, that he was a disruptive presence in the room. Chase insists otherwise.
"The two toughest guys I ever played with were Chris McAlpine and Brett Hull," Chase said. "Brett never went in the training room - he never complained or moaned about being sore, he just played. It drove him crazy when he would come in and see guys in the hot tub or cold tub, saying they were sore, whining about this being banged or that being banged. 'Just shut up and play,' that was his whole deal."
The two championships are a gratifying part of Hull's legacy, heights every NHL player aspires to reach. Still, although his sentimental side is sometimes well camouflaged, he readily acknowledges it could have been better. Winning a Cup in St. Louis would have meant more.
"It would have been unbelievable, so unbelievable," he said.
Gretzky often has told Hull he should be most proud of what he accomplished in St. Louis.
"He saved that franchise," Gretzky said. "He built that arena. He made hockey what it is right now in the Missouri area. It's a lot like what Bobby Orr did in Boston in the 1970s. That's how important he was.
"I know he enjoys still going to St. Louis. I think he's got a St. Louis Blue tattooed somewhere on that body, and he'll always have that. And he should be proud of it. I tell him that every day."
In some ways, Hull hasn't changed. He was replaced as a Dallas general manager in May, but he still works for the club under the slightly ostentatious title of "executive vice president and alternate governor." And he still considers himself, first and foremost, chubby and lazy. "I have never grown out of it," he said, with a laugh.
During the Hall induction festivities this weekend in Toronto, he once again will be a center of attention. Brett being Brett, he might deliver an unconventional line or two, raise some eyebrows, get some laughs. At the same time, he hopes to participate in one more celebration in the years ahead.
"If St. Louis would win a Stanley Cup today, I would still be there for it," he said.
Brett Hull can be a lot of contradictions. But somewhere in his soul, he still hears the ovations at the old Arena, still hears an organ pumping "When The Blues Go Marching In." Deep in his heart, he still bleeds Blue.
"You know what, I had 11 great years with St. Louis," Hull said. "My gosh, those are the best years of my life. And I will never, ever forget that."
Safe to say St. Louis will never, ever forget Brett Hull.