Hull finds new game has passed him by
By the end, Brett Hull was known more as a loose cannon than as the man with a cannon. And that says a lot about a player who was not just an open book, but also an open mike.
But it doesn't say as much as it should about the man as player, a bit unfortunate given that regardless of what was said by and about Hull, he was first and foremost one of the game's finest players.
Hull threw in the towel five games into his 19th NHL season Saturday prior to the Coyotes' game against Hull's former team, Detroit. His exit, not surprisingly, was pure Hull.
Hull signed on with the Coyotes and his old teammate and friend Wayne Gretzky prior to the lockout as the centerpiece of a makeover that was supposed to draw fans to the Coyotes' new building in the desert.
He was expected to be a media magnet, fan favorite, and maybe, just maybe, have enough magic left in a stick that had seen him rise to third place on the all-time scoring list to push the Coyotes back to the playoffs. But after five games with no goals, a minus-3 rating and one lonely assist, Hull decided he'd had enough.
There's more than a little irony at play here.
For years, Hull has been one of the more outspoken players regarding the state of the game, likening it to soccer and suggesting that two-thirds of NHL players were overpaid.
He's taken shots at management and league officials with equal fervor. Now, when the game has been revamped and opened up, it had passed Hull by. The game became what he'd long championed, and he found out he couldn't play in it.
No doubt, he'll shed a few tears over his decision. After all, he's said many times he's a sensitive guy and not afraid to show his feelings. But he'd also be the first guy to recognize the deliciousness of it all.
Full marks to Hull, 41, for recognizing it was time, even if he insisted to The Arizona Republic a few weeks ago that this wasn't going to be a farewell tour for him, that he thought he had a couple of years left in him.
He understood that by staying and being ineffective, he risked embarrassing himself and putting Gretzky and Coyotes GM Mike Barnett in an untenable position. The Coyotes are off to a rocky start and the last thing they needed was a cantankerous, aging star moaning about his lack of ice time, or the media pestering Gretzky about his ineffective buddy taking up a roster spot with his $1.69 million salary.
So he packed it in.
He leaves having stepped on people's toes and kicked others in the shins.
"I've KO'd a lot of guys verbally. I've got one of the most vicious knockout punches with the tongue of anyone on earth," Hull once said.
He leaves with a reputation as one of the game's most vocal players in a time when the game has been painted institutional gray.
In tipping his commissioner's hat to Hull Saturday, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will miss "Brett's skill, his scoring touch and his fun-loving attitude. He was a splendid athlete, a passionate player and someone who never hesitated to speak his mind."
After writing the memo, one imagines Bettman might have heaved a great sigh of relief, a major thorn in his side gone.
Unlike Gretzky, Hull is unlikely to return as a coach.
"I'm not very calculated," Hull told The Republic before the start of the season. "I'm a real emotional guy, and as people probably know after reading some of the things I've said over my career, I don't put a lot of thought into what I say, and I say what I feel at the moment. I don't think that's a real good quality for a coach."
The hockey media and the game's stars have always had a strange relationship. Most of the game's luminaries have traditionally been toe-the-line, hard-working, humble guys who loathe to knock the game that made them who they are.
Joe Sakic, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr -- go down the list and there aren't many who would have either the nerve or the inclination to discuss Canada's gay-marriage controversy as Hull did during the lockout. ("I'd rather be playing hockey," Hull offered.). Nor would they be likely to discuss their own superior intelligence as Hull did. ("Do I catch flak because I'm so much smarter than everyone else?" Hull once opined. "I don't know.").
His candor and penchant for shooting from the lip made Hull a media favorite. It also made him a lightning rod for criticism from that same media. In the summer of 2004, Hull was benched by U.S. coach Ron Wilson for his lethargic play during the World Cup of Hockey. It was the right move from a coaching perspective and a significant story, but Hull blew off reporters. Then, when a reporter suggested that fans might want to know how he felt, Hull said he didn't care what the fans wanted.
It was the kind of comment, for which he later apologized, that reinforced many people's belief that it was: Hull first, everything else, including the game, second. It was the same kind of perception Hull fought throughout his career on the ice.
Although he was one of the game's most deadly snipers who three times leading the league in scoring, many questioned his commitment to winning for years. Yet when he went to Dallas, Hull committed to coach Ken Hitchcock's defensive style and converted himself into a valuable two-way player. He went on to score the winning goal in the 1999 finals against Buffalo (OK, so Hull's foot was in the crease, get over it Sabres fans).
"It was so difficult to play that first year in the 1999 playoffs. Being known as the missing piece ... to have that pressure on you, when all the people around the league always said you are never going to win with Brett Hull, and to have that pressure on you-it's unfathomable the pressure I felt," Hull said after the first Cup win.
Three years later in Detroit, Hull recreated himself again, playing with youngsters Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk on a line Hull dubbed the "two kids and an old goat" line. The trio was instrumental in helping the Red Wings win the 2002 Cup.
He finished with 100 playoff goals, fourth all-time behind Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri. His 24 game-winning goals in the playoffs tie with Gretzky for the most all-time and reinforce his reputation as one of the greatest clutch scorers of all time.
When all is said and done, those numbers, those moments with stick and puck, will speak loudest, and for a guy like Hull, that's saying a mouthful.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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