'It's the greatest honor ever'
At some point Monday night, Brett Hull will step up to the lectern. He will look around and see New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello, Los Angeles Kings great Luc Robitaille, New York Rangers legend Brian Leetch and the incomparable Steve Yzerman, his fellow classmates in the Hall of Fame's class of 2009. Then, he will catch the eye of one of his high school buddies and they will both give a slight shake of their heads.
"What the hell is he doing up there? He's a Hall of Famer?" Hull joked in an interview with ESPN.com. He was about to jet off to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, so he could avoid all the attention leading up to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
You can see him shaking his head in anticipation of the moment, that impish grin spreading across his familiar face.
As the days have slipped away leading up to his induction, Hull admitted he has given great thought to his place among this class, one of the strongest of all time. Exactly where or how does he fit in?
Class clown? Thorn among roses?
"That's the thing that's perplexing to me," he said with a laugh.
Oh, there is no doubt of Hull's belonging.
There are his 741 career goals (third all-time), 110 game winners (second), 103 postseason goals (sixth) and two Stanley Cups, plus an Olympic silver medal, Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award. His is a Hall of Fame résumé, to be sure, and the fact he will be inducted in his first year of eligibility confirms that.
Yet Hull remains one of those rare individuals whose résumé doesn't really come close to matching his personality in terms of fullness. That personality at times has threatened to overshadow the player that lay beneath the surface.
Still, for all his irreverence, Hull -- father of three children ages 11, 13 and 15 -- remains humbled and even taken aback by the prospect of joining his father, Bobby, in the Hall of Fame.
"It's the greatest honor ever," Hull said. "Are you kidding me? It's hard to put into perspective. It's hard. I think about the implications. Why did it happen for me? The game almost picked me. I didn't pick the game."
He began, he explained, with the same dream most players begin with -- play one game in the NHL just so they can say they were there. Now, 1,269 regular-season games later, he will take a place alongside his father, marking just the second time in the Hall's history that a father and son will be enshrined as players. (Lester and Lynn Patrick were the first such duo.)
"They don't call it a dream for nothing," he said.
Hull, Robitaille and Yzerman were teammates and won a Stanley Cup in 2002 with a Detroit Red Wings team that might have been one of the most talent-laden of all time. He played internationally with Leetch on many occasions with Team USA, winning a silver medal in the 2002 Olympics and a gold in the World Cup of Hockey in 1996. Some of those international teams were put together by Lamoriello.
"If ever there was a group of people you could label 'class,' this is it with the exception of one," Hull joked.
It's true. To steal a line from "Sesame Street," one of these things is simply not like the others, and that difference has nothing to do with statistics or worthiness but rather with the individual's relationship with the game itself.
For Hull, that relationship was often love/hate. "I think that's a perfect description," he said.
Make no mistake, Hull loved the game. He loved pulling on a jersey, going to the ice, competing, and celebrating a victory or commiserating a loss with his teammates. He loved the moment when a crowd would come alive at a rush or scoring chance. Or how a building filled with 19,000 people could suddenly be brought to eerie silence by the same things accomplished by a visiting player. He was the kind of player who made those things happen dozens, maybe hundreds of times in his career. From the very beginning to the very end, those moments were magical for Hull.
"Until I realized I couldn't do it anymore," he said of his final games played in Phoenix for good friend Wayne Gretzky at the start of the 2005-06 season. The other stuff -- the media, the practices, the travel -- not so much.
"I was just talking to Mike [Modano] about this the other day," Hull said. "Everything else was just such a pain. That's what made you hate the game."
Former Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock, now behind the bench in Columbus, recalled the summer of 1998, when the Stars signed Hull. Within the first hour of the signing, Hitchcock said, he received 10 phone calls, most wishing him luck with getting along with the vocal, strong-willed Hull.
"When I first met him, I was kind of intimidated," Hitchcock said. "He had the reputation of being a really strong person in the dressing room. And then after a while, I found I could really learn a lot from this guy, the way he thought the game."
It was Hitchcock, lauded even now by Hull as one of the greatest coaches for whom he played, who tapped into an inner reserve of determination in the sometimes prickly winger. By the time Hull landed in Dallas, he had a reputation as a one-dimensional player whose value to the team was limited to a single element -- scoring goals. In 1992-93 and 1993-94 in St. Louis, for instance, Hull scored 111 goals and was a combined minus-30.
"I was never held accountable defensively in my whole life, which is why I never did it," Hull said.
In Dallas, people didn't think he could do anything different. Or would. He proved them wrong. "That's what I'm most proud of," he said. "Just being able to shut people up."
It wasn't easy.
Hitchcock recalled ultimately coming to an agreement with Hull about how they were going to co-exist. Hitchcock, an exacting man when it came to preparation, agreed to cut Hull some slack, demanding he give the coach 30 good minutes of practice if Hull guaranteed he'd become the player Hitchcock wanted him to be on game nights.
"I said, 'Let's have a negotiation,'" Hitchcock said. "I said, 'I'll show you the respect you want if you show me the respect I need.' That's when he bought in."
In time, the agreement paid dividends in the form of the team's first Stanley Cup in 1999. Hull scored what will be remembered as "the toe goal" at the edge of Dominik Hasek's crease as the Stars defeated the Buffalo Sabres in the sixth game of the Cup finals.
But the agreement did have its moments of peril. Hitchcock recalled the Stars' losing a sloppy game to Los Angeles, 8-5. The next day, he railed at the players in practice about how it didn't matter how many goals anyone scored if they couldn't stop the other team from scoring. In all of the Stars' drills, Hull would skate in on goal, then dump the puck into the corner.
"Every drill," Hitchcock recalled with a laugh. "I got really mad and threw him off the ice. And then, I chased him around the locker room. He was laughing the whole time. He told me he had to go golfing."
One day, Hitchcock gave Hull the day off from practice. Later, the coach and players looked up at GM Bob Gainey's corner office, and there was Hull sitting with his feet up on Gainey's desk watching the rest of the squad go through the drills. Still, there were many moments that revealed the passion Hull had for his craft.
When he wasn't scoring -- and that wasn't often -- it wasn't uncommon for Hull to stay on the ice at practice and fire 200 one-time slap shots into the net. Virtually all would find their way to the back of the net, the coach said, still marveling as he remembered the sight.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Hitchcock also said Hull was the best passer on the team. He often would team up with a young player in drills, and his hard passes sometimes would knock the youngsters' sticks out of their hands.
"He'd be there, snickering in the back of the line because there's this poor kid chasing his stick down the ice," Hitchcock said.
The year the Stars won the Cup, Hitchcock said that Hull elevated his game against his former team the Blues in a series that saw four of the six games go to overtime. "I've never seen such desperate hockey," Hitchcock said.
After the Stars had squeezed past Colorado in a seven-game thriller in the Western Conference finals, Hull ended up playing most of the Cup finals against Buffalo with a third-degree MCL tear. Hitchcock wondered how Hull was going to be able to get home from the rink after practice, let alone how he was going to play in games.
At one point in Game 6, team doctors told Hitchcock that Hull wasn't going to play. A few shifts later, he was back on the ice, and he later scored the winner, toe in the crease or not. Hull would win a second Stanley Cup in Detroit near the end of his career, when he played a surprisingly well-rounded role for the talented Red Wings under coach Scotty Bowman.
GM Ken Holland acknowledged that he wasn't sure how Hull would fit in with the veteran team back in 2002, but he did.
"No. 1, Brett was an awesome guy. No. 2, he was great defensively," said Holland, who recalled that one of the first things Bowman did was install Hull on the Wings' penalty-killing unit. "Scotty's way of coaching was to challenge somebody, and Brett loves challenges. Brett was everything we could have asked for."
Two years later, Hull's last with the Wings and the last full season of his career, he played with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, coining the term "two kids and a goat" to describe their line. Hull played just five games in the first season after the lockout, and by then, it was over. But he didn't stay away from the game long. He took a job with the Dallas Stars as a special assistant to president Jim Lites, a role he described as the "Ambassador of Fun." He then shared the general manager's duties with Les Jackson after Doug Armstrong was fired in November 2007.
If Brett Hull the player was often a contrarian, how incongruous, then, was it to see him wander into the GMs meetings when he was co-GM of the Dallas Stars? A little weird, Holland acknowledged.
"The one thing about Brett is, you know where he's coming from," Holland said. "You know what he's thinking."
It didn't last long. Hull was moved out of the GM chair he had shared with Jackson after last season when former teammate Joe Nieuwendyk was brought in as GM. Hull will forever be remembered for bringing in Sean Avery before the 2008-09 season, a move that imploded and indirectly cost him, Jackson and coach Dave Tippett their jobs.
In retrospect, it was a period Hull found frustrating. The salary cap made it so that every move had an economic element as opposed to their being able to make decisions based simply on the relations to the hockey club, Hull said.
"You're handcuffed. You can't do really anything. You can't even really be a GM," Hull said. "It wasn't even like a job because you couldn't do anything."
Still, Hull remains with the Stars in the role of executive vice president and alternate governor.
"Right now, I love what I'm doing," he said. "I kind of sit on the fence between the hockey and business side of things."
Stars owner Tom Hicks said he has always enjoyed having Hull around, both on the ice and in the board room, and not just for his goals but for his relentless honesty. He -- like so many whose paths crossed Hull's in the course of his career -- wasn't exactly sure what he was getting when he signed him. What he got was, for all intents and purposes, a lifer.
"He told me he came here to win a Stanley Cup, and damned if he didn't," Hicks told ESPN.com this week.
Hicks' son will be in Toronto for the Hall of Fame ceremony Monday, but Hicks will honor Hull at a gathering at his home in the Dallas area later when other Texas sports icons, including Nolan Ryan, will be in attendance.
"Brett's Brett. He's never going to be a conformist," Hicks said. "That's why I've enjoyed having him around. He always tells you the unvarnished truth."
But did Hull believe all the stuff he said? Like the time during the 2004 World Cup of Hockey when he said he didn't give a "bleep" what the fans thought? "I said more stuff just to get a rise out of people," Hull said.
He also points out that when he and others like Mario Lemieux criticized the game, they were shouted down; but, in the end, they ended up changing it for the better. "I was right," he said.
Time hasn't changed much for Hull, though. On his way into the Hall, he still insists there is a lot he doesn't like about the game he left not so long ago.
"The new game isn't that great, either," he said, warming to the topic. He doesn't like the absence of the red line -- "Put it back in," he barked. He thinks the NHL is too soft on discipline, especially with hits to the head and hits from behind.
He could go on, but he has stuff to do. Like get ready to become a Hall of Famer. As it should be.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.