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Original Issue

The Golden Jet is earning his gold

Freed by the courts, Bobby Hull, the WHA's $3 million keystone, is drawing crowds on and off ice

Chicago penalty on No. 2 for holding," Referee Bill Friday was telling the public-address announcer, when suddenly Bobby Hull interrupted him with a loud screech. "What the hell are you talking about, Friday?" Hull protested. This was during a game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Chicago Cougars before Hull was unleashed by the courts. "He didn't do a damn...oops. Sorry about that, Bill. Good call, real good call." Hull and Friday both started to laugh. "I keep thinking I'm still Chicago," Hull apologized. Indeed, there are times when Hull forgets he is the $3 million player-coach of the Jets of the World Hockey Association and not the $100,000 left wing of the Chicago Black Hawks in that other league.

Hull's problems are understandable, however, considering the physical and emotional pressures he has been subjected to since his defection from the NHL five months ago. The WHA banked its future on Hull's glamour, prestige and slap shot, and the other 11 teams in the league kicked in $100,000 apiece toward the package that persuaded Hull to go to Winnipeg. Suits and countersuits over the NHL's reserve clause blossomed, and Hull was not permitted to play for Team Canada in the series against the Soviet Union.

"I can't imagine spending a worse summer," Hull says. "The Team Canada thing was stupid and ridiculous, but the court cases were just unbearable. Chicago or Winnipeg? Only the judges knew." When the courts finally gave Hull permission to join the Jets a fortnight ago, the WHA season was already a month old. Most attendance figures contained only four digits, and began with numbers like 1, 2 and 3. "The people aren't buying my act," admitted Derek Sanderson, the former Bruin who has been a $2.3 million bust for the Philadelphia Blazers.

They are buying Hull's, though. In his first game Bobby sold out the Coliseum in Quebec City as the largest crowd of the year—10,126—watched Les Nordiques beat Hull's Jets 3-1. The next night Hull lured 5,044 fans to the rink in Ottawa, 3,000 more than the Nationals had been averaging. Back in Winnipeg, Hull attracted crowds of 7,487, 7,563 and 5,105 as the Jets won two of three games. "I figure Bobby meant at least 1,500 tickets for each game," said Winnipeg Owner Ben Hatskin. "Take the last crowd. Winnipeg is not the richest place in the world. A man simply cannot afford to spend $20 to watch three hockey games in five nights. Still, more than 5,000 people came out for the third game. I thought we would have 4,000 at the most."

Leaving Winnipeg last Wednesday morning, Hull flew to Edmonton for a game that night with the Alberta Oilers in the 5,200-seat Klondike Palace. "We're sold out for the first time this year," said Oiler General Manager Wild Bill Hunter, who then excused himself to take a phone call from the fire chief. Hunter slammed down the phone. "He won't let us sell any standing-room tickets," Hunter said, shaking his head. A few minutes later Hull called Hunter to inquire about his own tickets for the game, and Hunter said he would send them right over to his hotel. "Make sure Hull pays you for the tickets," Hunter told his messenger. "He's got the money, and we need it. We've paid him enough already."

Hull has worked overtime to publicize the WHA and generate interest among the paying spectators. Last Tuesday morning he was up at eight o'clock to participate in a phone-in radio show in Winnipeg. At noontime he was the guest speaker at the Kiwanis luncheon in the Fort Garry Hotel. A few hours later the Selkirk (Manitoba) Steelers gave him a steel puck in appreciation for his contributions to amateur hockey in that area. In Edmonton the next day Hull was greeted at his hotel by a battery of newspapermen and broadcasters and a delegation that presented him an Edmonton Eskimos' ceremonial blanket for attending a football banquet in the city last month.

In short, Hull has been everything that the pampered modern superstar supposedly is not. However, he hopes that his public relations obligations will subside soon so that he can concentrate on hockey. As coach of the Jets, Hull runs the practice sessions and either chews out or cheers up the players between periods, but he leaves the actual game maneuvers to another former Black Hawk, Nick Mickoski. "No way you can coach and play at the same time," Hull says. "I haven't had any problems with these kids. At the start I told them to cut their hair and keep it off their face, and now you don't see any longhairs on this club." Especially not on the coach, who still looks pretty bald on top despite his Sinatra-style hair transplants.

On the trip to Edmonton, Hull handled such coaching chores as passing out meal money, reminding the players to collect taxi receipts at all times and counting heads on the bus. His first harmonica crisis is yet to come.

On the ice, though, Hull has not been quite so efficient. After seven games he had scored only three goals. One problem has been the strained ligaments in his right knee. After the game in Edmonton the knee swelled to about twice its normal size. It resembled a piece of sponge cake. "It really slows me down," Hull says, "but I'm not ready to complain yet. I've never had my knee cut open the way Bobby Orr has, and I never will. As long as it can get better with rest and cortisone, no sense cutting."

Another difficulty for Hull has been his lack of conditioning. "The summer murdered me," he says. "With all the commitments, I lost 10 pounds and an awful lot of energy. For someone who's 33 years old and should know better, I can be pretty stupid. I took vitamins faithfully for 12 or 13 years, and then I quit them the same time I quit eating regularly and stopped drinking beer. Right now I'm a wreck."

When he left the NHL Hull figured he had seen the last of the Eddie West-falls and Val Fonteynes and the Bryan Watsons who had made careers of trailing him all over the ice and harassing him at every turn. "The WHA wants me to score goals, to bring the people into the rink," he observes ruefully. "So what happens? There I am in Quebec City, playing my first game in about seven months, and when I move out for the face-off, this kid—I think his name is Bergeron—stands beside me, and then doesn't leave my side for the rest of the night. I thought those days were over." In Edmonton, Fonteyne, who had jumped from the Pittsburgh Penguins, not only shadowed Hull wherever he went and kept him in check most of the game, he also scored a goal himself as Edmonton eventually won 3-1.

However, the lone Winnipeg goal showed the effect Hull has on goaltenders. Christian Bordeleau, whom Hull had persuaded to jump with him from Chicago, skated down the right wing as he and Hull were killing off a penalty. Hull trailed Bordeleau by about 10 feet, and Goaltender Jack Norris obviously expected Bordeleau to drop a pass to Hull and then screen Bobby's shot. While Norris was thinking about the shot Hull surely would make, Bordeleau fired the puck himself and beat the goalie easily from 35 feet.

All in all, Hull has no regrets about his move to Winnipeg. "In a way it's sad. I spent 15 years in the National Hockey League—and now I get my reward in another league. You can say what you want about the WHA, but it has made the players rich.

"I was in Vancouver the night before the Canada-Russia game. My brother Dennis and I were having dinner at the Ritz with a few friends when Wayne Cashman of the Bruins stopped by to say hello. He asked me if I needed any tickets for the game, and I said I could use a few. He took out six tickets and gave them to me. Well, I reached into my pocket to get some money, but Cash waved me off.

" 'Bobby,' he said to me, 'there's no way I can ever repay you for what you did for me and all the rest of us by going with the WHA. We're all making more money thanks to you.' "

Even Referee Bill Friday.