Brett Hull tugged back the sleeve of his white practice jersey and
looked down at his wrist like a man checking his watch, a hat
trick of cheek, insubordination and humor that had his Detroit
Red Wings teammates bowing their heads to stifle laughter. Hull
suffers neither fools nor Scotty Bowman, at least not when the
best coach in hockey history drones interminably about a
three-on-two drill, as he did last Thursday. The Red Wings were
ready to charge full bore into the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Hull
didn't want them charging in fully bored. Their biological clocks
are ticking--some Detroit players are so elderly that when they
broke into the league, Lord Stanley was a commoner--but the NHL's
oldest team proved itself by far the best in the regular season,
reaching 100 points on March 9, more than a month before any
other team. With nine presumptive Hall of Famers, including Hull,
on their roster, the Red Wings are immortals, if not quite mortal
locks for the Cup. "I don't expect us to win 16 straight," Hull
says about the number of postseason victories needed to take the
championship. "There are some good teams, but in a seven-game
series I like our chances."
Stunned in six games in last spring's first round by the Los
Angeles Kings, Detroit retooled by trading for six-time Vezina
Trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek, committing serious minutes
to 21-year-old defenseman Jiri Fischer, blending in nifty rookie
center Pavel Datsyuk and signing two wingers who now rank among
the top 10 scorers in history, Hull and Luc Robitaille. General
manager Ken Holland assumed that in Hull, the Red Wings would get
a find-the-seams winger with a screaming slap shot who also would
be the loudest, raspiest voice in the dressing room. They did.
Hull, who has spent his life shooting spitballs at the teacher,
scored 30 goals and offered more commentary than an op-ed page.
Holland assumed that in Robitaille they would get 30 goals as
ugly as a train wreck. They did. Robitaille scored 30, and if
those goals were lined up one after another, they would stretch
little more than a city block. Beyond getting what it expected
from Hull and Robitaille, Detroit made some small, delightful
discoveries about these venerable scorers.
The Wings learned that the whip-smart Hull, 37, is a deft passer,
a capable penalty killer and a solid defender whose soft hands
and quick stick along the boards enable him to flick pucks out of
the zone. They learned that Robitaille, 36, is strong on his
skates and slick enough to roll away from defenders to buy the
split second that allows him to make a telling pass. Each, in his
way, has proved to be a thoroughbred, not a one-trick pony.
Absurd as it may seem, given that they have combined for 1,299
goals, one Hart Trophy and eight first-team All-Star selections
(albeit none in the last nine years), Hull and Robitaille are
among the least appreciated players in the NHL.
"How can you say that?" Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios replies
in mock horror. "What do they get for autographs at shows?
Thirty-five bucks? How else would you measure it?"
They signed their names for substantially more when the Red Wings
offered them free-agent contracts last summer (a guaranteed $9
million each over two years), but even those deals hinted at the
general wariness about them throughout the league after last
season. Robitaille had been immensely popular in Los Angeles,
where he'd spent 12 of his first 15 years in the NHL, but the
Kings offered him a lower base salary than he'd earned in
2000-01, when he scored 37 goals. The case of Hull, who was
seventh in NHL history with 649 goals (he's now sixth with 679),
was even more curious. He was coming off a 39-goal season with
Dallas, but the Stars spurned him in favor of signing free-agent
forwards Pierre Turgeon, Donald Audette and Valeri Kamensky.
(This season Hull scored three more goals than that trio
combined.) Ken Hitchcock, who was Dallas's coach until he was
fired in January, praises Hull--"Best passer I ever coached," he
says--but concedes that after being swept by the St. Louis Blues
in the second round last year, the Stars were seeking new
leadership. Hull says that his sources in Dallas told him that
when his name came up in the organizational postmortem, Hitchcock
said to turn the page, because he didn't want Hull on the Stars
For more than seven weeks after the start of the free-agent
signing period last July 1, no other team seemed too interested
either. Hull dallied with the New York Rangers and the Montreal
Canadiens, but there was no commitment by a club until the Red
Wings, who had maxed out an already hefty budget, decided he
could fill a hole on the right side. Hull liked Detroit, but
first Holland telephoned wing Brendan Shanahan, who had played
with Hull for 3 1/2 seasons in St. Louis, and Chelios, who had
known Hull from various U.S. teams, to check on his character.
Holland wanted a cannon from the slot, not a loose cannon.
Chelios and Shanahan gave Hull enthusiastic endorsements. Four
players, including Chelios and Shanahan, deferred some of this
year's salary, and Hull agreed to backload the deal, taking just
$3.5 million of the money this season so the Wings would have two
profitable playoff runs before having to pay him off by July 1,
For 15 seasons Hull has been one of the few NHL players with no
seven-second delay between his brain and his mouth. His tongue
was always blunt, lashing out at what he considered to be a
confederacy of dunces--coaches and the league--that was dumbing
down the game he loved with suffocating defensive systems. He was
the profane conscience of his teams, which needed thick walls and
thicker skin when Hull held court. "Once in St. Louis we called
up this defenseman from the minors, a good-natured kid, a
rim-it-off-the-glass guy," says Shanahan, describing a player who
merely gets the puck out of the zone, "and Brett's complaining
about one of our more skilled D in front of the team, including
the skilled D and the guy who just came up. Brett tells the
skilled guy, 'You make me sick. You drive me nuts because you
think you're better than you are.' He points to the young guy and
says, 'You suck, but at least you know you suck. That's what I
like about you.' As Brett walks away, the young guy says, 'Hey,
Hull hasn't sheathed his gums in the Detroit dressing room, which
percolated with personality before he arrived. He has mumbled
about the coaches and even assailed the 600 Goal Line--Hull,
Robitaille and center Steve Yzerman--which Bowman used for a short
stretch in the season's first half. Robitaille says that during
one game Hull turned to him on the bench and said, "This is
stupid. We can't play together. No one wants to pass the damn
puck. Stevie, he's not a good passer, and you, you can't pass the
puck at all." Bowman ultimately concurred, playing Hull with a
pair of 23-year-olds, Datsyuk and Boyd Devereaux, a line that
Hull named Two Kids and a Goat. Hull says that four years ago he
wouldn't have tolerated playing with a practically monolingual
Russian center and a novice winger. "I would have snapped," Hull
says. "I wouldn't have gotten the puck when and where I wanted
it, but now it's like, O.K., they're learning. Before I would
have said, 'Screw it.' I wanted to score. This is what I live
for. Shouldn't I be pissed off that I have only 30 goals this
year? Don't tell me I still couldn't get 40 or 50. But I've let
the game change me into the kind of player I never wanted to be.
"My tongue needs stitches from biting it. I still love the same
things, but when I started changing [while playing in Dallas he
finally adhered to Hitchcock's demanding ways, which included all
players' concentrating on defense], things would fester so much,
I actually couldn't play. My legs would seize up, and I'd get no
spit in my mouth. I'd be so damn mad, I couldn't think right to
get to the proper spot on the ice. I don't know how that anger
escapes now, but somehow it does. It used to be you were a goal
scorer or a tough guy or a shadow, which really isn't hockey. Now
you have to be a complete player. If you play strong defense and
get 30 goals, you're a huge asset, even if you are a pain in the
ass like me."
Hull was housebroken in his three years of Stars obedience
school, and Bowman trusts him, using Hull to kill penalties and
often playing him in the final minute of a tight game. After
Brett passed up a shot at an empty net in a game this season, his
father, Hall of Famer Bobby, upbraided him in the Red Wings'
dressing room. Bowman teased, "Don't worry, Brett. Your dad never
made it on [the ice] in the last minute."
With goal number 611 on Jan. 18, Robitaille passed Bobby as the
NHL's most prolific left wing. The milestone goal, scored on a
deflection, should have redefined Robitaille's place in history
but instead only reinforced the Legend of Lucky Luc. Robitaille
has what linemate Igor Larionov calls "a smell" for the goal, but
to dismiss his success as serendipity and harp on his
bear-in-a-circus skating is to miss the point. At his own speed
Robitaille has found his way into traffic to score the rebounds,
tip-ins and other dirty goals that make up most of his 620. "Luc
is a courageous player," says the Kings' Andy Murray,
Robitaille's former coach. "He plays with a lot more passion than
most people think."
No one has done more with less than Robitaille, who was drafted
171st in 1984 and has no conspicuous gifts except for soft hands
and hockey sense. Of the league's 32 30-goal scorers this season,
none played fewer minutes. Robitaille, who averaged just 14:51
minutes per game, rarely played with Detroit's top two centers,
Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, and was featured on the second
power-play unit, which generally meant having 45 seconds instead
of 75 seconds to operate. "Getting big goals to help us win big
games is a way to get Scotty's approval," Holland says of Bowman,
who was underwhelmed by Robitaille's signing. "Luc did that when
he had seven goals in seven straight games early. I knew he could
score, but I didn't realize how good he was at making little
plays in the offensive zone, cycling, knowing how to use his
body. He's also bigger [6'1", 215 pounds] and stronger than I
For the Red Wings, who blew out the rest of the NHL, anything
less than winning their 10th Stanley Cup will constitute failure.
Hull squashed the refrain that a team could never win with him
when he had 24 points in 23 games while playing with a torn MCL
that screamed for a surgeon as the Stars won the chalice in 1999.
Now Robitaille might finally earn the respect commensurate with
his goal-scoring if he contributes to a champion. This is
high-stakes hockey, but they all know that drill in Detroit.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA Bull's-Eye This season Hull, here finding the net against Thrashers goalie Frederic Cassivi, moved into sixth on the alltime goals list.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO More than lucky Robitaille isn't a fast skater, but he's quick and cagey enough to have scored more goals than any other left wing.
COLOR PHOTO: DONNA TEREK Happy ending? Written off by some after last season, Hull (left) and Robitaille hope to reward Detroit with its 10th Stanley Cup.
"We can't play together," grumbled Hull when put on a line with
Robitaille and Yzerman. "No one wants to pass the damn puck."
Absurd as it may seem, All-Stars Hull and Robitaille are
now among the least appreciated players in the league.