On Monday night Detroit Red Wings forward Brett Hull became the
sixth player in NHL history to score 700 or more goals, but his
raspy voice might command as much attention as his booming shot.
The league faces serious problems--constipated offenses, uneven
officiating, the shaky finances of several franchises, the
expiration of the collective bargaining agreement next year--and
the outspoken Hull, 38, isn't shy about commenting on them. Here
is his view, after 17 seasons, on where the league is and where
it should be going.
SI: You've joined an exclusive club: Wayne Gretzky (894 goals),
Gordie Howe (801), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and
Mike Gartner (708). How does it feel?
HULL: To be among that group is incredible. I don't like to
compare myself to those guys, because all I do is score goals.
Having 700 goals, you'd think I'd have a lot of assists too. But
I'm not even at 600 [588 through Monday]. The best thing about my
career is the two Stanley Cups I've won. When players talk about
a guy with big numbers, all they care about is, Did he win?
SI: What does your style say about you?
HULL: You look at me and the last word that probably comes to
mind is tough, but to score you have to be tough, because you
have to take abuse without getting frustrated. To stand in front
of the net and take the whacks and cross-checks and get open,
find your spot and score--that's toughness.
SI: With NHL scoring trending down--5.30 goals per game this
season compared to 7.34 when you were a rookie in 1986--87--do
you think you would ever reach 700 if you broke into the league
HULL: I could probably squeak out a couple of 50-goal years. But
it would be a couple of 50s, a couple of 40s, a couple of 30s.
There's six years right there, and I would have only around 240.
SI: Can any young player today approach 700 career goals?
HULL: Jarome Iginla [of the Calgary Flames] got 50 last year, and
what's he got now? He's got 20? It's not because he's not good.
It's because of the way the game is played. Look at [32-year-old
Dallas Stars center] Mike Modano. I feel sorry for him. He's
played his whole [14-year] NHL career with a conservative team
during a stifling defensive period. He could have reached 600
goals [at week's end he had 439] because he's so gifted, but it
was always defense, defense, defense.
SI: Do you feel lucky to have played part of your career in a
more wide-open era?
HULL: I feel blessed to have come into the league when I did, but
people talk about how easy it was to score then. Well, there was
a s---load of players playing at the same time I did, and they
didn't score 700.
SI: Why is it so difficult to score today?
HULL: It's simple: The skill level has dropped dramatically, the
size of the players has increased dramatically, the goalies are
better athletes and--with the technicians, the assistant coaches
and the video--defenses have gotten more sophisticated. The game
has gotten bogged down.
The coaches are afraid to lose. They're thinking, Well, we didn't
win, but we lost only 1--0 or 2--1. They're deathly afraid of
losing 5--1 or 5--0, 6--1 or 6--2. But it starts above them. An
owner should say, "O.K., this is how we're going to do it: I'm
going to give my G.M. money to get this player, because he's a
great player. I want you and your scouts to draft that player and
that player, because they're skilled. And then I want this guy to
coach them, because he knows how to coach a skilled team."
It shouldn't start with an owner who says, "I don't have any
money; I can't get that good player." Instead he gets a guy he
doesn't have to pay a lot, a guy who's not skilled, and then all
of a sudden he's got a whole team of players like that. Now the
coach says, "This guy's no good and that guy's no good, so the
only way I can coach is to have them shoot it off the glass and
go get it and crash the net." It's a vicious circle.
SI: Would you want to be commissioner?
HULL: I would be commissioner if I had a group of owners who
weren't such Neanderthals. Get out of the Dark Ages and be
realistic in your approach to running the game and be open to new
SI: How do you improve the skill level?
HULL: It starts with teaching the kids. Why are the Russians so
much more skilled [than North Americans]? It's not because
they're better players; it's because of the way they're taught
growing up. They became better players.
You've got to change minor hockey so it teaches more skills.
Screw games--or playing as many games. Kids like to play games,
but you've got to teach them skills before they can play. Make
them practice. Make them pass until they get so sick of passing
that they'll pass great so they don't have to practice anymore.
Then line them up and make them shoot wrist shots. They shouldn't
be allowed to take a slap shot until they're 13 or 14. Then teach
them to pass while they're skating. Teach them to shoot while
SI: Has the league's crackdown on obstruction this season worked?
HULL: What crackdown? It's getting worse every game. [Officials]
don't call hooking or holding.
SI: What's the problem?
HULL: Bad leadership. There's no other way to put it.
SI: Are you talking about NHL director of officiating Andy Van
HULL: I'm not going to name names, but whoever's in charge of the
officials or the rules committee is doing a piss-poor job.
SI: Why are you so critical of officiating?
HULL: It's horrible every night. I'm not the only one bitching,
so I don't feel bad. I've got backup from almost every player in
The two-referee system is no good. It has watered down the
quality of officiating. The second referee just gets in the way.
You should have to play hockey to a certain level before you can
become an NHL referee so that you understand the game. [If I were
an official] I would know what type of team I'm reffing, and I
would know each player: "That guy dives. That's not a penalty."
I'd know when a tough guy takes liberties on a guy who's not
tough. There are some excellent refs, but in the two-referee
system the second guy can make terrible calls, which reflects
badly on the good ref, and that's not fair.
The officials should have to answer for their blunders, the way
players do for theirs. Refs should have to talk to the media.
They should be disciplined. They're so sensitive now, it's scary.
They need to lighten up. Half of the penalties they give for
unsportsmanlike conduct aren't deserved.
SI: Is there going to be a lockout when the collective bargaining
agreement expires in September 2004?
HULL: I don't think the league can afford it. After what baseball
did, I don't think teams can afford it. I don't think it will
happen. I have hope. That's why I've said some of the things I'm
saying--to open people's eyes and help [the two sides come
together]. Otherwise there's going to be big trouble.
SI: Do you think the owners are lying about their financial
HULL: I don't want to call them liars. But I look at the players
they pay big money to, and I say, "Don't do that and then feed me
a line of crap."
They're great businessmen. Don't tell me they're f------losing
money hand over fist. They wouldn't be in the business. They'd
sell their teams. Say a team's worth $180 million. If you're
losing a lot of money, sell it. Let someone else run it.
SI: Would you want the owners to open their books?
HULL: What's that going to do? They all have so many other
businesses that they'd just funnel money elsewhere so they could
report whatever they wanted.
SI: So how do you go about building trust?
HULL: You try to be honest. Hopefully the owners and the players
care enough about each other and the game. But that's another
problem: Do the owners really care about the game, or is it just
a business to them?
The best thing about Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux becoming
owners is that they know what's fair for both sides. So we need
more players to get into ownership when they retire.
SI: The average NHL salary is $1.6 million, and you've recently
said that 75% of the players make too much money.
HULL: I did say some of us are overpaid, but no owner is being
held hostage to pay anybody. Why can't we come up with some sort
of scale to make everyone get paid fairly? The players and the
owners are going to have to make concessions. I don't think a
salary cap is fair, but some sort of tax is. There's got to be a
way to make it fair for everyone, to make the league happy and
the owners happy and the players happy and the fans happy,
because without everyone being happy, there's no league.
SI: The average NHL ticket price is $41.56. Are games such as the
Red Wings' 1--0 loss to the New Jersey Devils two weeks ago
entertaining enough at those prices?
HULL: No. I wouldn't have paid a lot to see that game, and those
are two highly ranked teams. If you can get a ticket for under 50
bucks, yeah, it's pretty good entertainment value. Any more than
that is a lot of money to watch 15 shots to nine halfway through
the third period.
SI: How would you sell the game?
HULL: It is the best sport to see live. It's colorful, it's fast,
it's graceful, it's powerful, it's vicious, it's got every
emotion, it's gladiatorlike. The potential for it to be better is
incredible. The game speaks for itself, if they [the hockey
establishment] would just unleash it.
SI: Philadelphia Flyers center Jeremy Roenick said you are the
worst nightmare for commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players'
Association executive director Bob Goodenow. Do they complain to
you about your candor?
HULL: I haven't heard a word from them recently. I used to get
calls, but now it's as if they've decided, We won't say anything
to him, because if we do, he'll get mad and say worse things.
SI: Why don't other players speak out?
HULL: As hockey players they've been taught, "Don't say anything.
Can't say that." Why can't ya? We're human beings. We've got
emotions. Say it! Are you going to spend all your money on
psychotherapy because you're afraid to talk? It would drive me
nuts not to voice my opinion. It's good for the soul. It's
cleansing. You'll sleep better at night.
SI: Do you sleep well?
HULL: Oh, yeah. Like a baby. Except when I don't score.
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [COVER INSET] BRETT HULL: "Overpaid Players and Neanderthal Owners..." p. 40
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID KLUTHO NO HOLDING BACK Hull says that the talent level in the NHL has dropped dramatically.
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
Crackdown on obstruction? What crackdown? Whoever is in charge is
doing a piss-poor job.
Hockey's potential is incredible. The game speaks for itself if
they would just unleash it.