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The torn legacy of Bobby Hull

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Bobby Hull, one of the greatest players in NHL history, died today. Mark Lazerus is very good on both sides of his life:

What do you picture when you think of Bobby Hull? 

Do you see him with the Stanley Cup in his hands, the one he won in 1961? Do you envision him with that famous banana-blade stick in his hands, the one he helped popularize, maybe even invent, alongside longtime Blackhawks teammate Stan Mikita? Or do you see him with a steel-heeled women’s shoe in his hands, the one that he allegedly used to beat his then-wife Joanne over the head, leaving her “covered with blood” and believing “this is the end,” as she told ESPN in a 2002 documentary?

What do you think of when you think of Bobby Hull?

Do you think about the team-record 604 goals he scored, so many of them with that cannonading slap shot? Do you think about the way he changed the game forever — eventually expanding the NHL and opening the door for more lucrative player contracts — by jumping to the upstart WHA in 1972? Or do you think about the time in 1997 when the Moscow Times quoted him as saying Adolf Hitler “had some good ideas” but “just went a little bit too far,” and that the population of Black people was growing too quickly in the United States, comments he later denied ever making?

Now how do you memorialize Bobby Hull?

Does the NHL hold a moment of silence before Saturday’s All-Star Game? Do the Blackhawks paint the No. 9 into the ice behind each goal, the way they did in 2021 with Tony Esposito’s No. 35? Do the players wear a No. 9 patch, outlined in black, on their jerseys for the rest of the season? Or a sticker on their helmets? Or do you just acknowledge his death briefly, classily, and move on as quickly as possible, hoping nobody asks a follow-up question?

The Blackhawks’ bye week just got a little busier, as these conversations surely already are happening in the United Center offices or on Zoom calls with far-flung, vacationing staffers in the wake of Monday’s announcement that Hull has died at age 84. Ignore Hull’s awful off-ice behavior and lionize him with a glorious video tribute and testimonials from current and former players alike, and the Blackhawks will incur the wrath of much of their fan base and the continued disdain of a hockey world that holds the organization accountable for its abject failure to protect and prioritize Kyle Beach from a predator on its payroll. Try to deftly put Hull’s on-ice brilliance in its proper context, and the Blackhawks will incur the wrath of the other half of the fan base, who’ll decry “wokeness” and “virtue signaling” and accuse the team of dancing on Hull’s grave. 

I don’t really have a fully satisfying answer myself to how treat the legacy of someone of legendary accomplishment who was a bad person. But at a minimum contextualization is necessary.

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