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By Ray Downs
Flash back 21 years ago to the conclusion of a Blues game at the old St. Louis Arena. Brett Hull and Kelly Chase have just emerged from the building when the players, ready for some postgame revelry, realize that neither of them has a set of wheels.
"I thought you drove," Hull quizzes his teammate.
"I thought you did," counters Chase.
They stare at each other.
"Hold on," says Hull, reentering the arena.
"Coach let you borrow his car?" Chase asks, surprised.
"No big deal," replies Hull with a shrug.
The two climb into the Jag and race off for some fun on the East Side.
It's 3:30 a.m. when they decide to call it a night. Coach Berry has an early morning practice slated to begin in just a few hours. But as Chase tries to open the frozen door to the Jaguar, the key snaps off inside the lock.
Not to worry, though. The security staff working the nightclub recognizes the players and brings out some beers and a bottle of rum. Someone builds a fire in an old oil drum, and just like that they're having an impromptu tailgate party.
They're all sitting there, swapping stories like old friends and passing around the bottle, when a locksmith finally arrives to fix the car. Yet Hull doesn't want the night to end. He invites the bouncers out for breakfast — his treat — at the Eat-Rite Diner.
Day is breaking a couple of hours later when Hull and Chase arrive — on time — to practice. Hull nonchalantly tosses the keys to the Jaguar on Berry's desk. It's then that Chase discovers that Hull took the keys without permission. Coach Berry is livid. But instead of blowing up at Hull, he unleashes his rage on Chase.
"You're not good enough to be doing shit like this!" he screams. "You'll go back to Peoria again for doing shit like this!"
More than two decades later, Chase, now the radio color commentator for the Blues, laughs as he sits in his office at Scottrade Center, recounting the tale.
"I thought I would be sent down to the minors for sure," he chuckles.
Similar stories abound in St. Louis about Brett Hull. His hockey talent — 741 career goals, the third most in NHL history — made him legendary. But it was his off-the-ice personality that made him a celebrity. Hull was the guy who always gave the media a colorful quote in the locker room. The guy who could be on TV with David Letterman one night and at a Dogtown tavern yucking it up with the locals the next. Hell, he might even be found huddling around a barrel fire in East St. Louis. Hull was, in short, the rarest of superstars — the one who could, and did, connect with the community.
Now, fifteen years after "the Golden Brett" left St. Louis to win the Stanley Cup for two other teams, Hull is back with his old club, and it's not to bring the Blues that elusive first championship (though that would be nice). No, Hull is here to do what he does best — schmooze.
Tom Stillman, the Blues majority owner, is a bit more tactful in his describing why he hired Hull. The greatest Blue of all time is here to leverage his celebrity, says Stillman, in an effort to win both fans and sponsors.
"We think that that's important," says Stillman. "And it helps us with more of a connection to St. Louisans who have been Blues fans for a long time and a number of fans who came onboard because of Brett Hull, because of all the excitement surrounding him and what he was doing back then."
It's a similar role that Hull had with the Dallas Stars a few years ago. One that ended in disappointment.
Brett Hull was fulfilling his destiny when, at the start of the 1987-1988 season, he landed a spot on the roster of the Calgary Flames. The son of hockey legend Bobby Hull not only had the pedigree to play in the NHL, he also had the skills to be a winner. Before joining the Flames, Hull set scoring records at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Leaving school after two years, Hull continued to light up scoreboards in the American Hockey League, tallying 50 goals in just 67 games.
"You're a lifer," Hull recalls Flames captain Jim Peplinksi telling him during his rookie season. The Flames, suggested the captain, would never part with a rising star such as Hull, even though the club was already stacked with offensive talent. Then, two weeks before the trade deadline, Flames coach Terry Crisp called Hull into his office.
"Young fella, we've made a trade," said Crisp, explaining that the team needed to improve their defense and the promising goal-scorer was expendable.
The news was surprising, but Hull wasn't disappointed. Although he was a hot prospect, the Flames had tons of veteran talent that would bring the team a Stanley Cup the following season.
"I wasn't getting any playing time anyways," says Hull. "I don't even know why they drafted me; they had so much talent on offense."
"I just didn't want to go to a bad city," Hull recalls. "But when he said St. Louis, I thought, 'Hey, I like St. Louis.'"
In going from the Calgary Flames to the St. Louis Blues, one of the first things Hull remembers was the difference in the arenas. The Flames played in the Olympic Saddledome, a flashy new, modern arena built to house the 1988 Winter Olympics and sell Calgary to the world as a top-tier city brimming with oil wealth. The Blues played in what had been the Ralston Purina Checkerdome, also known as "The Barn" because it was originally built in 1929 to house a less glamorous event: the annual National Dairy Show. Sixty years later the Barn's heifers were gone, replaced by rats that would climb the ceiling beams, providing intermission entertainment for spectators in the nosebleeds.
"In the old arena, in our dressing room, we had one of those [multi-use exercise equipment] cages. That thing had a quarter-inch of dust on it — all people did with it was put their rolls of tape on the handle," Hull recalls, laughing. "And with the coaches smoking in the locker room, it was the most unhealthy environment on the planet."
But what the Barn lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in atmosphere.
"It was bedlam with the organ and the people right on top of you," he says. "We'd come out of the dressing room and walk through the crowd to the ice. And we were good and having success. It was great."
Going out after a game was a lot more fun then, too. Unlike hockey-obsessed Canadian cities such as Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, a Blues player could walk into a St. Louis tavern without being told how much the power play sucked by a know-it-all fan.
"We'd leave the old Barn and go right up the street to McDermott's and sit there for hours just drinking beer," Hull says, referring to the Dogtown bar now known as Pat's.
The good times got better when the team suddenly became one of the youngest in the league and seemed almost designed to be a work-hard, play-hard group of guys.
"When I first got here, we had Sutter, Federko, Gilmour, McKegney — we had a bunch of old guys," Hull says. "And within a blink of an eye, we had only three or four married guys in the team. And that's when Chase and Tony Twist and Tony Hrkac, those guys came in, and then it was fifteen single guys on the team and then a couple of old guys who acted like they were single."
Chase, Hull's enforcer back in those days, says that when the Blues of the early 1990s weren't imbibing in Dogtown, they could be spotted at Trainwreck, O.B. Clark's, Pop's and whatever watering hole would have them, something they did as a sort of voluntary public-relations exercise — mixing it up with the fans.
It's a far cry from the life of most of today's players, who are leery of being burned by a fan tweeting photos of them out on the town. Chase recounts the story of Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane who was twice famously photographed partying it up, once during a college kegger and another time mere hours after scoring the game-winning goal that won his team the Stanley Cup. Both images went viral.
"Kane was photographed in a limo, with his shirt off, with two girls, he'd been drinking — he's old enough to drink — and he had just won a Stanley Cup," Chase says. "But he gets shit for it?"
Kane ended up apologizing for the incident, and the Blackhawks said their star player would undergo alcohol counseling.
It's sad, really, says Chase, who recalls a few seasons ago when the Blues were in Los Angeles with a scheduled day off to enjoy the glitz and glam of Hollywood. But instead of partying on Sunset Boulevard, the players had a video-game tournament in their hotel rooms.
"How shitty would that be that you go through the game and you had to talk about that video-game tournament you had in LA instead of partying with Heather Locklear?" ponders Chase.
With Hull and crew it was never that way. People didn't have cell-phone cameras at the ready in the early '90s, and players didn't have to worry about their high jinks — like the time Garth Butcher knocked Hull on his ass in a Toronto bar — ending up on Instagram.
Hull and Butcher, who was then the Blues captain, had been arguing over the direction of the team.
"Brett was just being Brett, and I told him if he keeps it up, I'll knock him right off that bar stool," recounts Butcher.
"You wouldn't do that to me in front of all these people," Hull responded.
A second later Hull was laid out on the floor.
"Everyone in the bar was expecting a big brawl to break out, but Brett laughed, got up and we carried on," Butcher says.
"We just wanted to be around the community," says Chase of those days. "We'd go to a bar in south county one night, a bar in Wentzville another night. It wasn't like we had our haunts and that's it. We loved it here."
The merriment came to an end in 1998 when the Blues refused to fork over enough to resign their superstar, who had also gained a reputation for being something of a prima donna — riding his teammates and publicly criticizing the Blues management.
"They didn't want me back," Hull said in an interview shortly after the 1997-1998 season. "A player such as myself, you just get the deal done. You don't play games."
When the Blues balked, Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks doubled down, offering Hull a three-year, $17 million contract — good enough to make him among the highest-paid players in the league even though he was in the twilight of his playing career.
Loaded with talent and money, the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, with Hull scoring the series-clinching goal in double overtime of Game 6 against Buffalo.
When his contract with the Stars expired in 2001, Hull signed a two-year, $9 million contract to play for the Detroit Red Wings and one of the best ensembles of players in league history, with players such as Sergei Federov, Steve Yzerman and Dominik Hasek. With such a talented supporting cast, Hull averaged 30 goals a season despite being in his late thirties and won another Stanley Cup in 2002.
In 2004 Hull signed with the Phoenix Coyotes to play under head coach Wayne Gretzky. It was supposed to be a nostalgic affair, with Hull playing for a close friend and former Blues teammate in Gretzky while wearing his father Bobby's No. 9 jersey. The elder Hull played for the Winnipeg Jets in the '70s, but the franchise moved to Phoenix in 1996 and kept the number retired until he requested that it be temporarily unretired for his son.
Yet Hull played only five games for the Coyotes. He hadn't kept in shape during the 2004-2005 lockout and arrived at training camp overweight. Being 41 years old didn't help, either. It was time to hang up the skates.
"I wish no one had to do this because it's so hard," said Hull at the press conference announcing his retirement. "It's hard because you never think you're going to grow older and be unable to live up to the expectations you set for yourself."
Despite achieving statistical greatness, two Stanley Cups and amassing more than $50 million in salary over his career, Hull couldn't stay away from the game for long and almost immediately jumped into nonplaying roles in the league.
But could Hull in a suit ever be as glorious as Hull on ice?
Brett Hull seemed a perfect fit as a hockey analyst when NBC Sports came calling for the 2006-2007 season. The former player, who a few years later would be named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, loved the camera and was not afraid to speak his mind. But his brief tenure turned rocky when he reportedly complained about not getting enough air time and passionately argued in favor of fighting in hockey, a somewhat controversial stance to have for a network commentator.
After a year Hull left NBC to take a front office job in his adopted hometown of Dallas. He co-owned a restaurant there with fellow NHL star Mike Modano, and Hull's wife, Darcie Schollmeyer, grew up in nearby Grapevine. Besides, Hull was also already unofficially working for the Stars as a "community relations ambassador," a position that raised conflict-of-interest concerns with the network.
In his new role with the Stars, Hull branded himself the team's "Ambassador of Fun" and set about trying to reenergize the fan base that had begun losing interest in the team. Hull would meet with season-ticket holders, do TV appearances during games and, most famously, appear in Stars commercials where he struts through the front offices, urging fans to buy tickets as he bumps fists with the team's mascot and gives an approving "Ladies!" to a pair of cheerleaders.
The glad-handing failed to increase attendance at the American Airlines Center, but Hull ended up contributing to the team in a different way. After a rough start to the 2007-2008 season, the Stars made Hull co-general manager, a title he shared with the team's director of scouting and player development, Les Jackson.
Many hockey observers were skeptical. For one, a team having two general managers is unheard of. There was also this: Hull had no experience in the tedious and oftentimes unglamorous role of scouting. But the Stars did well that season. The team turned things around and made the playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference finals before getting knocked out by the Detroit Red Wings. The Hull-Jackson pairing was credited with making some powerful trades, including the acquisition of center Brad Richards from Tampa Bay. The experiment seemed to be working. That is, until Hull made a big mistake. He insisted on the signing of Sean Avery — perhaps the most hated player in the NHL— to an inflated four-year, $15.5 million contract.
The eccentric Avery, who once spent an off-season as an intern at Vogue, began that 2008-2009 season distracted by a movie he was producing about his life. Stories leaked out in the media that his Dallas teammates despised him. Then, prior to a game in Calgary, Avery asked the reporters in the locker room to listen up. He wanted to share his thoughts on Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf dating his ex-girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert.
With the cameras rolling, Avery stated: "I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about."
That kind of behavior may have been kosher in the fictional hockey league depicted in Slap Shot, but not so in the buttoned-down and increasingly politically correct world of the NHL. The embarrassed Stars placed Avery on waivers (he was quickly scooped up by his former team, the New York Rangers) and demoted co-GMs Hull and Jackson.
"It was a last-ditch effort for Tom Hicks to fix any messes he made before he lost the team," says Heika. "The Hicks Sports Group was on the edge of bankruptcy, and after the team blew up, the thought process was this was the move that would fix it forever."
Jackson went back to being in charge of scouting, and Hull was given a title of "executive vice president," a vague position with no clear responsibility.
"Brett just kind of went away," says Heika. "He lived in Dallas, but he was never around the team."
It's the week before Christmas, some two full months after Hull returned to the Blues, and his office at Scottrade Center looks like he still hasn't moved in. Dressed in a polo, Hull sits behind a desk that contains a bit of stationary but no computer. The walls in the room are painted a drab beige with a brightly lit Bud Light mini fridge (stocked with aluminum bottles) providing the room its only bit of color. The gift from Anheuser-Busch, which signed a five-year extension last summer as the Blues official beer sponsor, is wasted on the team's new executive vice president.
"I don't drink beer anymore because I don't get to sweat it out the next day in practice," Hull explains. "I drink martinis."
Yes, Hull's title with the Blues is the same as it was in Dallas. But unlike the situation there, Hull seems to have a real purpose in St. Louis.
"Brett Hull is not just an ambassador," says his new boss, Tom Stillman. "He has substantive work to do on these sales pitches with sponsors. He's a bright guy. He's a smart guy. And you don't do what he did without gray matter that works and works quickly."
At a home game Hull can be seen chatting with season-ticket holders and holding court in the corporate suites, regaling the executive set with tales of his playing days and sharing his inside knowledge of the Blues.
Hull will dish his thoughts on the late long-time Blues general manager Ron Caron, who pulled off the trade to get Hull — one of the great steals in NHL history — but who also made a few questionable moves.
"God bless his soul," Hull says of Caron, who passed away in 2012, "but some of the things he did were genius and others were moronic."
"I love Butchie and we became great friends, but did you have to trade away our entire second line to get him? We were one point out of first place that year, and we could have won a Cup," Hull recalls.
When not mingling with fans at the game, Hull may be found stumping for the Blues at publicity events and media appearances, such as when he stopped by KSHE (94.7 FM) the other week to talk hockey, as well as spin a few tunes from Van Halen and the Grateful Dead.
"I'm just a rock & roller," Hull admits.
It's too early to see if Hull's celebrity will once again improve the club's finances like he did when he first arrived in St. Louis. Despite being one of the top teams in the league the past two seasons, the Blues remain one of the NHL's least-valuable franchises, according to Forbes, with a market value of $185 million.
"That's one of the things we're trying to do to kind of revive the franchise and get it stable," says Stillman, who notes that a mid-market club such as the Blues needs the support of the local business community to step up and purchase suites and sponsorships. Who better to take that shot than "the Golden Brett"?
Concludes Stillman: "When Brett Hull leaves a message, that person is probably going to call back."
I was listening to Hull and Chase on KMOX the other day. I could seriously listen to the Hull and Chase show for an hour a day.
Man if you ever went to a game at the Old Barn, you will never forget it. Those were great years in the organization even tho we did win the CUP.
His autograph is on the wall in the Sauget jailhouse. No joke. He's one of the all time greats. Good to see him back