Not So Golden Jet
We live in a cynical world where so many once revered institutions have proven to be run by individuals who are, let’s face it, just flawed human beings. Politicians lie with impunity, church leaders forgot that they are supposed to serve their followers, not the institutional hierarchy that covers up its sins in the name of self-preservation, and cultural figures who abuse their power by behavior that causes us to question the merits of their artistic achievements.
But, somehow, we are often willing to overlook the shortcomings of our sports heroes as long as they perform on the field for our favorite teams. While the extreme case of major league pitcher and serial sexual abuser Trevor Bauer may show that some degree of behavior may exceed our tolerance level, the Cleveland Browns were willing to throw millions at DeShaun Watson, a talented quarterback, who has been accused of sexual abuse by no fewer than two dozen women. His 11 game suspension and $5 million fine at the start of this season were regarded as mere blips in the Browns’ seemingly endless pursuit of returning to NFL relevance and the restoration of the team’s past glory.
It has always struck me as odd that fans of professional teams personally associate with their local heroes, especially in cities that cannot separate their teams’ success or failure with the city’s popular image. They believe that a player who dons the franchise’s colors becomes part of a family rather than as part of a collection of mercenaries who understandably pursue their own interests by signing contracts for the most money and the longest terms they can get for playing children’s games in front of millions of adoring fans.
But then, it is even more problematic when we have to consider the legacy of an icon of an earlier era whose career feats cannot be separated from his distinctly flawed human character traits. Such is the case with the death yesterday of Bobby Hull, whose hockey records, mostly with the Chicago Black Hawks and Winnipeg Jets, cannot be viewed without considering his dark side, including credible accusations of domestic abuse by several of his ex-wives, an assault on a police officer and his opinion that: “Hitler had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far.”
Hull came to the Hawks at a time when hockey was very much a niche sport with a limited number of avid followers. The joke in New York was that Rangers fans numbered exactly 17,500, the capacity of the old Madison Square Garden. But Hull combined his golden locks and matinee idol looks with blistering speed on the ice and a slapshot that approached 119 miles per hour to became one of the first hockey stars with broad appeal. He was one of the first to score 50 goals in a season (several times when the season was only 50 games) and did it three consecutive times. The curved blade of his stick was an innovation that changed the game but had to be tempered for fear that his shot could maim the maskless goaltenders of the era. His move to the rival WHA Jets helped force its merger with the NHL and brought the incomparable Great One, Wayne Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers to the league.
So, how should we remember the “Golden Jet,” Hull? As one of the greatest of all time? Or an extremely accomplished individual with some major character flaws? There is certainly room for both of these viewpoints, but maybe we should have considered all facets of the man himself before he was lionized with a statue in front of the United Center in Chicago, the successor to Chicago Stadium, where many of Hull’s career highlights occurred. After all, a man is more than the accumulation of goals, home runs or touchdowns scored. Or maybe we should remember that sports, at its essence, is comprised merely of games played by human beings. All of whom are less than perfect.