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Straight Shooter
Austin Murphy
February 03, 1992
Brett Hull's tongue is suddenly as sharp as his goal-scoring skills, which remain second to none
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February 03, 1992

Straight Shooter

Brett Hull's tongue is suddenly as sharp as his goal-scoring skills, which remain second to none

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Brett Hull is behind the wheel of his silver Infiniti, en route to his new restaurant, on the outskirts of St. Louis. As is his wont, Hull is interviewing his interviewer. "You know what the worst thing about St. Louis is?" he asks.

Would it be that its hockey fans have lately been booing his close friend Adam Oates, the brilliant but disgruntled St. Louis Blues center who has set up roughly half of Hull's 136 goals in the season and a half that they've played together? Wrong. "It's the 'on' ramps," says Hull as he executes a ticklish merge onto I-40. "They're too damn close to the 'off' ramps. You've got about five seconds to get left, or you're screwed."

Noticing the strange, vaguely alarmed look on his passenger's face, Hull explains. "I worry about the little things," he says. "That way I'm too distracted to worry about the big things." Such as:

?His numbers. After 49 games through last weekend, Hull had 49 goals. The NHL goal-scoring race is all but over—the next closest guy, the Chicago Black-hawks' Jeremy Roenick, was 13 goals back at week's end. On Tuesday of this week against the Los Angeles Kings, Hull had a chance to ascend to Wayne's World, that is, to become the only player in league history other than the Kings' Wayne Gretzky to get 50 goals in 50 or fewer games in consecutive seasons.

?His mouth. A cannon on the ice—Hull has one of the NHL's top five slap shots—he is a loose cannon off it. Twice this season, after scoldings from Susie Mathieu, the Blues' vice-president-director of public relations, Hull has retracted inflammatory statements. He has verbally sparred with just about everybody: St. Louis's front office, the league, Blues fans, even the Golden Jet, his father, Bobby.

?His feistiness. Through Sunday, Hull had 44 penalty minutes, about double his full-season average for his five previous years in the NHL. This doesn't mean he has taken to taping tinfoil over his knuckles before games, but it does reflect a newfound aggressiveness.

Hull, 27, began this, his most contentious NHL season, on a cranky note. His summer was long on appearances—television commercials, hockey camps and banquets—and short on the off-season activities at which he excels: golf, softball, vegetating. The off-season was truncated by the Canada Cup, in which Hull's performance for Team USA was desultory, and his desire and attitude were questioned by hockey observers. "I don't need this," he grumbled after the series.

That grouchiness had started a couple of weeks earlier, when the Blues lost their premier defenseman, Scott Stevens, as compensation to the New Jersey Devils for having signed restricted free-agent Brendan Shanahan earlier in the summer. When the arbitrator, Judge Edward Houston, awarded Stevens to the Devils in a decision that heavily favored New Jersey, Hull was furious. "The fix was in," he snapped, meaning that with his ruling, Houston was punishing the Blues for having signed a free agent and was thereby discouraging movement by future free agents. Hull's remark reached the office of NHL president John Ziegler, who did not smile. Take it back, said Ziegler. Hull did, in a statement that didn't exactly resonate with contrition.

When Hull opened the regular season with a whimper—three goals in eight games—the sports talk show sniping in St. Louis began in earnest: Hull, in the second year of a four-year, $7.1 million contract, had become fat and happy. Last season was a fluke. Hounded by the opposing team's top checkers every night, he wouldn't come within a two-line pass of 86 goals, which he had in 1990-91.

Forty-six goals, six hat tricks and six game-winning goals later, Hull has muzzled his critics, even as he has confounded the gimmick defenses of Blues opponents. Half the teams that St. Louis plays assign a player to shadow Hull. When he is shadowed, Hull often skates into the low left circle, occupying two skaters, the tail and a defenseman. That opens the ice for a teammate. "Brett never gets frustrated, never loses his cool," says Buffalo Sabre shadow Colin Patterson. "He knows his scoring chances will come."

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