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Why focusing on Bobby Hull’s hockey legacy, but not his abuse allegations, is a problem

Hockey institutions paid tribute to Hull but avoided talking about his troubling past

Celebrity obituaries are never short on effusive praise or glorification, but when a star has a legacy that includes allegations of domestic violence and racism, as is the case with Canadian hockey legend Bobby Hull, the fawning tributes may be hard to stomach for some. 

Hull died Monday at the age of 84 after a storied career in the NHL. 

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is marking 30 years in his position this week, remembered Hull as a “gregarious” and “explosive” player, lauding his string of achievements. The league made no mention of Hull’s troubling past in its statement, or in its four-minute career retrospective video shared on social media, and Hull’s image was projected on the ice at NHL games Monday night. 

The Hockey Hall of Fame, which inducted Hull in 1983, and two of the professional teams he played with, Chicago and the Winnipeg Jets (the Hartford Whalers no longer exist), issued statements expressing sadness and sympathies. But, there was no recognition of Hull’s personal history in their memorials either.

As of Tuesday, Hockey Canada had no statement on its website or social media channels about Hull, who won the 1976 Canada Cup as a member of Team Canada. The sport’s governing body in this country is mired in its own scandal over its handling of sexual assault claims.

“We can’t think about this player’s history and his importance to the game without thinking about the fact that he was yet another player whose career is marked by violence against women,” said Kristi Allain, an associate professor of sociology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Allain has researched cultures of violent masculinity in men’s elite-level hockey.

As hockey grapples with allegations of abuse, discrimination and toxic culture, Allain is concerned that glorifying Hull’s career achievements without serious scrutiny of his behaviour could be a step back in efforts to reform the sport. 

While it may be difficult to “speak ill of the the dead,” she said, it’s important to be transparent. 

“When we’re calling for hockey culture to change, we can’t bury [this]. His legacy is not one of mere human shortcomings.”

Accusations against Bobby Hull 

One of the biggest stains on Hull’s reputation is the accusations he abused two of his wives. 

Joanne McKay divorced him in 1980 after an allegedly abusive relationship. “I took a real beating there,” she said in a 2002 ESPN documentary, describing an alleged assault that took place in 1966 during a vacation in Hawaii.

“[Bobby] just picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, threw me in the room, and just proceeded to knock the heck out of me. He took my shoe — with a steel heel — and proceeded to hit me in the head. I was covered with blood. And I can remember him holding me over the balcony and I thought this is the end, I’m going.”

Hull was charged with assault and battery in December 1986, in connection with an alleged assault on his then-wife, Deborah Hull. That charge was dropped a few months later when she said she did not want to testify.

In 1987, Hull did plead guilty to attempting to assault a police officer who tried to intervene in that incident. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Hull was ordered to pay a $150 fine and undergo six months of court supervision. 

There were also allegations of racism and antisemitism. In a 1998 interview with a Russian English-language news outlet, he was quoted as speaking positively about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. 

Hull reportedly told the Moscow Times that “Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far,” when discussing his thoughts on the growth of the Black population.

Hull would later deny he made the remarks and sued the outlet for slander, along with Canadian newspaper Toronto Sun, which reported on the interview. He claimed he had been set up.

How the sport has reacted to Hull’s history

Hull’s conduct off the ice did overshadow his legacy to an extent, says Gare Joyce, author of the 2012 book The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend.

“Even before ‘Me Too,’ I think that there had been something of an adjustment in the way that people in hockey regarded Hull,” Joyce said in an interview Monday with CBC News. “He’s not talked about in that first group of great players [such as Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky]. He’s not in the conversation.”

But the sport’s entities don’t appear to be having any conversations about Hull’s dark past — at least not publicly.

CBC News reached out to the NHL, Hockey Canada, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago’s NHL franchise, to ask whether they took the allegations against Hull into consideration before posting tributes, and why they had not made mention of his troubled past. 

None of the organizations responded in time for publication. 

In a news conference Monday, Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness brushed off a question about balancing Hull’s off-ice behaviour with his legacy on the rink.   

“I’m not going to get into that,” Bowness said. “Listen, he was a great hockey player. He had an impact on the league, [he was in the] Hall of Fame. Let’s leave it at that.”

Chicago — a team Hull played with for 15 seasons — may have realized his history was a problem when, nearly a year ago, the franchise announced it had dropped the former left-winger as one of its ambassadors.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the team said it was “redefining the role of team ambassador” while dealing with the fallout over the Kyle Beach sexual assault allegations, and that there was a joint agreement that Hull would “retire from any official team role.” 

But, as the Sun-Times pointed out, Hull had been appointed as an ambassador in 2008, many years after allegations were made against him, which suggested “the Hawks didn’t care about them until now” even though he had been a “black eye for the organization.”  

Joyce said Hull shouldn’t have been named an ambassador in the first place and that “there were red flags that were waving, going back to his playing days.” He noted Hull had been “estranged” from the team for several years before a change in ownership opened the door to reestablish the relationship.

“That just tells you how willing the hockey establishment, particularly hockey fans, how willing they are to look past all the personal flaws and awful history in his life,” he said. 

Addressing violence on and off the ice 

Allain believes that because hockey is so ingrained in Canadian cultural identity, there can be a tendency to gloss over or minimize the problems in the sport. But criticism of harmful behaviour should be front and centre, she said.  

She said she finds it interesting that Hull took a stand against the violent brawls in the sport, yet allegedly behaved so aggressively in his private life.

“There is a relationship between the kind of violence that happens on the ice and the kind of violence that happens off the ice,” she said. 

In 2016, the NHL announced it joined other professional sports leagues in mandating all of its players to undergo sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence training, after a number of its players had faced claims or investigation related to alleged abuse. 

Allain, who has closely watched the fallout from Hockey Canada’s controversial handling of sexual assault accusations against junior hockey players, is skeptical about the steps the sport’s institutions have taken to reform hockey. 

She said there has been a lot of lip service, especially when it comes to being accountable and transparent about the actions of players — including former players like Hull.

“Bobby Hull is a pioneer in a lot of ways. It’s not a legacy I’m willing to celebrate as a woman,” she said.