Bobby Hull didn't deserve to be an ambassador for Chicago's NHL team in the first place

Bobby Hull's stats and impressive hockey history are not enough to shield him from accountability and a long-overdue removal from the pedestal he sits upon in problematic hockey culture, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Questions about Hall of Famer's character should have kept him out of role

Man wearing a red Chicago hockey jersey smiles and greets crowds.
The biggest question about Bobby Hull's role as an ambassador for the Chicago NHL team is why was he named one in the first place, writes Shireen Ahmed. (Amr Alfiky/The Associated Press)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Warning: This column discusses sexual assault.

After an exhilarating period of revelling in the success of hockey — women's hockey to be specific — at the 2022 Beijing Olympics there was a less thrilling development off the ice on Monday. The Chicago NHL team announced Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, 83, would no longer continue his role as a team ambassador. 

In its statement, the Chicago NHL team said it is  "redefining" the role of an ambassador to its franchise. Ambassadorship is a position that implies responsibility and entails a type of diplomacy in sport. It is a way of honouring past players and their contributions to a community, a city. An ambassador is a worthy representative of the sport. Or not. 

Hull was appointed as a team ambassador in 2008 alongside fellow Hall of Famer Stan Mikita. During his 15 years playing in Chicago, Hull was a stalwart of the team. He amassed more than 604 goals and 549 assists. He was known as "The Golden Jet" for his blond hair coupled with his incredible speed and strength in his shot. 

Hull was 5-foot-10 and incredibly tough. Known as a formidable opponent and unrelenting scorer, the Point Anne, Ont., native was known to be stubborn. He unceremoniously left the team after battling with the front office about his salary and moved to the Winnipeg Jets of the rival World Hockey Association. 

Hull, however, had other qualities. He was known for his wicked temper, his drinking and multiple allegations made against him. Sportswriter Gare Joyce's 2011 book, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey's Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game's Lost Legend, chronicles how Hull's private life "became scandal."

Bobby Hull with the Stanley Cup after Chicago defeated Detroit in the 1961 final. (Associated Press)

Assaulted police officer

In 1987 Hull pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer who tried to intervene in a domestic dispute between the famed skater and his third wife, Deborah. Deborah Hull never pressed charges against her husband. 

In 2002, his second wife, Joanne, told an ESPN SportsCentury documentary what Hull had allegedly done to her on a trip to Hawaii in 1966. In it, she said: "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 never charged.

In a 2010 interview with the National Post, one of Hull's few public acknowledgements of the allegations, he seemed to show little remorse. Asked if he is a different person in 2010 than 30 years earlier when many of the allegations were said to have taken place, Hull replied: "Same guy. Same guy with the same attitude toward life. You only pass this way one time, and if you don't have fun, you'll go to the grave, and you'll have missed a lot."

Hull's proximity to controversial comments is undeniable. In 1998 a Russian newspaper reported Hull as saying "Hitler had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far…" when discussing his thoughts about genetic breeding because he felt the Black population was growing too rapidly. When asked about his comments and whether he is racist, Hull reportedly told the paper, "I don't give a damn. I'm not running for any political office."

Hull emphatically denied making the comments, insisting he was set up. He vowed he would sue the Moscow Times and the Toronto Sun — the first North American newspaper that reported on his interview. The cases were never adjudicated.

Not every Chicago fan was enamoured with him nor is everyone sad to see him go. Evan F. Moore, a Chicago-based hockey writer, is co-author of Game Misconduct: Hockey's Toxic Culture and How To Fix It.

"He shouldn't have been an ambassador in the first place," Moore said. "How is this allowed to happen given this man's [alleged] history? It is deeper than 'this man is good at hockey.'"

Chicago hockey writer Evan F. Moore. (Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times)

Choices must be examined

Moore's words are important because it reminds us that if hockey truly wants to have a reckoning, teams and organizations should deeply examine their choices and see where they have made mistakes. 

Do we really think we should trust anyone that the Chicago NHL team puts forward? Particularly after an independent review found the organization mishandled Kyle Beach's accusations of sexual abuse while he was in Chicago, a case that horrified and shook those in hockey and beyond. 

This is a team that already suffers from challenges confronting anti-Indigeneity for its Native logo in its own spaces. It is also the same organization that, when Patrick Kane, one of its stars, was accused of rape, held what many viewed as an awkward news conference, insisting Kane answer only hockey-related questions while team executives ignored the severity of the accusations and extolled the virtues of the franchise. 

Moore says ambassadorships underline the culture of a team. "It depends on what the franchise stands for," he said. "But also, I mean, it's one of those things, there are some things that we should have no tolerance on. He [Hull] got a pass-over for too many years." 

In the meantime, Hull's statue sits outside the United Center in Chicago, and there is also another one outside of a community ice rink named after him in the nearby town of Cicero. 

A statue of Bobby Hull greets fans as they arrive at the United Center in Chicago. (Associated Press)

Problematic hockey culture

Bobby Hull has been unapologetic and found pride in his attitude toward life and toward the game. He may have seemed like the perfect choice to represent a club that, as the Kyle Beach case shows, has been fraught with abuse and has a sordid history of feckless management decisions. 

His excellent stats and impressive hockey history are not enough to shield him from accountability and a long-overdue removal from the pedestal he sits upon in problematic hockey culture. 

If the hockey teams are looking for new role models, they should look no further than the women's teams of Canada and the USA; and right to spectacular players including Sarah Nurse and Abbey Roque (Black and Indigenous, respectively.) It is high time for the Golden Jet to be permanently parked and never refuelled. 

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