clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

On Bobby Hull, the Winter Classic, and erasing history

Hockey has a dark, disturbing trend of forgiving its players anything as long as they play well.

2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Chicago Blackhawks v St Louis Blues Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Yesterday was the Winter Classic - the NHL's showpiece regular-season event. Whatever you think about outdoor games or how teams are selected to participate in them, the visibility and media impact of the game is arguably the largest that hockey will have on national media short of a Stanley Cup Final or an international victory.

It is a time, without question, when hockey has the greatest opportunity to sell itself.

You'd think that any sport that put someone who was a proven wife-beater and had expressed support for Nazi ideas right in the middle of their celebrations would be insane to do so, right? This is not the type of person you'd want associated with your showpiece event or organisation, is it?

However, the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL did so. In fact, they put this person front and center, and feted them. Media told us what a "great moment" it was.

That wife-beater and supporter of Nazi ideas was, after all, not just any person in the eyes of the NHL. It was ex-Blackhawks player Bobby Hull, widely considered to be a legend of hockey.

Apparently, being good at hockey will forgive a multitude of sins in the eyes of the NHL , its media and many of its fans.

Not all of them, however. Our counterparts over at Second City Hockey wrote a superb piece on just why Hull being involved continued to be an embarrassment for the Blackhawks and something that should never have been considered.

Read the comments on that piece, though. As of the time of writing, there are 27 comments. With a few exceptions (mostly those of the original writers of the article) the tone of all of them is either "y'know what, I don't care what he did" or "I don't know why this is a priority" or, most tellingly "he deserves forgiveness".

The details in that SCH piece, while not huge in number (they can be found elsewhere with a little research) are harrowing. They describe a level of domestic abuse that would leave the vast majority of decent human beings revolted if they came into personal contact with the perpetrator. A level of abuse that Hull's own daughter has said drove her into law in order to protect other women from suffering a similar fate.

Bobby Hull has left an indelible scar on those closest to him with his behaviour and expressed support for truly hateful political ideals. Not only that, as SCH also points out, there's no sign of him repenting for them. And yet he is still feted as a legend and defended against any criticism by many.

All because he was very good at hockey many years ago.

Hockey is a sport that will ignore almost anything for its players, as long as they're good enough at the game, have reached a certain level of fame for on-ice accomplishments, or indeed are just popular.

Hull is not the only example. Look at another Blackhawk, Patrick Kane. Despite all the fears of those who rushed to defend him against the (unproven) allegations of rape he faced, he remains one of the "faces" of the NHL. His public standing has not suffered one bit. He is still one of the faces of the NHL - and will no doubt continue to be.

These are the examples just for the Blackhawks, but examples exist throughout hockey of players seemingly able to continue their careers untroubled by mention or question of the kind of deeds that would ruin an "ordinary" persons' life, or even many celebrities. Ironically, these are often due in large part to the complicity of a hockey media that is the first to rip players and coaches to shreds for minor offences such as standing on a logo, celebrating too ostentatiously or the like, but will somehow fete players guilty of far worse deeds.

The cognitive dissonance displayed in hockey in order to simultaneously castigate current players for stepping on a team logo or being late to practice for "not behaving right" but ignore the abusive history of a player from many years ago is of a level that has to be conscious and a considered decision. In choosing to ignore the off-ice deeds of a player like Bobby Hull in considering his legacy, the NHL is making a conscious statement that to them, being good at hockey is all that matters.

As a thought exercise, let's imagine that that same domestic-violence came out today and ask how hockey would react...except we don't have to. It's happened several times, most notably with Slava Voynov - who no longer plays in the NHL, but is still able to pursue a lucrative career in the KHL in Russia and was extensively defended by his team, the LA Kings, at the time of the accusations - to the point where the Kings were fined for breaking a league order that Voynov was not allowed to take part in practice and his then-GM Dean Lombardi was more worried about the treatment of the player by the media than his wife.

While Voynov was condemned by many, it's true, let's not lose sight for a second of the fact that those in positions of power in the NHL didn't see the issue with having an accused domestic abuser on their team today. That destroys any argument that is given that Bobby Hull was only allowed to reach the position he did because "things were different back then". This willingness to place hockey ability over basic morals is a problem that is alive and kicking in today's hockey world.

Consider, for example, Harry Zolnierczyk, who was convicted of charges of distributing a video of a team-mate's sexual encounter with an underage girl while in juniors, but remains an NHL player and was indeed signed by Philadelphia immediately after his probation sentence ended, then moved to Pittsburgh - he's now in the Nashville organisation. Or fellow Predator Mike Ribeiro, who was signed by the Preds despite accusations that later saw him admitting being guilty of sexual assault. He remains one to this day.

Or, even more recently, Coyotes prospect Garret Ross, who was involved in a revenge-porn incident while a Blackhawk, but avoided prosecution on a technicality and is now considered among the Coyotes' better prospects.

Incidents that would see careers affected for "normal" people, and are undoubtedly worse than, say, stepping on a logo-but seemingly not worth even considering further by the hockey teams - indeed, the silence from NHL media is deafening.

This is a trend that's happening right now - observe the current controversy in Arizona over defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, suspended for three games for pushing an official in the latest of many disciplinary issues in his young career. Many Coyotes fans are defending his actions, but what's really interesting is this response to our colleague Sarah over at Five For Howling writing about said issues:

I was curious, so I reached out to the person who made these comments, who is a reporter in Flagstaff. He argues, essentially, that bringing up a player's past is "telling fans what to think" and is "unprofessional".

This I find interesting, since we're talking about a player who has just committed an offence and has a proven history of attitude issues. Essentially there's no way to consider the offence without bringing up the pattern. Which makes it strange that many in hockey are so resistant to articles like this.

It's not just the NHL, either. I've worked in hockey in Britain - and when writing about teams I've been actively told "please don't mention this guy's history" or "don't talk about that suspension". Hockey seems committed to erasing the past of its players for public consumption, or at least covering up the bad bits. This commitment only grows the "better" a player is perceived to be - to the point where teams will refuse to acknowledge issues that would be a huge red flag to employers or indeed anyone interacting with these people in any other professional environment.

Bobby Hull and the others mentioned in this article are the dark side of this - their past misdeeds are consciously ignored by those who would rather they'd never happened, because it means they'd never have to deal with the repercussions or considering what message continuing to employ them sends, both about their organisation and the culture of hockey itself.

It is a message that many in hockey refuse to listen to, never mind accept and act upon.

It needs to, and do so sooner rather than later.