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Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets: It’s Complicated

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Bobby Hull is being inducted into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. It's a lot more complicated than him being good at hockey though.

Bobby Hull is in the NHL Hall of Fame and will be part of the first class of inductees into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. He should be. In the context of hockey, Bobby Hull deserves to be in the Jets Hall of Fame. This does not mean that he should be celebrated as a hockey player, and fans have a right to feel very uncomfortable about it.

It is well-documented that Hull is a serial abuser of women. He is a person who holds dangerous views on horrible people such as Adolf Hitler. Being good at hockey does not mean Hull shouldn't be held responsible for the person he was and is. It also does not mean that the Jets should forget what he did for hockey in Winnipeg. It’s complicated.

Winnipeg has never had a reckoning with Bobby Hull. Fans of the team when he played for them have never had to deal with his awful off-ice behaviour like they would have to now. There was a time when a famous person could do something horrible or hold horrible views, and no one would know unless the news deemed it worthy of being reported. Today, honouring those victimized in the time prior to internet availability is vital; it allows the ability to share victims’ stories, so people can understand the horrors committed against them.

With all of this said, the Winnipeg Jets are right to honour Hull. And when they honour him, they should make a point of honouring only the player he was, not the man he is. Talking about Bobby Hull as a serial woman abuser and a Nazi sympathizer is important. It assures that large swathes of people will never let anyone forget what he did and the damage he caused to others.

But the Winnipeg Jets should honour Hull. Winnipeg does not have a long history of great players wanting to sign here. Part of that is because Winnipeg just does not spend as much on players as other teams. Teemu Selanne was traded because the Jets were not able to fulfill his contract demands. They were able to compete with other teams in the WHA because they were creative. They brought over Europeans. They made Bobby Hull the first million dollar hockey player in North America. They did what they had to do to make the Jets good. This does not make Bobby Hull a good person.

Calling the relationship between Bobby Hull and hockey "complicated" is a misnomer. The NHL does not really care what Bobby Hull did. The Chicago Blackhawks, the most famous NHL team that Hull played for, do not care what he did when he was a player or in his retirement. No one mentions it out loud and no one dares question his role as a Blackhawks ambassador in NHL circles. Fans question it all the time, but the league does not.

This might be because the NHL thinks it is best to simply ignore off-ice behaviour. Look at their way of dealing with Patrick Kane, Evander Kane, and Ryan O’Reilly. The NHL did not intervene because it had nothing to do with on-ice behaviour. If this is how the NHL chooses to deal with players when they get involved with the law, then that is how it is. It does not mean fans have to be happy with how the league and individual teams choose to handle players being arrested. When the NHL does not even deem an arrest worthy of suspension with pay, it becomes difficult for teams to feel like they should do anything to discipline said player.

This brings us back to Hull’s induction. So far as the NHL is concerned, Hull has done nothing wrong. He was a star player. He delivered on his contracts. In Winnipeg, he was the first star player; he signed his contract at the corner of Portage and Main. He was a star in a town where most stars have to leave to make it big. Bobby Hull was integral to the Jets in those early days.

Nothing he has done can take away from his on-ice contributions, but they should colour people's opinions of him as a person. This is the hardest part of dealing with humans in general. Someone can be highly competent at their job and still be a shitty enough person for you to hate them, even if they have never harmed you personally. This is probably where a lot of people are at with Hull if they know his history: he has never directly harmed them, but his actions have led to thinking of him in a different light. As a result, some find themselves unable to like him as a player, never mind as a person.

This is where we are today: the Winnipeg Jets are going to induct Bobby Hull alongside his two linemates in the inaugural Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame induction class. He should be there for his contributions to the Winnipeg Jets 1.0 as a player. He should not be celebrated as a person. He should not be celebrated in any way which glorifies him beyond his play, because he is not the type of person that should be celebrated for his behaviour.

What he has done in the past is public knowledge. It was public knowledge when it happened, and it remains public knowledge today. The fact that he thinks Hitler had some good ideas is public knowledge. Public figures are precisely that, and behaviour outside of their sphere of expertise is just as important as what they did professionally.

The Winnipeg Jets are going to honour Bobby Hull, "The Golden Jet", for his play on the ice. This is the one thing the NHL has said over and over again is truly important: be a good player and nothing else matters. But if the Jets choose to honour him for anything other than his play, they will be doing a great disservice. Hull was a great Jet for eight years; he was an awful human for a lot longer than that. Do not think that one invalidates the other. Do not think that one excuses the other. Honour the hockey player and not the person.

The Winnipeg Jets were right to honour Bobby Hull the hockey player.