Bobby Hull died yesterday. In his death he has left a complicated legacy due to the contrast of his on-ice importance with his off-ice behaviours. This story does mention domestic violence, anti-semitism, and racism. Please read with care.
Around 10 years ago I remember listening to the podcast that Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski used to have and them alluding to there being a lot of out in the open secrets around Bobby Hull. Around the same time, I remember reading Twitter when someone said “remember that Bobby Hull said that Hitler had some good ideas”. And thus began a look into the complicated legacy of Bobby Hull who was both an excellent hockey playing and a horrible person.
First of all, to the cut and dry comments from Bobby Hull about Hitler, how quickly the Black population was growing, and how Canada was too Left Wing. There is nothing to say here except it is obvious Hull did not care about how he was viewed because he was not holding or wanting to hold public office.
The truth is when someone holds opinions like the ones that Bobby Hull held, they need to be shot down at every single chance someone gets. His opinions are dangerous and a good reminder that not all opinions are created equal. Hull’s opinions are dangerous and categorically wrong as we know that Hitler led a genocide against Jewish people and that racism is wrong and violates many Human Rights. In both cases, these opinions indicate a bad person.
There is also the Hull who was a known domestic abuser who did not have a good relationship with his son Brett until Brett was in the NHL and whose daughter has worked as a lawyer for victims of Domestic Violence due to what happened to her mother when she was a child. Hull’s domestic issues were known behind closed doors in the hockey world before they became public knowledge and it is unfair to say they taint his legacy when they are a part of who he is and therefore part of his legacy.
Bobby Hull’s legacy is complicated because you cannot separate the horrible man he was from the excellent hockey player he was. He was both a key part of the Jets during their WHA days and a person who frankly should have been faded from the public conscious long before he died. Hull was a horrible person who seemed to see nothing wrong with having horribly wrong ideas because he was not, in his mind, a person of influence.
But athletes are people of influence. There are kids, teens, and even adults who look up to them. Their thoughts and opinions can influence others and that requires them to be careful with their thoughts and actions. People can and should have different thoughts and opinions. But when those thoughts are hateful and wrong to minority groups, they must be deplatformed which was never done with Hull.
Hull’s record with Domestic Violence is a bigger issue. It is rarely talked about, but it harmed his relationships with his children and obviously helped lead to his divorces. It was also not talked about openly when it happened. There is no direct evidence of reformation and it is hard to hide behind the idea that it was alright for the time because it clearly was not. Once again, not giving Hull a platform when he retired would be the easiest way to deal with everything. Just let him fade into a prominent footnote.
There is no separating the art from the artist as the artist creates the art. But the art does not end because the artist is a bad person. You can turn them into a footnote, someone who is talked about in the most basic, banal way. Honouring him adds relevance to his off-ice actions. It is okay to acknowledge his passing, but if the Jets were to make it more than what it is and stretch it out would be wrong.
Acknowledging Bobby Hull’s on-ice legacy while also not celebrating him the same way you would celebrate a Jean Beliveau is fair. Hull did do a lot for the WHA Jets in Winnipeg and helping the WHA be seen as a direct competitor to the NHL. The complexity in Hull’s legacy is because his one ice contributions to the game (and off-ice in some ways) are a direct contrast to his personal behaviour and opinions. Hull the player cannot be separated from Hull the person, but Hull the player was instrumental to making a break-off league relevant and launching pro hockey in Winnipeg. Grappling with his legacy is hard because his legacy is full of contradictions between the player and the person and his value to hockey overall.