- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

It's hard to say which Brett Hull fires harder: hockey pucks or verbal salvos.
He has put more hard rubber past goalies than all but five players in NHL history, but he's not sure if anyone listens to his criticism of the game he loves. Not that the Detroit Red Wings star is going to stop talking. That would be akin to him focusing only on defense.
"I don't know if anyone listens to me, but I'm not going to change who I am," said the always-outspoken Hull. "I'm a pain in the [butt]. I give guys as much [grief] on the ice as I do off the ice. Any room that I'm in is not going to be quiet."
And no one can escape Hull's verbal shots. Teammates, coaches, opponents, referees, owners, the NHL itself are all targets for the man who has no problem speaking his mind. Recently, Hull let "Sports Illustrated" and "Hockey News" know what he was thinking:
On the state of the game: "I would be commissioner if I had a group of owners who weren't such Neanderthals. Get out of the Dark Ages and be realistic in your approach to running the game and be open to new ideas."
On officiating: "Whoever's in charge of the officials or the rules committee is doing a [very] poor job. … The officials should have to answer for their blunders, the way players do for theirs. Refs should have to talk to the media. They should be disciplined. They're so sensitive now, it's scary. They need to lighten up. Half of the penalties they give for unsportsmanlike conduct aren't deserved.
"The two-ref system doesn't work. It's horrible. They get in the way and are afraid to make calls that might offend the other guy. You match a young ref with an older, more experienced ref and the young guy is intimidated. If he steps on the older guy's toes, he'll hear about it in the dressing room."
On players salaries: "To show that I'm not just a player's guy, I think salaries have risen to the point where we, the players, should be satisfied. I think the potential exists for NHL players to earn amazing salaries. You have guys who score 10 goals a season earning $2.5million. We need to think about the good of the game."
On overtime: "If you lose in overtime, you've still lost, so why do you get a point? To me, that's stupid. Why not give both teams a point at the end of regulation and go home? Or give nobody a point if it's a tie.
"Truth be known, I have no problem with games ending in a tie. It makes the end of the game more exciting. The game's over, it's tied, go home."
Some critics say Hull is a hypocrite who knocks the game that has brought him fame and fortune, while proponents say he's a breath of fresh air in the mold of Charles Barkley.
Defenseman and Red Wings teammate Chris Chelios gets a kick out of Hull, of course he didn't feel that way during much of the 1990s when he, as a Chicago Blackhawk, and Hull, as a St. Louis Blue, were division rivals. When a guy is on his way to scoring 700 goals in a career, he tends to get under your skin.
"Brett won't beat you one-on-one like Wayne [Gretzky] or Mario [Lemieux], but he's going to find the seam and beat you," Chelios said. "He's still a guy you have to watch. … Sometimes Brett talks just to be heard, but as long as he has been in the league, maybe [NHL officials] should listen to him. Brett knows the game and he loves the game."
Detroit coach Dave Lewis, a longtime defenseman, was a little leery when the team signed Hull before last season, but he's quite happy to have that weapon in his arsenal now.
"I thought Brett was very cavalier, very lazy, cared only about points and goals," Lewis said. "But once he got here, I realized he was the exact opposite of what I thought he was. He's very competitive, very demanding, a student of the game. He's very intelligent and very outspoken and he has the ability to back up what he says. Brett does things to get people's attention. He wants to see the reaction even if he doesn't mean what he says. … He's a true character of the game."
And there's really only one Brett Hull. Only Hall of Fame centers Lemieux and Mike Bossy have scored more goals per game than the 38-year-old Hull. That's difficult to do when you have to face the pressure of trying to live up to the legacy of a Hall of Fame father, Bobby, the NHL's top goal-scorer of the 1960s.
"My name hurt me at times, but helped me get second chances, too," Hull said. "But I took advantage of that opportunity. And I learned to let things roll off my back. I carved my own shadow out of his large shadow."
And with 29 more goals a reasonable expectation by this time next season Hull's slap shots and wristers will have put more pucks in the net than anyone except Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
Although a recent hot streak four goals and nine assists in seven games gave him a 15th straight 50-point season as well as his coveted 700th goal, those goals don't come nearly as often for Hull, who averaged 68 goals from 1989-90 through 1993-1994 but has just 24 this year and hasn't scored 40 since 1996-1997.
"We have a terrific game, but the way it's being played is boring," said Hull, who has three of the NHL's 13 seasons with 70 goals. "Instead of playing to win, teams play not to lose. We've got to make the game more exciting."
Hull said he's trying to save the game from itself plodding, defensive struggles that de-emphasize skill and put a premium on clutching and grabbing. But for all of his complaints about the way the game is played, Hull is more worried about it off the ice, given the labor trouble that could shut down the NHL for the second time in 11 years come the summer of 2004.
"We need to be talking now about our collective bargaining agreement," Hull said. "Scoring's down, but ticket prices aren't going down. As players, we don't want a salary cap, but we've got to figure something out. There has to be some way that we can negotiate a system that can make the players happy and the owners happy."
After all, Hull, as he will tell you over and over, wants what's best for the game.


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