For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about all of my encounters with Bobby Hull. I thought about doing a story on his passing a couple of weeks ago, but a story would not come near sufficing the magnitude of his personality and his importance in the hockey world and specifically in the hobby.
As I was writing the story on how we resurrected the Bee Hive brand at Pinnacle, a great Bobby Hull memory was triggered.
I met him several times as a collector, as a journalist, and later working in the sports card industry. He usually recognized me, but sometimes I had to remind him who I was. Depending on how long the bar had been open for, I may have had to remind him more than once who I was on any given evening.
Many collectors who are regulars at shows like the Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo, the National, or any other big show with autograph guests have also met Hull several times. He is maybe the most fan-friendly guest you could imagine, and he loved to engage with everyone.
We heard some inappropriate and off color comments from time to time, but that’s what you got with Bobby Hull. He was raw, and he was a product of his generation. That’s not to excuse some of the very disturbing things that have surfaced and clouded his image in retirement, but he did love fans and collectors to the end. He also provided me with one of my favorite moments as a trading card company executive.
Vancouver’s 1998 Pinnacle NHL FanTasy
When we resurrected the Bee Hive brand at Pinnacle in 1998, part two of that story took place in Vancouver at the Pinnacle NHL All-star Fantasy. I am always careful to call it the Pinnacle NHL All-Star FanTasy and not just the All-Star Game fan fest, because Pinnacle dropped a lot of money for that sponsorship. When all was said and done with that show, from the sponsorship to staffing the show and our booth and promotions, I would imagine that the final bill was easily north of a million dollars. If there was one thing we were really good at, it was spending money. At the time, I had no idea that Pinnacle was the on ramp of the Chapter 7 highway, but I found out at that show.
Our VP of Public Relations, Laurie Goldberg, had arranged for a major press conference to unveil the resurrection of the Bee Hive brand. Laurie was incredible at her job. Nobody in PR in the hobby even came close to her. We were going to announce the Bee Hive brand. I was going to talk briefly about the history of the Bee Hive program, and then turn it over to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Some of our autograph guests like Stan Mikita and Ted Lindsay were going to be there, as they were in Vancouver anyway. We also invited John Gray, the grandson of St. Lawrence Starch founder John Gray. He brought his grandson with him. I think his name was Bill but I can’t remember. I remember as a young hockey fan who was about 12, he was taking it all in and it was likely the best weekend of his life. Imagine being 12 and your grandfather is taking you to Vancouver for the weekend to go to the Pinnacle NHL All-Star FanTasy and the all-star game.
Before the event, I was sitting with Stan Mikita and Ted Lindsay having breakfast. They were both amazing people. I just fed them questions and then sat back and listened to the stories and the different places they would go.
Low and behold, Bobby Hull walked in the room and pulled up a chair and joined us.
I just sat there, acting nonchalant to be with two legends. Inside, I was more chalant than I had ever been in my life. I’m sitting here with Stan Mikita and Ted Lindsay, I am about to share a microphone with Gary Bettman, and Bobby Hull just pulled up a chair. If 12-year-old me could see me at that moment, he would have combusted.
Mikita and Hull told me the story of how they came up with the idea for the curved stick. While Hull is the player most known for the curved stick, Mikita was his partner in crime and may be even more responsible. Mikita had a partially broken stick and took a slapshot on goalie Glenn Hall in practice. Mikita was just trying to break the stick. He took another shot, and then called Hull over to see. Hull joined in and they started bending sticks under the door. Now they were both blasting pucks at Hall, who had a meltdown. He didn’t wear a mask, and he had no idea where these pucks were going.
Mikita and Lindsay laughed at the story.
Eventually, it was time to go to the press conference. Laurie Goldberg came and got us, but pulled me aside for a quick chat.
“I just want to give you a heads up on what is going on back in Dallas,” she said. “We are laying a lot of people off today. It’s happening as we speak. If someone from the media finds out about it and knows about it, don’t say anything, just direct them to me.”
She assured me that my job was safe and told me not to worry about anything.
Back in Dallas, the communications system was cut off for about two hours, so that no one could send or receive emails. People were paged one by one into an office. They came out holding a cardboard box and were escorted to their desks to remove personal belongings, and then they were escorted out of the building. When I got back to Dallas, it seemed that half of the cubes occupied by co-workers were empty. When I left for Vancouver there were about 225 employees in the Pinnacle offices. When I returned, I did not find out the exact count, but we were about 100 or fewer.
Gary Bettman Backs Bee Hive Project
The walk to the area where they were holding the press conference took about five minutes. We walked as a group, and somehow I was walking beside Bettman. He asked me a lot of questions and was genuinely interested in the history of the brand we were resurrecting, the product, what my job was, and what Pinnacle was all about. After the money we spent sponsoring this show every year, I am glad he took interest. Since that quick chat, I have always respected Bettman and believe that his actions and decisions are truly in the best interest of the NHL, even though not everyone agrees with everything he does.
I don’t remember speaking or listening to Bettman speak. I was on such a nerve train that the whole moment blurred by me. But there are other parts of the day I do remember.
John Gray was incredible. He told stories about when he was the age of his grandson, who was wide-eyed watching the whole thing.
“Back then, we didn’t pay the players for being on the photos,” he explained. “But what we did was give them each a case of Bee Hive corn syrup. I was able to go around with my father and grandfather and meet all the players from the Toronto Maple Leafs and some of the other players from other teams who lived in the Toronto area in the offseason. The players were so appreciative of getting the corn syrup, especially the players who had children.”
Gray rattled off the Leafs stars of the 1930s and 1940s that he met. Everyone in the room swallowed up everything he said.
Then, all of a sudden, I noticed a group of reporters around Bobby Hull. I didn’t even realize that Bobby Hull had tagged along with us. And if he did, why was Gary Bettman chatting with me and not him on the way there?
I went over to see what he was saying. I was more afraid than curious.
Once I realized what was going on, I started taking notes.
“I remember collecting the labels from Bee Hive corn syrup and sending them in as a kid,” Hull said. “I worked chores on the farm and I used my own money I earned to pay for the postage stamps. I had quite a few Bee Hive photos when I was a kid. I collected them, and I had a special scrapbook. I always imagined how incredible it would be to be on a Bee Hive photo. I think the fact that we are here today to celebrate Bee Hive photos and to bring the photos back as a hockey card set is great for hockey.”
I had to do a bit of a double take to realize what had just happened.
Bobby Hull was not involved in our Bee Hive set in any way. In fact, we picked Stan Mikita as our Blackhawk instead of him. But he thought it was exciting, and he just wanted to be a part of the excitement and celebration.
Bobby Hull actually was a spokesman for Bee Hive in the 1960s. And for the record, he appeared on seven different Bee Hive photos, more than any other player.
Can You Look After Ty And Trevor?
I went back to the fanfest – sorry, the Pinnacle NHL FanTasy. After being there about an hour, something just as weird as Bobby Hull crashing our press conference happened.
Former NHL goalie Ed Mio popped in. He was with a couple of kids. Ed is best known as being the player traded with Wayne Gretzky from Indianapolis to Edmonton back in the WHA. He remained close friends with Gretzky and was the best man at his wedding. After retiring, Mio became an agent with IMG. Whenever we did autograph deals with IMG, he was our contact.
We were standing at our booth just chatting about either something or nothing or somewhere between that. It seems to me it was something about the trade rumors surrounding Canucks captain Trevor Linden.
Mio’s cell phone rang, and he looked at me for a second.
“Jeff, this is urgent,” he said. “I have to take it. Can you look after Gretz’s kids for a few minutes? This is Ty and Trevor.”
Wait, what? You mean those kids are, um, what?
Just like that, Ed Mio disappeared into a conversation and there I was at the Pinnacle booth showing Trevor and Ty Gretzky everything in our booth and talking about hockey cards with them. I went back to what was going on in my head that day. In rock-paper-scissors, babysitting Wayne Gretzky’s kids beats chatting with Gary Bettman every time.
Eventually, Mio came back. I sent Ty and Trevor off with some promo cards.
I had asked John Gray to come back to our booth. He politely declined, as he and his grandson went to see the movie Titanic, which was crushing it at the box office.
In time, whenever I thought about that show, the irony just seemed to be more and more delicious. Here we were at a grandiose event with a spectacular exhibition of hobby opulence, yet back in Dallas, the Pinnacle building on Woodall Rodgers Freeway had just smacked into an iceberg.
It’s only fitting that Titanic was the number one movie on that day.