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Hull warns Winnipeg: Don’t lose fans again

Chicago Blackhawks Red Carpet Event. Team players from 2011-12 seasare introduced United Center Saturday evening. Former Chicago Blackhawk Bobby Hull.

Chicago Blackhawks Red Carpet Event. Team players from the 2011-12 season are introduced at the United Center Saturday evening. Former Chicago Blackhawk Bobby Hull. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:02AM



Though his likeness is soon to be bronzed in a statue outside the United Center, Bobby Hull isn’t one to stand on ceremony.

Asked what the return of hockey to Winnipeg means to him and a city where he helped establish professional hockey, Hull wasn’t sentimental or nostalgic.

‘‘They’ve been crying for it for 15 years,’’ Hull said ahead of the Hawks hosting the rebranded Jets on Thursday. ‘‘And let’s hope they understand that, sure, they’ve got hockey back, but they can’t sit on their laurels and think those fans are going to keep shelling their hard-earned money out in another three years if they don’t have an exciting team.’’

Forgive Hull for being blunt. But he was there in 1996 when the Winnipeg Jets were ripped from the city and moved to Phoenix to
become the Coyotes.

Winnipeg, he said, did not appreciate how much money a professional franchise puts into circulation in a city, and the Jets owners made decisions that alienated fans.

“They’ve gone through a little bit of what the Blackhawks went through with no home games on TV and only 8,000 fans a night before Rocky [Wirtz] and John [McDonough] took over and put Chicago back at the top because they recognized what it took to make a winning franchise and put the fans first,” Hull said.

In 1972, Hull was the first superstar to defect from the NHL to the World Hockey Association and helped solidify the league and the Jets.

His presence was so important and lent so much credibility to the league that all nine WHA franchise owners ponied up $110,000 each to cover his $1 million signing bonus.

“I was aware they were looking for a marquee player for their league,’’ Hull said. ‘‘I talked with my dad at the time and he said, ‘Robert, they’re going to heap a lot of work on you.’ And he was right, especially in that first year or two. But I was up
to it.’’

That he was. The Jets won the league championship twice during Hull’s tenure, and he captured the WHA’s MVP award twice, scoring 303 goals to go with 335 assists (638 points) in 411 career games.

Eventually six WHA teams and numerous talented players, including Wayne Gretzky, were folded into the NHL, and it would be hard to argue it could have been done without Hull.

More than 30 years after his last game in Winnipeg, Hull is still having an impact on the franchise, by giving his blessing to Evander Kane to wear his No. 9 with the new Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers.

‘‘Of course, I was all too willing because I would hope that it would help the young man in striving to be a great professional, to wear
the number with pride,’’ Hull said. ‘‘I don’t think numbers should be up in the rafters.”

He’ll settle for that statue at the United Center.



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