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The Incredible Hull

by Dan O'Neill / St. Louis Blues

Brett Hull and teammate Adam Oates will be re-united this week for Hull & Oates Unplugged on Thursday night at The Pageant. In addition, both players will be part of the team's annual Heritage Night on April 1 vs. Boston.

ST. LOUIS - On March 31, 1991, Brett Hull capped off of one of the greatest offensive seasons in NHL history. The play took on an unusual progression. It began with goaltender Vincent Riendeau, who recorded all of four assists during his 184-game NHL career, moved to Paul Cavallini of “Flying Cavallini Brothers” fame, and ended with Hull beating Minnesota North Stars netminder Brian Hayward.

It was the final bang in a record-setting fireworks display – an 86-goal season.

Not surprisingly, 1990-91 was the apex of Hull’s career. He added 45 assists to boost his point total to 131, while recording a Selke-smooth +23 rating. His marksmanship, which included zero empty-net goals and zero shorthanded goals, earned Hull his second of three career First All-Star Team honors, the Lester B. Pearson Award (for most outstanding player) and the Hart Trophy (as the League's most valuable player) - the first recipient in Blues history.

Hull's 86 goals remain an NHL record for a right-winger – a record that may never be broken. The closest bidder since the turn of the century was Pavel Bure, who poured in 59 goals for the Florida Panthers during the 2000-01 season.

Prior to 1990-91, Hull had already established himself as one of the NHL’s elite snipers, having scored 32 times as a rookie and 41 and 72 times, respectively, in his first full seasons with the Blues. For the city of St. Louis and the Blues organization, the timing of his emergence was critical.

The Blues burst onto the NHL scene, earning three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first three seasons of existence (1967-68 to 1969-70). Business was equally successful as the team (averaged)/was averaging over 95 percent capacity at home games for eight of their first nine seasons.

Under the guidance of the NHL’s all-time winningest coach, Scotty Bowman, legends of the game such as Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, as well as franchise figureheads like Red Berenson, Noel Picard, and Bob and Barclay Plager excited the Blues' faithful and built the foundation for the future of the franchise.

But then the ebb flowed and seats in the fully-booked St. Louis Arena became increasingly empty. During a 12-year period from 1976-77 to 1987-88, the Blues experienced nine losing seasons. During that spell, the club averaged 12,973 fans per game while never exceeding 84 percent capacity in any season – even the 1980-81, 107-point campaign.

Luckily for the Blues and the city, a pivot was planted on March 7, 1988. Blues GM Ron Caron phoned Calgary GM Cliff Fletcher about Hull – who at the time had 26 goals for the Flames and ranked third in the rookie scoring race behind Buffalo’s Ray Sheppard and Calgary's Joe Nieuwendyk.

The Flames were a thriving offensive juggernaut, leading the league with 319 goals. But, by Fletcher’s assessment, they weren’t balanced enough to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Both general managers coveted what the other had.

"You want to win the Stanley Cup, I have the players that can help you win the Stanley Cup," Caron pitched to Fletcher. Despite reservations, Fletcher pulled the trigger and sent Hull to St. Louis in exchange for former first overall pick Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley.

"We could have made this deal 48 hours before we did," said Fletcher following the trade, "But Brett Hull is someone who could score 50 goals a year for a number of years. That was our concern. I'm afraid that a couple of years down the road - when Joe Mullen is retired and Hakan Loob is back in Europe - we may pick up the paper every day and see Hull scoring another goal."

Fletcher was right on both his needs and his concerns. The Flames went on to capture the 1988 Stanley Cup, while they were haunted by Hull’s presence in boxscores for the next 18 seasons.

For the Blues, the impact of the trade was immediate and lasting. The season following the trade, the organization welcomed almost a thousand more patrons per game and by his final season, the average attendance had risen from 14,505 in 1987-88 to 18,415 in 1997-98.

The team averaged over 90 percent capacity in eight of his 10 seasons and north of 100 percent four times in that stretch. What’s more, according to the club’s media guide, the 10 largest crowds in franchise history were all during Hull’s career.

Though he moved on to Dallas, then Detroit and then Phoenix before his career ended, Hull remained a prolific goal-scorer. In 2003-04 – his final full NHL campaign - he became one of just seven players in NHL history to score at least 25 goals in a season which they entered at least 39 years of age. He ended his career with 741 goals and 527 as a Blue.

Even now, almost 18 years after his final game in a Blue Note (May 19, 1998), Hull’s impact on the organization and the city lingers. His on-ice talent and off-ice charisma re-ignited the fan base, turning casual fans into diehards and prompting non-hockey fans to discover the game.

Hull's influence on the popularity of the sport can be seen each and every day at local rinks as St. Louis continues to grow into one of the most active and talent-rich youth hockey communities in the country.

To this day, he has his hand in every stick that is bought, every skate that is sharpened and every ticket that is sold.

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