Brent Henley is 27 years old and has played hockey since he was a toddler. Over the years, he shot a puck so often that, like spooning food or walking, it became absolute second nature. Until this week.
That's when Henley, a long-time defenseman who the Norfolk Admirals are converting to wing, was introduced to Bobby Hull, Jr, a player development consultant with the parent Tampa Bay Lightning. Everything Henley thought he knew about launching a vulcanized rubber disc went in the proverbial trash.
“I figured I was all right in that department but it turns out I have a long way to go,” Henley said with a laugh. “I've played hockey for 25 years and I don't know the correct way to shoot a puck.”
This is possible because Henley has always been a stay-at-home defenseman and he's 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds. He's never been asked to score, just to occasionally put his monstrous frame into firing from the blue line. Even without correct form, he's gotten by.
“Since I was 15, I've always been a top-four defenseman,” said Henley, who's played professionally since 2001. “But when I get to the AHL, I'm on the bubble. I'd rather be an AHL forward than a UHL defenseman, so I'll do whatever it takes.”
What it's taken this week is a willingness to have a major part of his game completely overhauled. Hull handed him a different stick and tinkered with how close the puck is to Henley's body, the windup of his shooting motion, its release point and follow-through. Other Admirals have been included in the lessons but none has been as drastically affected as Henley.
“Initially, you get very frustrated,” said the British Columbia native. “You squeeze the stick too hard and some bad words come out of your mouth.”
Compared to a golf swing, which can take months and years for a teacher to improve, a hockey player's shooting motion is relatively short and compact. Hull can give cooperative students almost immediate gratification with increased accuracy and velocity.
“We have a good group here,” Hull said, sitting in the Admirals hockey offices. “They're eager to learn and very coachable, because they all want to get to the next level. If a guy can hit the net with a cannon shot and be an offensive factor, an NHL scout will overlook a hell of a lot of other things about his game.”
Hull, 47, comes from a family of offensive factors. His father, Bobby Hull, Sr., was one of hockey's greatest stars, a blond-haired wing with the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks and WHA's Winnipeg Jets whose booming shot hastened the trend of goaltenders donning protective masks.
Dennis Hull, the brother of Bobby Hull, Sr., produced 654 points in nearly 1,000 NHL games, and Brett Hull, Bobby, Jr.’s younger brother, was one of hockey's modern stars and is the Dallas Stars' co-general manager.
“There's some genetics in it,” Bobby, Jr., said of his expertise, which he began sharing in youth clinics a decade back. “But I grew up at the rink with my dad and all the players on his teams and other teams that came through town. My brothers and I were rink rats running all over Chicago Stadium and getting tips from Bobby Orr and all the great Montreal Canadiens.”
Hull played major junior hockey and a season at the University of British Columbia before a shoulder injury and unwanted attention related to his name convinced him to scrap any plans for a pro career.
“There was always someone looking to take my head off because of who I was and I knew it would be more of the same in the AHL,” he said.
Instead, Hull drifted into the garment business, using knowledge he accumulated during summer work at a friend's Winnipeg leather jacket factory to enter the trade. He's lived in the northwest Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley for 15 years and took his shooting clinics continent-wide after two seasons coaching Roller Hockey International's Los Angeles Blades.
Over the years, Hull stayed in touch with childhood friend Oren Koules, a former youth hockey teammate in Elmhurst, Ill. When Koules and partner Len Barrie bought the Lightning earlier this year, Hull came aboard and plans to make three more teaching trips to Norfolk this current season.
“Oren wanted a diverse group of people, a dedicated group of people he could trust,” said Hull, who recently exited the garment industry after 22 years. ``But we all have one thing in common, and that's we know how to win as a group.”
Hull's contributions are immensely valuable, yet mostly out of sight. An hour before an Admirals practice, he's on the Scope ice with half a dozen players, watching them shoot and making adjustments to their form.
“As soon as I see them shoot, I know what's going on and how to help them,” Hull said. “There are only small things most of them are doing wrong, so all it takes is changing their hand position, or where their body is in relation to the puck.”
Admirals coach Darren Rumble bought into Hull's methods after spending some ice time with him, assistant coach Alan May and the coaches' teenage sons. Hull made suggestions and the kids started shooting better as their fathers watched, learned and tried the methods themselves.
“He's related to guys who scored a few goals in their time, so you know he's not blowing hot air,” Rumble said. “Even the most veteran players shouldn't think they can't continue gathering information and learning.”
Henley's a veteran and he's wide open to receiving Hull's help. A new stick with a more flexible shaft and a stiffer blade has been tough to adapt to, but Henley's committed to the process and to remaining with the Admirals as long as he can.
“It's great that we have this opportunity,” Henley said. “You can see small improvements each day and hopefully they'll add up to a major improvement over time.”