1959 European tour sparked Hull to stardomby John McGourty
The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers scheduled a European barnstorming tour after the 1958-59 season, 23 games in 26 days in 10 cities in six countries. It was the first time NHL teams played in Europe since the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings in 1938, a nine-game affair in Paris and London that the Canadiens won, 5-3-1.
The 1959 tour was organized by Swiss player Othmar Delnon and was sponsored by a Swiss winemaker. Attendance was erratic, with full houses one night and weak support another. But one thing everyone agreed upon, it was then and there that Bobby Hull became "The Golden Jet," emerging from two NHL seasons as a checking center into a freewheeling player with great speed and a great shot.
"That's where I learned how to play," Hull said. "I wanted to see all of Europe that I could and I suppose I played smart hockey. I was just a young guy, 20 years old. When I came back, I was a more complete player and it went on from there."
Rangers left wing Andy Bathgate, who finished third in scoring behind Montreal's Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau that season, couldn't make the trip, opening the door for Hull.
"I'd had a good year and I was pooped out," Bathgate said. "Bobby Hull took my place and had an enjoyable time. My wife had just had a baby and I needed to be with her in Vancouver. I didn't want to be traveling by myself at that time and, hey, Europe would get more out of seeing him."
"My first two years in the NHL, I really hadn't figured it out yet," Hull said. "I got 13 goals my rookie year and 18 in the second year. But I was playing center with Ron Murphy and Eric Nestorenko as my wingers against all the big lines, Gordie Howe's line in Detroit, Jean Beliveau's line in Montreal, Bronco Horvath's line in Boston and Bathgate's line in New York.
"All three of us scored 18 goals that year when 20 goals was the yardstick. You were thought of as a pretty talented hockey player if you scored 20 goals. I thought we earned our pay, getting 18 goals and holding the big lines in check."
"Eddie Litzenberger joined me from the Blackhawks and I played on a line with him and Eddie Shack," Hull said. "Shack was all over the ice, like a can of worms. Every shift, I would tell him to stay wide on his wing, get around the defenseman and before he went behind the net, look in the slot and I'll be there. I had to tell him that every shift. In those days, he was more likely to hurt his own team than the opposition. But sure enough, he did it and I scored 50 goals in 22 games. I came home from Europe and told my father I was going to lead the NHL in scoring and he said, 'Yeah, you and how many other guys?'
"I came back and they put me on left wing, which I didn't like as much because a center can go anywhere. But I had good centers and I scored 39 goals and won the scoring championship, the 1960 Art Ross Trophy, on the last play of the season. Horvath and I tied with 39 goals and I got one more assist than him, on the last play of the game. We both scored goals that night."
Hull was asked if getting out of the NHL spotlight while in Europe reduced the pressure and made it easier to experiment and try things that led to his breakout performance.
"No, we were still under pressure because we were playing in front of people that we needed to play well for," Hull said. "The pressure was there. It just so happened in those big rinks that I could skate and shoot and it all came together. Had I not made that trip to Europe and played as well as I did, gaining all that confidence, who knows where my career would have gone. I couldn't speculate."
The barnstorming tour is long forgotten, but Bobby Hull is one of the transcendent figures in NHL history. He went from good to great on that trip and came back to the NHL believing he was one of its best players. He wasn't wrong.
"The only thing that mattered was Hull," veteran hockey reporter Stan Fischler said. "Bobby transferred everything he learned to the Blackhawks. The next season, the Blackhawks started to blossom into a good team. He won the scoring title that year and the Stanley Cup the next season.
"He was a different player because he added confidence, as well as style."
The idea of the tour was to showcase NHL hockey, but the fans in some cities "whistled" (booed) the hard-hitting play that contrasted with European hockey back then.
"We knew what the Europeans would think about NHL play," said Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, then the Bruins' coach. "You could brush someone briskly and it was noted as being rough. We all knew about the great play then of the Russians, but they were not used to checking. They could skate and make plays beautifully. But our game was body checking.
"Some of that European play got into our NHL system and it's not for the worse, I can assure you. They were great players and they worked harder at skating than we did. That's why the fans thought our game was rough, but quite a few loved it, they hadn't seen that before."