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Nedomansky's first encounter with Dennis Hull led to lifelong friendship

Czech forward, who will enter Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, learned ropes from NHL great

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- Dennis Hull is still laughing about his accidental first encounter with Vaclav Nedomansky nearly five decades ago, six years before the two would be teammates on the 1977-78 Detroit Red Wings.

On Monday, on the eve of his 75th birthday, Hull will send good vibes to Toronto to his old friend Big Ned, 75, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

When Hull thinks of Nedomansky, he happily rewinds to 1972 and the afterglow of Team Canada's Summit Series triumph against the Soviet Union. An exhibition game in Prague had been scheduled for Sept. 30 between the Canadian NHL stars and the Czechoslovakian national team, two nights after what would be Canada's climactic, emotional Game 8 win against the Soviets in Moscow.

It wasn't a surprise that a number of players on the victorious roster, having partied hard before and during the flight from Russia to Prague, were in less than game shape as the Prague face-off approached.

"We'd been up all night, as you can imagine," recalled Hull, who had played in Game 8, one of his four games in the series. "We got to the airport in Prague and [Team Canada coach] Harry Sinden lined us up against a wall. He went down the line of players: 'You look like you could play, you don't, you do, uh, not you…' I got picked because somehow I looked like somebody who could play.

"I was heading to the rink in Prague and this tall, handsome guy is walking beside me," Hull said. "He wants to know all about Canada, all about the NHL, and stuff. I'm telling him everything I know. We get to the rink and I say, 'Buddy, I've gotta go.' I walk into the rink, get dressed for the game and come out for the start. I look at their center and I say, 'Oh my God, that's the guy I was talking to… it's Nedomansky!'"

Canada would play the Czechs to a 3-3 tie, defenseman Serge Savard scoring his second goal of the game with four seconds left on the clock, goalie Ken Dryden having been pulled for a sixth skater. In Hull's sepia memory, Nedomansky roared the length of the ice to score that night, but the game summary suggests otherwise.

"I've reminded Ned of our first meeting lots of times," Hull said. "We're great friends and we talk on the phone a lot. I called him in June when it was announced that he'd been elected to the Hall to ask how it was that he got in and I didn't."

One of Canada's brightest and funniest after-dinner speakers, Hull laughs throughout a chat about his old friend, zinging Big Ned with one-liners and spinning yarns about their one year together in Detroit in 1977-78. It was Hull's last of 14 NHL seasons, following 13 with the Chicago Black Hawks, and Nedomansky's first of six, following 3½ with the WHA's Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls.

"Ned and I lived in Windsor, Ontario, just a block or two from each other, and we drove together to practice every day over in Detroit," Hull said. "Ned had a Westfalia, a really hot van."

In fact, the bulbous Volkswagen camper van was about as hot as a frozen puck, though Hull insists he's in the market for one.

"We'd cross the U.S. border in that van and after the first couple times, the Customs agent just waved us through," Hull said. "Lefty Wilson was the Red Wings trainer. Ned and I would come in together and Lefty would loudly say, 'Here come the big stars from Windsor!' 

"Ned wasn't great in English. I think I was the only one who could understand him. We're going to practice one day and Ned says to me, 'Could you teach me something that I can say to Lefty?' So I do. We walk into the dressing room and Lefty says, 'Ah, the big stars from Windsor…' and Ned replies in heavily accented English, 'Get off my case, tomato face.' It was fabulous. First time ever that Lefty was speechless."

If Hull's memory is off-track about Nedomansky scoring in Prague, he's spot-on about Ned assisting on his 300th NHL goal, scored against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 17, 1977, a 3-2 Red Wings road win.

Hull would take a job after his 1978 retirement running a sports camp at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, bringing Nedomansky in as an instructor.

"Ned worked hockey, tennis and soccer," Hull said. "His tennis was unbelievable. He did all those sports at Ridley and showed the campers how to play them all. He'd win very, very easily at tennis, not meanly, but nicely. He was just a super guy.

"We got to play against a junior soccer team in Toronto, boys 16 to 18 years old. I hadn't played soccer in my life. Ned said, 'Are we supposed to win against these kids?' and I said, 'Of course we are.' 

"We start the game and he says, 'Run down to the edge of the net, but don't go offside.' I get to the edge of the net, Ned goes through the entire team, gives me the ball and I kick it into the empty net. Next day in the Toronto Star, there's my picture, scoring an empty-netter. It's one of my favorite photos."

Hull recalls Nedomansky making everything he did, on and off the ice, look ridiculously easy.

"Ned could handle the puck and shoot so well," he said. "He'd tell me, 'If you're in the slot and you have part of the net to shoot at, 60 miles per hour will get it by the goalie.' I'd tell him, 'Sixty miles per hour? I do that with my backhand.' 

"By coming to North America (in 1974), to play in the WHA and then the NHL, Ned paved the way for other Europeans to come over here. He was the guy who led the charge. But for all the wonderful things that Ned has done in hockey, he's just a nicer guy than all of that."

Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame,Vashi Nedomansky, Detroit Red Wings

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