Early - and not-so-early - in his Hall-of-Fame career, Brett Hull was widely seen as lazy, overweight and one-dimensional (albeit a pretty impressive dimension), an uncoachable coach-killer incapable of winning "as if he were poison, rotting the team from the inside out with selfish play, marginal character and a cavalier attitude."
He also led the League in goals for three straight years, posting three of the top goal-scoring campaigns the NHL has ever seen in succession.
Still, the fact remained: despite making the playoffs in each of his first dozen seasons as a regular NHLer, Hull didn't reach the third round of the playoffs once in those goal-filled but ultimately playoff-fruitless seasons (which included an 11-year run in St. Louis). In the summer of 1998, he was 34-years-old and a free agent, and soon found himself heading to Dallas... to play "robot hockey."
And that's when the light bulb went on. As Scott Burnside wrote when Hull entered the Hall of Fame in 2009:
Former Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock, now behind the bench in Columbus, recalled the summer of 1998, when the Stars signed Hull. Within the first hour of the signing, Hitchcock said, he received 10 phone calls, most wishing him luck with getting along with the vocal, strong-willed Hull.
"When I first met him, I was kind of intimidated," Hitchcock said. "He had the reputation of being a really strong person in the dressing room. And then after a while, I found I could really learn a lot from this guy, the way he thought the game."
It was Hitchcock, lauded even now by Hull as one of the greatest coaches for whom he played, who tapped into an inner reserve of determination in the sometimes prickly winger. By the time Hull landed in Dallas, he had a reputation as a one-dimensional player whose value to the team was limited to a single element -- scoring goals. In 1992-93 and 1993-94 in St. Louis, for instance, Hull scored 111 goals and was a combined minus-30.
"I was never held accountable defensively in my whole life, which is why I never did it," Hull said.
In Dallas, people didn't think he could do anything different. Or would. He proved them wrong. "That's what I'm most proud of," he said. "Just being able to shut people up."
It wasn't easy.
Hitchcock recalled ultimately coming to an agreement with Hull about how they were going to co-exist. Hitchcock, an exacting man when it came to preparation, agreed to cut Hull some slack, demanding he give the coach 30 good minutes of practice if Hull guaranteed he'd become the player Hitchcock wanted him to be on game nights.
"I said, 'Let's have a negotiation,'" Hitchcock said. "I said, 'I'll show you the respect you want if you show me the respect I need.' That's when he bought in."
In time, the agreement paid dividends in the form of the team's first Stanley Cup in 1999.
By now you know where this is going - I'm going to tell you to swap "Hull" for "Alex Ovechkin" and "Hitchcock" for "Adam Oates," re-read what you've just read, nod along to the transformation that has to take place in the Caps' brash superstar and envision how it will all inevitably lead to a June parade down Pennsylvania Avenue (perhaps after metaphorically marching through the Keystone State itself en route).
"I was never held accountable defensively in my whole life, which is why I never did it." Simple as that (even if it doesn't completely line up with accounts of his earlier time under Mike Keenan in St. Loo).
But as much as Ken Hitchcock may have "tapped into an inner reserve of determination" in the 34-year-old Hull - and one can fairly wonder whether a 27-year-old Ovechkin can be similarly reached - the biggest change for the still-potent winger may have simply been one of scenery and where he fit into it.
"I came in kind of a free wheeler, I kind of played my own game. Within the system, I had a theory on what I had to do to get open and create some offense. When I got to Dallas, there was no ad-libbing. We had a game plan, there was a certain way we played and you were going to do it come hell or high water. It was a big adjustment for me. But when you see (Mike) Modano and you see (Joe) Nieuwendyk and (Jere) Lehtinen and (Sergei) Zubov play under that umbrella, it doesn’t take you long to figure out you’re going to do it and enjoy it and enjoy winning. That’s what happened.
This wasn't going to be Brett Hull's team. It wasteam. And Joe Nieuwendyk's team. And Guy Carbonneau's and Eddie Belfour's.
And Ken Hitchcock's.
Similarly, when Hull got to Detroit a few years later, his role was complementary. As good as he still was in both Dallas and Detroit, he was never the focal point, never the captain - he was a guy playing in a structured system. And winning, which, as we know, cures all ills.
Which brings us back to Ovechkin and, somewhat coincidentally, Hull and Oates. When Oates was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier in the week, Hull was asked about how the Caps' current top gun might fare playing for the man who set up so many of those Hull tallies back in the day and he couldn't say enough about his former pivot:
"I’m excited about it but I’m also not really excited about it because he’s going to break all the records," Hull said with a laugh. "It’s crazy. He’s going to thrive under Oates. There’s just no question. When I played, Adam was my coach. He told me what we were going to do, when we were going to do it, how we were going to do it and it always worked. He’ll be able to do the same thing with Ovechkin and [Nicklas] Backstrom too." ...
"To me, the number one thing in being a great coach is being able to understand great players. When you’re a great player, like Adam, and have played with great players you understand them," Hull said. "Alex Ovechkin is going to be like a kid in a candy store. He’s going to be reborn and he’s going to be the happiest kid on the planet because he’s going to have a coach that gets him."
"He’s going to get Ovechkin. He’s going to get the ego – and egos aren’t a bad thing," Hull said. "All great players, all great goal scorers have egos. You have to feed the ego and the more you feed the ego the happier Ovechkin is, the happier the rest of the team is, the better the rest of the team plays."
Whether or not Hull is justified in being so bullish on the new dynamic in D.C. is up for debate, but one thing he knows is ego. Take, for example, Hull's stance on serving bench minors. Here's an account of former teammate Grant Fuhr telling the story (and there's seemingly at least one classic Hull anecdote for each of the 741 goals he scored):
The Blues were called for a too many men on the ice penalty and Head Coach Mike Keenan instructed Hull to serve the penalty. Hull responded by telling Keenan he doesn’t serve penalties. Keenan then told Hull again to go serve the penalty and once again Hull said I don’t serve penalties. The ref skates over to the bench yelling we need someone to get in the box. Hull’s teammates began saying just go Hullie!
Finally Hull hopped over the boards chinstrap unbuttoned, dragging his stick behind him as he took his time and slowly skated to the box. After the penalty expired Hull stayed in the box for an extra 2-3 seconds while the door was open. He finally came out just as the puck came right in his direction. Hull would have had an easy breakaway but instead stepped over the puck and slowly skated back to the bench. In one motion he jumped over the boards and looked right at Keenan and said, "I told you I don’t serve penalties."
And you thought that muttering something indecipherable to no one in particular was insubordinate?
Hull believes, "You have to feed the ego and the more you feed the ego the happier Ovechkin is, the happier the rest of the team is, the better the rest of the team plays," something which Oates seems to endorse - and they're not necessarily wrong to put the "happy Ovechkin" cart in front of the "winning team" horse. Chances are that Alex Ovechkin will outlast most in hockey-Washington.
But here's wherein a disconnect exists - neither Hull nor Ovechkin won anything in their "feed the ego" years. For Hull, the winning came with a change of scenery, role and, to an extent, expectations. For Ovechkin... well, we're waiting. If Hull's example is demonstrative of anything, it may well be that "feed the ego" and winning have a tough time co-existing. It'll be interesting to see which Oates chooses; it'll be more interesting to see which Ovechkin chooses.
At twenty-seven years old, Ovechkin is very much at a crossroads in his career. One path is leading to a legacy that few in the game's history could match - legendary achievements, both on individual and team levels; another likely leads to a starring role in a cautionary tale, cementing of xenophobic stereotypes, and self-congratulatory toasts among smug media members. The third is, at best, that of a late-career rebirth as a supporting actor... almost certainly somewhere else.
To be sure, Ovechkin could learn a lot from Hull - carry the puck less, find open spots and let the puck find you and so on - and hopefully Oates can be the one to teach it to him. As a player, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse (and not much better) than ending up like Brett Hull. But ultimately, Caps fans are going to hope the Ovechkin/Hull comparison proves to be a somewhat inaccurate one (and that Steve Yzerman serves as the better analog). After all, Hull and the team he captained never amounted to much in the postseason... and he never won anything of lasting value with Adam Oates.