Bobby Hull came late to the Gala Hat Festival and I don’t mean merely tardy: two-and-a-half hours the hat-people waited for him to show. I’m guessing there was some agitation over that, kvetching and snide remarks, maybe even some walk-outs among the hat community, who must have wondered (many of them) why they needed to be kowtowing to hockey players in the first place.
Hull brought an excuse and his coach with him. The excuse was fair enough; the coach was Billy Reay. “I was a little late,” Hull explained, “because my oldest boy, Bobby, had an ear infection and I had to take him to the doctor. My wife was too busy taking care of our youngest.”
This was 1969, February. Hull was 30. His wife was Joanne, and his youngest was baby Bart, born just two weeks earlier, a fourth son. In this, the 12th year of his NHL career, Bobby Sr. would celebrate his best scoring year, ending up with 58 goals and 107 points, second in the NHL only to Boston’s Phil Esposito. Though the Black Hawks were not good, finishing last in the East, outside of the playoffs.
In February, the team seemed to be finding its way. They’d won four of five games to begin the month, including by 6-2 over the Los Angeles Kings the week before, a victory to which Hull had contributed a trio of goals. Was that the reason for the Gala Hat Festival? From the sketchy newspaper accounts I’m relying on for my information, I can’t really tell. In one of them, Hull seems to suggest that he’d organized the thing himself, which I hope is true, though probably not. Someone else must have organized it, I suppose, and somehow they’d convinced Hull to show up. By paying him? Maybe so. Or maybe it just seemed like a good thing to do, a nod to Chicago’s powerful headgear lobby.
“I thought this was a very good time to do it,” the Associated Press quoted Hull as saying, “because we need everything we can get to make the playoffs.”
“It probably was,” he added, “my best hat trick.”
I’m sorry, really very sorry, that I lack fuller facts and background, photographs, personal testimonies, context, a good comprehensive history of Illinois headdress festivities. And yet I refuse to let the lacking stop me from organizing what I do know about this particular 1969 jubilee of Chicago hats and continuing to represent it here.
And so: the venue was a small North Side Mexican restaurant. On hand (reported the AP) were columnists, society editors, sportswriters, a horde of wellwishers. There was a guy in charge, identified only as the guy in charge. Were the hats all his? No idea. Maybe was there some kind of club of collectors, with all of them contributing favourites? Possibly. Or no — just came across in one of the reports a reference to a famous Chicago collector of such things.
There were society toppers, sombreros (Mexican and American), Chinese coolies, Catholic cardinals, Indian camel drivers, Turkish fez, and etc. “You name it,” the guy said, “we got it.” I believe him. Why wouldn’t I? But I’d be glad to have some kind of catalogue to consult. Was there a biretta on show that day? A bicorne? A pickelhaube?
The AP’s reporter described Hull as the blond Adonis. He had fresh scars, including an ugly one, fresh-stitched, on his forehead. “He looks just like a little boy,” one of the society editors was overheard to say. The hat Hull chose to put on for the photographers was the white helmet belonging to Chicago’s fire commissioner. I haven’t seen any of the photos, but I’ve imagined them.
“I want to thank everybody for this hat festival,” is something Hull said that afternoon. Coach Reay offered, of the Los Angeles hattrick, “Yes, it could be your best.”
It was more than a year before he got his next one. That one was important because it put Hull one hattrick behind Maurice Richard in terms of all-time career hattricks, who had 26 in his 18 NHL years. The news that he later broke the record is worth reporting (he notched 28 in all), even if Wayne Gretzky would soon be along to erase the record with 50 of his own.
Was there ever any other Gala Hat Festival? Not that I know of — not that hockey played a part in. I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing that the hat people walked away that February afternoon a little dissatisfied, feeling used, more than a little laughed-at. Remember that in 1969 most hockey players still weren’t wearing helmets, didn’t see the need. Hockey was a preserve of the bareheaded, mostly, still. Hats, in hockey, were for throwing on the ice in disposable tribute. From the hat-people’s side, you can understand why they might have wanted nothing more to do with hockey. What was there in it for them, that afternoon in that Mexican restaurant in Chicago? Not to mention: two-and-a-half hours is really pretty late.