Ron Onesti: The Golden Jet gets his Golden Wings
Last July, I wrote the below column on my experience with Chicago Blackhawk legend, Bobby Hull. Bobby passed this week at the age of 84. I will always remember that smile, even when he was in pain. I put on a golf outing for the Italian Sports Hall of Fame over the summer and he just showed up to support me! But his legs were so swollen he had to take his shoes off! But his smile never waned as he signed autographs and took pictures with adoring fans.
I remember when I first got him on the phone. I was so emotional I could barely speak. He, like so many of my music icons, represents a simpler, happy time in my life. And I was lucky, blessed and humbled to have become as close to him as I was.
Likewise, I have been so blessed to have fallen into a position where I am in contact with the heroes of my youth on a regular basis. Many have become close friends and even to this day, sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief as I hang up the phone with Paul Anka, get a text from Bret Michaels or talk about “Dream Making” with Kevin Costner.
Please, I am not trying to brag about this. I am extremely humbled and as my peers in this biz are vocal about not being star-struck, I am the first to say just how star-struck I am!
Of course, many of the celebs I with whom I come in contact are from the world of music. As I write this, I look forward to a weekend with Robby Kreiger of The DOORS, Ted Nugent and Jon Anderson, the voice of YES. Its like this every weekend. How lucky am I?
Growing up in Chicago, my sports heroes were Bobby Hull, Ron Santo and Dick Butkus. Bobby Hull, the “Golden Jet” was a 12-time All-Star Canadian who spent 15 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and eight seasons in Canada, winning two Stanley Cups and scored roughly 1800 goals. He was named “The Golden Jet” because of his wavy blonde hair and blazing speed on the ice, and was one of the most feared players in hockey with an overpowering demeanor and a truck-stopping slap shot. It’s so crazy to think that in those days, they didn’t wear masks, helmets or mouth gear. Very few hockey players had their original teeth back then!
It was just over the past couple of years that he and I spoke relatively regularly. We have crossed paths a few times over the years as we know several folks from the same circles. I would approach him at his table at Tufano’s Restaurant near Taylor Street, usually to say hello to the people he would be entertaining with his life-stories and romantic escapades.
A very good friend of mine became his driver and they started talking about his crazy schedule. The guy is out every day, making appearances and selling his memorabilia. My friend Paulie told him all about my theatres and about my “somewhat” busy schedule. He called me and asked if I would like to meet Bobby formally, and I of course emphatically replied that I did. Bobby wanted to meet me too and asked my friend to give me his number. What???
I was at a restaurant when I received the message to call Bobby. Paulie said to call him anytime. Anytime? I IMMEDIATELY excused myself and called the great Bobby Hull from the restroom! I nervously dialed the number and Bobby answered with a raspy “Hello.” I was doing the Ralph Kramden/Jackie Gleason “Homina, homina, homina” thing. I choked up, as memories of watching Blackhawks games on television with my dad, and the high pitched “A shot…and a GOAL!” from Hawks announcer Lloyd Pettit vividly returned in my mind. Hawk greats Stan Mikita, Chico Maki, Cliff Koroll, Pit Martin, Eric Nesterenko, Keith Maguson, Dennis Hull, Pat Stapleton, Lou Angotti, and “Tony O”-Tony Esposito all were skating around in my head.
“Hi Mr. Hull,” I said. “Call me Bobby,” he said loudly. Of course, I emotionally thanked him for the joy he has brought to countless fans even to this day.
We talked a bit about what I do and ways we can do things together. I invited him to dinner with few close, life-long hockey fan-friends of mine. We went to La Scarola on Grand Avenue in Chicago. It was kind of a strange night. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich, former news anchor Walter Jacobson and boxing champ David Diaz were all at other tables. Kind of a weird mix, but they and so many others were in awe and came to the table to say hi to Bobby.
Bobby spent three hours telling stories and reliving his career. He did it with a gleam in his eye and an infectious smile the whole time. But then he said something that hit me hard, and probably was the reason for our connection.
“My dream was to be a professional Hockey Player,” he said. “Even though I trained hard as an athlete, when I hit the ice, I saw all those smiling faces and I realized that my job was to entertain the fans. We were there the same as Frank Sinatra or Elvis, to entertain the people. And I never forgot that,” he said. An entertain he did!
And as I watched him share memories, relentlessly take pictures and sign autographs, I saw a youthful Hull, “The Entertainer,” still at it. In that sense, he is still an avid player, sharing his favorite Chianti, cigar and memories with wide-eyed fans.
As I became closer to this sports legend, one of the few of his bygone era that we have left, I saw to the degree the importance of spreading happiness and to foster his legacy really was to him. He was never without a custom autographed jersey or photo in his car, and he never shied away from a fan.
It is that broad smile and hunger to make people happy that truly impressed me about the guy. To the very end he was as sharp as ever, remembering story after story, stat after stat. It was when he was with adoring fans that he was most happy. And I just loved that sparkle in his eyes when he got to take people on a journey back to the glory days of Chicago sports. His “Goal” was to spread joy. And that is why I still considered him an all-star player. He shot and scored his “Goals” of spreading happiness and joy every single day with a cabernet in one hand and a hand rolled cigar in the other!