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Bobby Hull enjoying ride as Blackhawks make run for first title in 49 years

Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull kisses a fan as he enters the United Center before the start of Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey finals between the Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, June 6, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull kisses a fan as he enters the United Center before the start of Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey finals between the Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, June 6, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO - It wasn't until decades later, after his son Brett won it all, that Bobby Hull finally got to drink out of a Stanley Cup.

At a golf event, not after a clincher. And his shoulders were so bad he couldn't lift it.

So as the Chicago Blackhawks closed in on their first championship in 49 years, Hull had some advice: "Take advantage of it now," he said. "You're so very close. You're right on the edge of it here."

Well, they got it. And Hull couldn't hold back.

Tears streamed down his face after Patrick Kane scored 4:10 into overtime, giving the Blackhawks a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals and their first championship since Hull and Stan Mikita led the way in 1961.

"It is a new life for this dad," said Hull, who signed autographs while he watched at Harry Caray's Tavern on Navy Pier. "I only had one go at this in 1961 and here we are again 49 years later. And these kids have done it for us all. And we're to thank them."

Once estranged from the organization, he couldn't stop heaping praise on the players and management on a night when he had "mixed emotions."

Mixed emotions?

"Mostly being so happy to be a part of it, but afraid that they weren't going to win," he said. "I had that fear, just like when I played. Each year, I was always afraid that when I came back, I wasn't going to be able to score goals."

The last time the Blackhawks won it all, he was sure more championships were coming. The Golden Jet was a "22-year-old snotty nosed kid" who didn't embrace the moment the way he should have.

"I should have really enjoyed and wallowed in it and drank champagne from it, even though there were babies that sat in it and peed and pooped in it," Hull said. "I should have been more a part of it."

At least he feels a part of this one.

It wasn't too long ago that the Blackhawks were seen as an out-of-touch organization that had alienated a once-loyal fan base under late owner Bill Wirtz. But now?

"It's like old home week," Mikita said.

It seems hard to believe that just a few years ago, losses were piling up. Most home games were not on TV. Crowds were dwindling. Legends such as Hull, Mikita and Tony Esposito were estranged from the organization, but everything started to change three years ago.

Bill Wirtz died and his son Rocky replaced him as chairman in October 2007, and it quickly became clear that the son's Blackhawks were nothing like the father's.

He started televising home games, moved longtime executive Bob Pulford out of hockey operations, and hired Cubs president John McDonough to fill a similar role with the Blackhawks, bringing his marketing touch and an encouraging nudge to reconnect with the past.

The Blackhawks rehired popular broadcaster Pat Foley and brought back Hull, Mikita and Esposito as club ambassadors. They did the same for Denis Savard only weeks after he was replaced as coach by Joel Quenneville four games into last season, easing a messy situation.

"It was just a different atmosphere right from Day 1," said Esposito, the Hall of Fame goalie who helped the Blackhawks reach the Stanley Cup finals twice in the early 1970s. "He just decided to clean out the old regime, a lot of personnel, and start fresh."

And the wins started piling up, too.

Young stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane re-energized the franchise, and key additions like Marian Hossa last summer helped push them into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992.

"I'm just happy that the team has come back so far," Esposito said. "They went through many years there where ... you'd just shake your head. You just shook your head the way the franchise was being handled."

Hull, Chicago's career leader with 604 goals in 15 seasons, left the Blackhawks for the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets in 1972 after an acrimonious contract negotiation with Bill Wirtz, and the ill will continued to build over the years.

Chicago claimed him when the NHLabsorbed four WHA teams, including Winnipeg, in 1979, but Pulford left him unprotected and the Jets reclaimed him.

Although the Blackhawks retired his No. 9 in 1983, the bad feelings continued. Bobby Hull resented that the Hawks failed to acquire son Brett Hull on several occasions, including when he was a free agent, and there was another issue that had to be cleared up—his reputation.

He took a big hit when he allegedly told a reporter that Hitler "had some good ideas, but went too far," and it took years to live down that comment.

Now, he's back in the fold, something he never would have envisioned five years ago.

"I'm sure that I burned all the bridges that there were to be burned when I left in '72," he said. "All I could do from then on was be on the outside looking in."

He said he reached out to Bill Wirtz and son Peter over the years and had several meetings with them, but nothing ever came of that.

"I tried to show them how to fill the building, but they wouldn't listen to me," he said. "They thought that I was going to get something out of it that I didn't deserve. And it was just exactly what Rocky did. I said, 'Guys, all you need to do is hold a press conference, tell the people that I'm back in the fold and that we're catering to them. We're going to try to put together a better team for them to watch and they'd come out of the woodwork.'"

He said Rocky Wirtz "has more on the ball in one minute" than his father had "in his lifetime," and Hull rates the last three years among the best of his life.

He looks at the current group and sees the potential for a dynasty, something he thought he would be part of all those years ago.

He never did drink out of the cup when the Blackhawks beat Detroit for the championship in 1961. He did, however, drink beer out of team vice-president Michael Wirtz's "dirty old felt hat" and "got sicker than a pig."

The only time Hull drank out of the cup was years later when he and Brett, who won two championships with Dallas and Detroit, were at Chris Chelios' golf outing. They poured in a few beers and hoisted it for Bobby to take a few swigs.

Now?

"I'm looking forward to drinking some real champagne if I get a chance this time," Bobby Hull said. "I will imbibe in that."

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