Brett Hull & Tony Hrkac
There's a pair of young guns in St. Louis, and the Blues are hoping they can provide the ammo to shoot holes in their Norris Division rivals. Young Gun No. 1 is Brett Hull, the Golden Brett, son of former National Hockey League great Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet. A new-age John Dillinger would need an Uzi to keep up with this guy. Hull is a hard-shooting right-winger who clicks into rapid fire whenever he's around the puck.
Then there's Young Gun No. 2, Tony Hrkac, another blond kid who battled his way into Coach Brian Sutter's improvement plan. Hrkac is more the marksman, carefully selecting his shots. But the crafty center iceman is just as dangerous as the fully loaded, semi-automatic Hull. Hrkac and Hull, No. 18 and No. 16, respectively, are roommates and share side-by-side lockers. There are several similarities between the sophomore Blues, not counting their golden locks. For instance, they are major players in Sutter's attempt to rally the Blues from the two-year Jacques Martin era that ended with a 66-71-23 record. Hull is proclaimed as a potential 50-goal scorer, Hrkac a possible 80-point center. Hrkac and Hull are counted on to replenish the scoring well that lost center Doug Gilmour and right winger Mark Hunter, two players who combined for 149 points a year ago.
Their rookie seasons over, Hrkac, 22, and Hull, 24, are part of one of the NHL's youngest teams. Thirteen Blues players are 25 or younger, and eight players have three years experience or less. So, Sutter must go to his youth to find help outside of offensive mainstays Bernie Federko, Greg Paslawski and Tony McKegney. "They're big parts of the future of the St. Louis Blues," said Sutter, who begins his first campaign as head coach after a 12-year playing career that included over 300 goals. Sutter noted that the future started October 6 when the Blues opened with a victory over Minnesota. Welcome to the future, Hrkac and Hull. "Hully is a scary offensive player," Sutter added. "It seems like any time he gets the puck it's a scoring opportunity. Tony Hrkac is an excellent player with the puck. He's a very intelligent player."
Hrkac joined the team a year ago straight out of college at North Dakota. The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native was the Blues second choice and the 32nd player chosen overall in the 1984 Entry Draft. He notched 11 goals and 37 assists in limited ice time, and was the team's sixth-leading scorer with 48 points. He was fifth in the NHL among rookie scorers. Hrkac's best effort came when he set a team playoff record with four goals, including the game-winner that came short-handed, against Chicago. Hrkac, who also played on the 1985-86 Canadian Olympic team, scored 125 points his second year at North Dakota. He had 54 points his freshman season, but lost out on Rookie of the Year honors to-you guessed it-Brett Hull, who starred at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Hull led Minnesota with 60 points his rookie year, then had 84 points as a sophomore. Hull also beat out another Blues player, goalkeeper Vincent Riendeau, for Rookie of the Year honors in the America Hockey League two years ago.
Hull came to St. Louis via Calgary in a trade that included St. Louis crowd favorite Rob Ramage, an all-star defenseman. But Hull's flashing smile and flair on the ice quickly swayed the fans, and he produced six goals and eight assists in 13 games with St. Louis. Hull, born in Belleville, Ontario, wasn't a first-line player in Calgary, but for the season finished third among NHL rookies with 64 points. He had 26 goals and 24 assists for the Flames. Hull says there are many likenesses between him and Hrkac-off the ice. "We're almost the same person," Hull explained. "We're both young, we like the same music and we're both pretty mellow." Hrkac digs Led Zeppelin, Hull the Rolling Stones. "He's more of a metal guy than I am," Hull said. "But we get along well. And we always know what the other guy is doing on the ice because that's all we ever talk about."
Hrkac may be more the rocker, but he's also more soft-spoken. Hull is outspoken with a wacky sense of humor. Consider: Hull lists imitating Bob Uecker and not crashing as his favorite activities on plane rides. On the ice, it's a new ballgame. It's black and white, with no gray in the middle. Said Hrkac, "Brett has a few good moves, but he's more of a shooter. We're not the same type players. He's a shooter and I'm more or less a playmaker." Hull fires the puck along with the best of them. Hrkac is more a dancer. "We're pretty well the exact opposites," Hull said. "He picks the holes and makes the plays. I skate hard and shoot it." Even their humble hockey beginnings lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Hull has been around the NHL scene since he was knee-high to a goal post. For Hrkac, the NHL seemed an aloof dream. Here's how the two careers were conceived: "Everyone in Canada is involved in hockey whether you're Bobby Hull's son or whether you're just the average Joe," Hull said. "I had the advantage of being able to hang around the rink watching the pros and using the pros' sticks. "I was never forced into it. My dad said, 'If you want to learn, come out and watch me. I'll show you a couple of times, then you do it on your own.' He wasn't really a teacher, but he showed me by example." For Hrkac, hockey wasn't the first objective. His bloodline does not include a Hall of Famer. "When I was young, like three or four years old, I started figure skating, just skating around," he said. "I started playing hockey when I was seven and I liked it. I really didn't even think about making pro."
But Hrkac was no average Joe. Hrkac and Hull now have landed on their feet in St. Louis. They're a couple of young players with their careers in front of them, and an important season upon them. With a decade of NHL experience, left-winger Tony McKegney-who had his best season with 40 goals and 78 points a year ago, and now has scored 30 or more goals the past four seasons-has seen players come and go. He says Hrkac and Hull make a good combination. "You need those kind of people," McKegney said. "I think they're both going to be a big part of this team presently and in the future. "Today not many teams have more than one or two guys that can score 40 or 50 goals. Given the right situation and the right center, Brett Hull has that capability. Hrkac certainly is a great playmaker. He showed me a lot last year, especially in the playoffs."
McKegney added, "Bernie Federko (the Blues all-time leading scorer with 1,006 points entering the 1988-89 schedule) will probably play two or three more years. I can see Tony Hrkac filling that role and being the 90- to 100-point man. Hull has scored everywhere he's been; there's no question he's going to score." To be sure, the Blues have a new look this season. Frame Hrkac and Hull somewhere in the middle of the picture. For St. Louis' reclamation project to be a success, the two will have to avoid the sophomore jinx and produce. St. Louis dealt Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley to Calgary for Hull and now-departed Steve Bozek. Ramage and Wamsley followed the trail of breadcrumbs that has led a handful of Blues to the Flames in the past three years.
Also gone to Calgary are Gilmour and Hunter. Gilmour was the team's leading scorer the past two seasons with 105 and 86 points. Hunter had seasons of 74, 69 and 63 points. Hrkac and Hull are expected to help reel in that offensive slack. Hrkac was an apprentice under Federko a year ago. When he wasn't playing, Hrkac had the opportunity to watch one of the best centers in the business. Now, Hrkac has developed his own slashing style in an effort to emulate heroes Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky. Hrkac would like nothing better than an 80-point season and a successful year for the Blues. "There aren't a lot of guys who get a point a game," he said. "I think that would be pretty good."
Hull has created a style all his own. He says he's not a Bobby Hull clone because, "It was his way or no way, so I've done things my way," Hull said with a laugh. His goal is simple: "I just want to do better than last year," he said. Wherever their creativity leads them, Hrkac and Hull should have more room to work their magic. The Blues have opened up the ice, considering that St. Louis has beefed up the lineup with guys like Craig Coxe, Sergio Momesso, Dave Richter and now oft-used Todd Ewen. The flashy forwards should have more room to skate. "We were pushed around last year," said Hrkac, noting Detroit's bully job that led the Red Wings to victory in the Norris Division finals. Hrkac's skills impressed Sutter the player during the regular season last year, and his efforts in the playoffs served as an exclamation point. Hull was a pleasant surprise.
Now Sutter the coach expects each player to take a giant step forward. "Tony really didn't get the opportunity to play on a regular basis last year. But when he played he was very strong. He did very well. Now he's getting the opportunity to play more and more on an everyday basis," Sutter said. "Hull can be dominating. We got the center iceman that can get him the puck, and when he gets the puck he gets the shot." The outspoken Hull bubbles with praise when he talks of Hrkac. "Tony's going to be a superstar, that's for sure. He's the closest thing there is to a Gretzky or Lemieux," Hull said. Hrkac was a bit more soft-spoken. "I don't know how many goals Brett will get, but the more he gets the more it will help the team," Hrkac said. One thing is for sure: Young Guns Hrkac and Hull will shoot up the corral. And their firepower will be a determining factor in the Blues shot at success under rookie mentor Sutter.
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