I know the majority of you reading are probably too young to know this, but maybe you’ve read it or heard about it. But there was a time that NHL hockey players had to work in the offseason just to earn a decent living. Hard to believe with the millions of dollars they earn today, isn’t it?
So, who was the first millionaire hockey player? Well, I guess it depends on your definition. Ask those around my age and they will tell you it was Bobby Orr. Ask those a little younger and they will tell you it’s Bobby Hull.
In 1971, Orr came off a season in which he finished second in league scoring next to Phil Esposito. He was also coming off his fourth Norris Trophy all on what was widely reported as earning just $35,000 per year. The average Canadian Family income in 1971 was $41,000.
Well, Orr signed what was the first million contract in the NHL. It was a 5-year deal that would pay him $200,000 a season. That salary included endorsements. It was also Orr’s last contract he would sign with the Bruins. In 1976 he signed a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks that would pay him $500,000 per year.
In 1972 Hull signed with the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association and that deal was worth $2.75 million over 10 years. However, $1 million of that was a signing bonus.
I remember stories where Hull said he thought it was a joke. But then Jets owner Ben Hatskin approached the other franchise owners and asked them for help to raise the $1 million for the signing bonus. And all this before the WHA dropped the puck on its inaugural season.
The WHA knew that if it was going to compete with the NHL, they had to draw a notable player away from the NHL and if it couldn’t be Orr, Hull was the biggest name available.
When Hatskin presented Hull with the contract, Hull knew they were serious. There was some friction between Hull and the Hawks at the time and finally agreed to sign with the Jets. They made it official at a news conference where the presented Hull with an oversized check for $1 million.
So, while Orr was the first to sign a contract worth a million dollars, Hull was the first player to actually earn a million dollars.