Bobby Orr was The One, not The Great One
The greatest player is most often the one you grew up watching, and for me that was the Bruins' incomparable blueliner
Bobby Orr of Team Canada celebrates with teammates Reggie Leach (on the right) and Denis Potvin (helmeted, in the background) during a 1976 Canada Cup final game held at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on Sept. 13, 1976.
Photograph by: Denis Brodeur, NHLI via Getty Images
VANCOUVER — In January of 1998, The Hockey News announced results of a poll of writers, broadcasters, coaches, referees, general managers and former players — a Who’s Who of hockey, basically — to select the top 100 players of all time.
The selectors ranged from very old to just sort of old, and still they voted Wayne Gretzky the best ever to strap on the blades.
Bobby Orr, gone from the ice for 20 years by then, finished second.
Gretzky, nearing the end of his career, professed embarrassment at having been chosen. He said he’d have voted for Orr, or for his hero, Gordie Howe, who was such a nice guy, he came to the press conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame even though he had finished third.
But the truest words spoken that day were by Ken Dryden, who said: “The greatest players, to me, were always the ones I grew up watching.”
Which, I suppose, is why there can never be another Orr, for me, and why his 65th birthday Wednesday brings back memories of an irrational level of fanboy mania I can never experience again. He was The One. If it’s true that you never forget your first love, Bobby Orr was mine.
Gretzky was astonishing, truly a figure of wizardry and sleight-of-hand, of impossible hockey intelligence and vision, and he would leave you shaking your head, thinking: “How did he do that?” Rather like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, except Gretzky never required a doppelganger to share his telepathy.
Not that just anyone would do — that would be grossly unfair to Jari Kurri, his splendid sideman all those years — but if you were out there, he would find you, no matter your limitations.
The trouble was, by the time I got to write The Great One’s endeavours, I had already lost the fan part of me, and the “no cheering in the press box” admonition was firmly imprinted. It’s a good rule, but it’s got one problem: if you spend long enough suppressing emotions, you risk losing touch with them, and in the end, maybe you stop having them altogether. You become clinical about even the miraculous, when you see it almost nightly for 10 seasons.
That wasn’t a problem at age 18, in the lounge at Mackenzie Hall, University of Alberta, where the whole world stopped for the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in the spring of 1971, and my heart was crushed by the evil Habs. If I didn’t actually cry, I sure as hell felt like it.
It seemed at least unfair, and possibly illegal, that anyone should be able to stop as magnificent a creature as Bobby Orr — let alone Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk and the rest — with some college-boy goalie.
Orr scored a hat-trick in Game 4 in the Forum. The Bruins had Game 7 at home. They had won the 1970 Cup, and would win it again in 1972, but both times against less detestable opposition. Orr scoring the famous winning goal on St. Louis’s Glenn Hall in 1970 — flying through the air, arms raised, after being tripped (too late) by Blues’ Noel Picard — was thrilling, but there is no scale to measure the visceral abhorrence I harboured for the Canadiens, how badly I wanted Orr to win in ’71.
•VIDEOS: YouTube collection paying tribute to The One - Bobby Orr (or go to the video tab)
Gretzky was understated genius, but Orr was breathtaking. There was no one remotely like him. With that bow-legged stride, the ice would simply disappear behind him. He flashed past checkers, brushing them aside with one arm, one hand on the stick as he fended them off, end-to-end, reckless, yet somehow — in my mind’s eye — always back on defence when the puck went the other way.
He was tough, too. Too tough for his own good, probably, not just in the occasional fight, but in his determination to play, hell-bent, on a surgery-ravaged left knee.
That knee was a genuine hockey tragedy. It robbed us of Orr in the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviets. It robbed us of 10 years, for sure, of the greatest defenceman who ever played. He was basically washed up at 27, though he continued to try to play, because he needed the money, having lost most of it through his ex-agent, Alan Eagleson.
He gave hockey one last glimpse of greatness in the 1976 Canada Cup when, after a final Boston season in which he had played just 10 games, with nothing left of his knee, he won the tournament MVP award on one leg — then spent parts of three sad seasons trying, and failing, to overcome his disability in Chicago.
I have an aunt who remembers things that happened before she was born. Snippets of family events, stories she has heard so often, no doubt, she is convinced she was there.
It is that way with me, imagining that I saw the 1965 Memorial Cup, which the Niagara Falls Flyers won at the old Edmonton Gardens, defeating the Edmonton Oil Kings — a series in which Orr’s future Bruins teammate, Derek Sanderson, beat Edmonton’s Bob Falkenberg bloody, then was beaten up himself in a broom closet on his way to the visitors’ dressing room by assailants unknown. Except I was 13 at the time, and couldn’t have been there.
Likewise, the next year, I seem to have lived the Oil Kings’ victory over the Oshawa Generals in the last Memorial Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens, because a boy called Orr, already a mythical name among junior hockey followers, was playing for Oshawa, and was long since the property of my childhood favourite team, the Bruins.
The wait for Orr, who had been playing major junior since age 14, to get to Boston was excruciating, and almost as soon as he arrived, the perpetual cellar-dwellers began to rise. He would lead the Bruins to their greatest era, win eight consecutive Norris Trophies and three straight Hart Trophies, twice win the scoring race, revolutionize the defenceman’s role in offence ... and then, much too soon, entering what would be the prime years of a blueliner’s career, his was over.
And so was my ability to cheer.
I met him a couple of times, once when he was dropping in on a Stanley Cup final helping promote some milestone anniversary of the famous 1970 goal, and the photo it produced. I had feared he would be stand-offish, having had a reputation for reclusiveness as a player, but he was humble, self-deprecating, forthcoming.
He looked improbably young then, and at 65, he still does.
Sometimes, when I catch myself wondering what makes fans tick, why they care so deeply, why they can never see things straight, I remind myself of college years, and Bobby Orr, and it almost makes sense.
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