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.

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

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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.

• PHOTOS: Bobby Orr, then and now (or go to the photo tab on this column)

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.

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.

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

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.
Left to right: Hall of Famers Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin and Bobby Clarke of Team Canada celebrate the championship final win over Czechoslovakia at the 1976 Canada Cup tournament, held at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 15, 1976.
Defenceman Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins wheels away from checker Ron Ellis of the Toronto Maple Leafs during a National Hockey League game at the Boston Garden in the early 1970s.
Canada’s Bobby Orr (wearing a Czechoslovakia jersey) accepts the tournament most valuable player award after the 1976 Canada Cup final win over Czechoslovakia at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 15, 1976. In the background behind Orr, also wearing a red Czech jersey and white hockey socks, is Canada’s Bobby Hull, and on the right in the background in the red Czech jersey and goalie pads is Canada’s star goalie Rogie Vachon.
Bobby Orr (left) and Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins confer prior to a face-off during a 1973-74 National Hockey League game at the Boston Garden.
Bobby Orr (left) and Harry Sinden taken in 1966. Copied from book called Hockey Hall Of Fame.
Boston Bruins' Bobby Orr gets tripped by St. Louis Blues defenceman Noel Picard after scoring the 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime, in this iconic photo by Ray Lussier.
Bobby Orr #4 of Team Canada skates against Team Czechoslovakia during the 1976 Canada Cup, September, 1976.
This May 10, 2010 file photo shows Boston Bruins hockey great Bobby Orr waving to the crowd during an unveiling ceremony for a statue of Orr, in front of the TD Garden sports arena, in Boston.
Canada Cup hockey tournament creator, NHL Players Association head and player agent Alan Eagleson is photographed at the Team Canada bench in August 1976 during training for the first Canada Cup tournament. Behind Eagleson is Hall of Fame-bound defenceman Bobby Orr. As in this photo, Eagleson would turn his back on Orr, his first NHL client, just a few years later, and the two men have been bitterly separated for about 25 years.
Orr high-fives Bruins fan Nicholas Tsaboukos, 9, during a meet with fans at the Chevrolet Plaza in Ville Saint-Laurent in Montreal on Thursday, October 7, 2010. Orr is the spokesman for the Chevrolet Safe & Fun Hockey program.
A 1968 photo of Bobby Orr and Tedd Green in the dressing room.
An 18-year-old Bobby Orr with noted hockey writer Red Fisher.
File photo of Toronto's Pat Quinn (23) and Boston Bruin's Bobby Orr (4) going at each other.
A 1972 photo of Team Canada's send off from Montreal. Brad Park is pictured with Orr.
Orr laughs as he plays with a child at the Sportplexe 4 Glaces in Pierrefonds in Montreal on Saturday, October 9, 2010. Orr was present to participate in the Chevrolet Safe & Fun Hockey program which promotes safe and fun hockey practice for children.
Bobby Orr (third from left) joins Anne Murray, Jacques Villeneuve, Betty Fox, Barbara Ann Scott-King, Romeo Dallaire, Julie Payette and Donald Sutherland in  carrying the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olypics at BC place venue on February 12, 2010 in Vancouver.
Bobby Orr is the only defenceman to win the NHL scoring title with 120 points in 1969-70.
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