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OCTOBER 22, 1966
There have been many superstars in the history of the National Hockey League, but when it comes down to the question of the best player ever, the debate generally centres around two players: Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. And it’s a close race, too. Gretzky set just about every scoring record you could imagine in his illustrious twenty-year career and is the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. He wasn’t the fastest skater, nor the hardest shooter, but he had unimaginable vision on the ice, and nobody made players around him better than Number 99.
Orr, on the other hand, had a tragically short career—just nine full seasons. In the three ensuing campaigns, one with Boston and two with the Chicago Blackhawks, Orr played a total of thirty-six games. Knee injuries cut short what could have been one of the most amazing and productive careers ever. Still, the case could be made that nobody revolutionized the game to a greater extent than the shy young man from Parry Sound, Ontario.
In an era when most defencemen worried mostly about preventing the opposition from scoring, Orr wanted more from the game. Sure, he loved to shut down the other team’s top players—that was his number-one priority. But it didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in joining the points party. When he got the puck, he didn’t simply fire it off the boards or glass and out of the zone. He looked for openings—like a football running back looking for daylight beyond his monstrous linemen as they cleared a path for his rush—and headed up the ice on a mission. His goal was to score—and if he could not do that himself, he aimed to at least help one of his teammates get on the board. The result was a new way of thinking for defencemen. Bobby Orr had been the sport’s golden boy from the time he first joined the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey Association as a fourteen-year-old, so why wouldn’t others follow his lead? Orr said nobody stood in his way when he started rushing the puck as a youngster. When he would gobble up the puck in his team’s zone and turn up ice, fans would move to the edges of their seats. What will he do? How far will he go?
“I didn’t have anybody who discouraged me from playing the way I played,” he said. “Don’t forget, they didn’t have the draft the way they do today, so when I was playing in Oshawa, when I was fourteen, the coaches there were hired by the Bruins. They didn’t discourage me or suggest I change my style. I just always played like that. Maybe it comes from playing river hockey or bay hockey. We scrimmaged . . . played shinny. That’s how I learned to play.
“I actually started out as a right winger when I first started playing hockey, and I don’t remember why I was moved back. But I guess it all worked out in the end. I believe it was Bucko McDonald who coached us in Parry Sound who moved me back to defence, but I don’t recall why.”
McDonald coached Orr during his peewee and bantam years. When Orr’s dad, Doug, asked why he moved Bobby to the blue line, McDonald responded, “Bobby was born to play defence.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
Being identified as an amazing hockey player at a young age can be a double-edged sword. For Orr, growing up in a small town in Northern Ontario, it meant having to move away from home at fourteen. Most parents won’t let their fourteen-year-old sons walk to the bus stop on their own nowadays, but in 1962 it was different. His quest to play in the NHL meant leaving home.
It wasn’t easy.
“I was so homesick,” Orr said. “It was tough being away from my parents, my friends, but I understood it was the next step and I was looking forward to it, so even though a part of me wanted to go home, I just fought through it.”
Orr joined the Oshawa Generals as a prodigy playing against young men up to five years his senior. Although he was baby-faced and looked every one of his fourteen years off the ice, Orr was an instant hero on it. He had 6 goals and 21 points that first year with Oshawa, and in his second season, at fifteen, he was third in team scoring with 29 goals and 72 points in 56 games. By now, the entire hockey world was aware of the young fearless defenceman who was changing the way the game was played.
In Orr’s third season with Oshawa, he upped his numbers to 34 goals and 93 points, good for second on the team, and in his final season of junior he scored a whopping 38 goals and 94 points in 47 games—tops on the club. His 92 penalty minutes in his fourth season was a good indicator that he would not be pushed around.
“People ask me why I had the success I had in the game, and I think it really comes down to the love and passion I had for the game,” Orr said. “Unfortunately, I think we suck the love and passion out of our kids by humiliating them for foolishness. I never had that taken out of me. It was never a job to me. It was never a big effort to go to practice. I couldn’t wait to get on the bay or the river. When my turn came to play indoors, I couldn’t wait to get to the rink to have some fun and be with my friends. It was a way of life, and I loved it. I was never told by my parents that I was going to be a pro hockey player and make money. I just had a great love and passion for the game and couldn’t wait to get on the ice. I was one of the fortunate ones who got to the NHL.”
As a youngster attending high school at R. S. McLaughlin Collegiate Vocational Institute, Orr proved he was more than a one-trick pony. Asked by the track and field coach if he’d be interested in running, Orr soon joined other runners for 7 a.m. training sessions. He found it pretty tiring to be getting home from road games in the wee hours of the morning and then having to get up to run through the halls at McLaughlin, so he packed it in.
“The coach then asked me if I could do anything else, so I tried my hand at javelin,” Orr said.
How did that work out?
“I still hold the school record for longest throw,” Orr said with a laugh.
After four years with the Generals, Orr was ready for the NHL. The Bruins held his rights, and boy, were they ever in need of an infusion of talent. Prior to his arrival, the Bruins had finished fifth out of six teams in 1965–66 and dead last the five seasons before that. Fans in Boston were aware of this teenage scoring phenom playing junior in Oshawa and couldn’t wait to see him for themselves. Although the Bruins dipped back to last place in his first season, with a 17–43–10 record, there was no denying he was a special player.
Even though he missed nine games with a knee injury, Orr managed 13 goals and 41 points with 102 penalty minutes and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. New York Ranger veteran Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman, and upon accepting the award, said he was happy to have won it that season because Orr would own the trophy in the years to come. Howell’s off-thecuff comment turned out to be quite prophetic, as Orr won the Norris Trophy in each of the next eight seasons.
In Orr’s first game, on October 19, 1966, against the Detroit Red Wings, he didn’t score, but he got to know first-hand why people respected and feared Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. “I was watching a pretty pass that I made, and Gordie wanted to let the young player know the old guy was still around,” Orr recalled. “He stepped into me, and I went down hard. That was my welcome to the NHL. I had my head down and the old fella nailed me.”
Orr’s most famous goal, without question, was his overtime Cup winner against the St. Louis Blues in 1970. Orr took a pass from teammate Derek Sanderson and skated to the front of the goal, depositing a shot behind Glenn Hall. As the puck went in, Blues defenceman Noel Picard tripped Orr, who went flying through the air, his arms raised over his head in celebration of his championship-clinching score. The picture of Orr flying through the air is one of the most famous and enduring images in the history of the sport.
Long before he scored that goal, however, it all got started with his first NHL marker, on October 22, 1966, at the legendary Montreal Forum. Orr managed the lone Boston goal against Gump Worsley in a 3–1 loss to the Habs. “It was just a shot,” Orr said. “It wasn’t much of a big deal. It was a slapshot from the point that beat Gump. Hey, I think any time you experience a first it is a highlight, and scoring my first NHL goal was certainly a highlight for me. I first realized my dream of playing in the NHL, and then I get my first goal. It was really exciting . . . a thrill.”
When you consider all that Orr accomplished in his career, often playing hurt, one can only imagine what heights he might have soared to had he been healthy. The sport of hockey was robbed of so much more because of Orr’s knee problems. Orr’s first knee injury came in his rookie year and caused him to miss nine games. Each time he got hurt, doctors would cut into his knee and scrape away cartilage, until eventually it was bone on bone.
The Bruins won two Stanley Cups with Orr, in 1970 and 1972, and both times he was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs. He was named the NHL’s most valuable player in three consecutive seasons, from 1970 to 1972, and was the MVP of the 1976 Canada Cup despite the fact he played in the tournament while injured. Orr was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979. Orr finished his career with Chicago after he was unable to come to a contract agreement with the Bruins. His first season with Chicago, he played in just 20 games, scoring 4 goals and 23 points. The next year, he had 2 goals and 4 points in 6 games, but his knee was so bad, he retired. Incredibly, Orr never cashed a paycheque from the Blackhawks, saying he was paid to play hockey, and if he wasn’t playing, he wouldn’t accept their money.
Through it all, Orr said he loved the game and loved playing. Even though there were huge expectations placed upon him at age eighteen, when he entered the NHL, Orr said he was never fazed by the responsibility.
“I never really felt a lot of pressure, if pressure is things bothering you,” Orr said. “I didn’t start to feel that until I couldn’t do what I once did because of my legs. Then I started to worry, and I didn’t feel good. Leading up to that, heck, I was doing what I always dreamed of doing and I was being paid to play a game. Come on, I had it made. I had such a love and passion for what I was doing. I was doing what I wanted to do; what I loved to do. I just wanted to go out every night and be the best player I could be.”
And the best player Bobby Orr could be just might be the best of all time.