City Scene Barrie is pleased to introduce Glenn Wilkins as a contributor. Glenn will write on a variety of subjects, including sports and entertaining. He is a Barrie-based writer and author of several books on hockey icons, including Bobby Orr. Here, he reminds us of Orr’s great talent and game-changing presence
By Glenn Wilkins
BOBBY ORR: The best defence is a good attack
Fans in the Boston Garden were just getting back into their seats for the overtime period that Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 10, 1970, readying themselves for a Stanley Cup celebration not seen by an entire generation of New England hockey fans. Would that they could have realized how quickly they’d be up on their feet again.
The best player in the game at the time would have something to say in the matter, as he had done ever since his debut four years earlier, and throughout the Bruins’ incredible playoff run.
And the phenomenon from Parry Sound proved creativity could win out.
Technically, Bobby Orr was a defenceman, but that didn’t tell the whole story. For he had shown in his young career that one need not hang back on the blue line, particularly when he could take part in the attack – perhaps even lead the attack, in a way that would revolutionize the position. To make a long story short, Bobby Orr was special, and by now, everyone in hockey knew it.
When Sanderson’s centering pass slid across the Garden rink, there was the man with the number four on the back of his black-and-gold Bruin uniform to redirect the puck past a startled Hall into the Blues net, before leaping into the air and sliding into the corner of the rink, soon to be mobbed by his teammates. The overtime session was over when it had barely started – 40 seconds in.
The din could have awoken Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, Mayor Curley and all past denizens of the Massachusetts capital. The Bruins had completed a four-game sweep of the Blues that May to win their first Stanley Cup since 1941, when General Manager Milt Schmidt was a fuzzy-cheeked kid on the Bruins’ forward line, even before the United States had entered World War Two.
The body heat within the ancient Garden – unmitigated by air conditioning – could have melted a polar icecap, and the excitement level would only grow as the celebration in the building continued that Sunday afternoon.
A photograph taken at ice level of the very instant the puck entered the net now stands as one of the great moments of sports history; Orr flinging his arms exultantly outward as he seems suspended above the ice: Superman in mid-air, without his cape.
It is a moment fixed in the collective memory of hockey fans everywhere, putting Bobby Orr into the pantheon of Boston sports heroes such as John L. Sullivan, Babe Ruth, Bill Russell, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Doug Flutie, Larry Bird and Tom Brady.
For Bobby Orr, the Superman analogy was an apt one; he’d been leaping tall blue lines with a single bound, doing the incredible with and without the puck since the age of 12, and most of it in the public eye.
Now, with his name on the Stanley Cup, he was on top of the hockey world, already a legend.
And at age 22, his legend would only grow.
When his knee gave out, less than a decade later, no longer permitting him to play to the strastopheric levels to which he and his fans had been accustomed, Bobby Orr was still special. In a move that would yield him mountains of goodwill, but ultimately drain his bank account, Bobby Orr made good on his vow never to cash a single paycheque from the team that now employed him, the Chicago Blackhawks, and to slip out of the game, not to return for years to come.
Robert Gordon Orr, born March 20, 1948, grew up smaller than the other kids, but even in the minor ranks, displayed a spring in his step that would dazzle hometown hockey onlookers. Before long, he was playing in leagues with boys several years older, and his renown was growing far beyond “the Sound”.
One disappointment of his early career was that Bobby didn’t get to don the uniform of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he grew up watching and wanted so badly to join. This was largely the fault of the Leaf management, who maintained the stance that theirs was the best system in hockey and would not change it to accommodate a 12-year-old prodigy, glowing though the reviews may have been from back home.
Father Doug Orr had been clamouring for someone in the Leaf hierarchy to stop by for a look-see at the kid who was skating rings around boys three and four years older, preferably General Manager Punch Imlach himself. But Punch gave Mr. Orr’s letter short shrift, and instead of coming up to Bobby’s hometown personally, dispatched Chief Scout Bob Davidson to answer Doug’s letter. Such was the complacency on Carlton Street that would lead to a gradual, but emphatic slide in Leaf fortunes to last for years to come.
Where the Leafs were a “have” team, and not interested in Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins were among the “have-not” teams in NHL, enduring a playoff drought that would eventually last eight years. The Beantowners needed strengthening everywhere, so Bruin scout Wren Blair took hold of the situation and virtually lived in Parry Sound that winter of 1960-61 to keep an almost daily tab on the youngster. When he reached the advanced age of 14, for $2,800 in cash, use of a second-hand car, and the promise of a new wardrobe (which the Bruins would forget), the young Mr. Orr would become Boston Bruin property, signing a C-form (forerunner of the junior draft, the document that bound him and other teens to one NHL team for life, unless at the say-so of club management) and hone his incredible skills in the Ontario Hockey Association’s junior “A” loop with the Bruins’ underage affiliate in Oshawa.
The sun was shining again over the Massachusetts capital, however slowly.
The youngster would take his legend and expand it across Ontario, then later, Canada; by age 17 he was the focus of an article in Maclean’s. But the homesick teen would punctuate his tenure in Oshawa with journeys back home during the summers, working odd jobs at various businesses around Parry Sound.
His last junior campaign, 1965-66, would end with an appearance in the Memorial Cup final, Bobby’s Oshawa Generals pitted against the Western champions from Edmonton in a best-of-seven series at neutral Maple Leaf Gardens. Though the Oil Kings would prevail in six games, the national appetite for Bobby Orr was whetted. All that was left was for him to make his entrance onto the NHL stage. It was an entrance that would also make waves.
During the latter stages of Bobby’s five-year apprenticeship in Oshawa, the Orr family had hired a combative Toronto-based lawyer named R. Alan Eagleson to help the youngster negotiate his first contract (and many more thereafter). In a last stand against the forces of change, Hap Emms, the Bruins’ crusty old general manager, steadfastly refused to deal with any player through a lawyer and, according to authors David Cruise and Alison Griffiths’ trailblazing book, Net Worth, brazenly offered the rookie $10,250 over his first two seasons.
Eagleson then contemptuously reminded Emms that pro football’s New York Jets had the previous year offered University of Alabama passing sensation Joe Namath $400,000 over three years, and, as if for emphasis, suggested that the 18-year-old Orr didn’t have to play for Boston right away – he could enroll in university.
The Eagle’s gambit worked; Boston fans were increasingly sullen over all those years of futility, and another delay in bringing the Bruins their Messiah could turn those fans from sullen to mutinous. The prospect of being hanged in effigy outside Boston Garden was too much for Emms, who offered the young hockey genius $80,000 over two years, plus a $25,000 signing bonus.
Eagleson’s success with Orr, besides providing the Toronto lawyer with an entrée into the rarified world of big-time sports, would also signal a sea-change in player-management relations; henceforth, pro athletes, even those who didn’t wear skates, would use agents. In the case of hockey players, the word “agents” would be singular, meaning, Alan Eagleson. Less than a year after the landmark deal making Bobby Orr a Bruin, the NHL would expand to 12 teams, and the number of playing jobs would double to 240… with 180 of them clients of Eagleson.
Bobby and Alan would enjoy more than a business relationship. The two would vacation together, attend functions together, telephone each other almost every day, Bobby’s trust of his agent almost total. He would refer to Alan as his “brother”. This joined-at-the-hip relationship would ultimately sour, however, costing Bobby money, self-respect, and a close friend.
Normally, all the hype and money lavished upon the rookie might ratchet up the hostility among veterans at Bobby’s first camp, but Orr accepted all the initiation rites with good humour.
And then he played hockey. When he deked the feared Boston rearguard Ted Green virtually out of his underwear at camp, teammates waited for an explosion from the Bruin tough guy. Instead, Ted skated up to him, looked out from his trademark glower saying he didn’t know what the youngster was making, but it wasn’t enough.
The opposition also found that out, many enemy players trying to derail that speed by capitalizing on his small stature and goading him into fisticuffs. Everyone wanted to fight Bobby his first year, the veterans recall, but the second year, nobody did.
His recognition as 1967’s rookie of the year (and winner of the Calder Trophy) was almost preordained, after a 13-goal, 41-assist performance. The Norris Trophy winner as league’s top defenceman was greybeard Harry Howell of the New York Rangers, who told the selectors he was glad he won that, and correctly prophesied that Orr was going to own the Norris for a long time to come.
Orr didn’t disappoint. The following year saw Bobby light the lamp 21 times, breaking the record for goals by an NHL defencemen. Even so, his skills at getting back to his own end of the rink resulted in the first of eight consecutive Norris Trophies.
Even the grisled old Gordie Howe (who made less money in his 20th NHL season than Bobby did in his first) was impressed, calling the youngster’s best move, “putting on those f**kin’ skates.”
Better still, the once sad-sack Boston lineup had been bolstered over the 1967 summer by the acquisition of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, from Chicago, plus the advent from junior of a fleet-skating, high-living, immensely skilled forward named Derek Sanderson (Orr’s successor as top rookie in ‘68). The Bruins cracked the post-season for the first time in an age. The era of dominance in Boston was about to begin.
Ironically, so would the downward journey for Bobby Orr.
In that fabled second season, the superstar took a hard hit that tore up his left knee, requiring the first of six operations on that vulnerable hinge, and the dizzy air of the playoffs would evaporate in the first round as the Montreal Canadiens devoured Boston in four straight.
Even so, Orr (through Alan Eagleson, of course) would pioneer not only the art of the game, but its commerce, too. In his third season, Bobby became hockey’s first $100,000-a-year player, a fitting tribute to a young man emerging as the game’s greatest attraction; a living, breathing advertisement for a league newly expanded across North America. It would lead to a mindset of Orr being financially set for life. Indeed, according to Cruise and Griffiths, Eagleson promised that Orr would be a millionaire by age 30.
On the ice, young as he was, Bobby’s leadership skills were put to the test as the 1969-70 season dawned, shortly after one of the most sickening sights ever seen on a hockey rink. In a pre-season game in Ottawa against St. Louis, Green got into a stick-swinging duel with Blues forward Wayne Maki. Green looked like he was trying to decapitate Maki, and failed; Maki retaliated in kind, and the Bruin bruiser went down like a felled tree. He remained unconscious on the ice for several minutes. It required emergency surgery to save Green’s life, but Ted had to sit out the whole season.
The next week at practice, Bruin General Manager Milt Schmidt dispensed helmets for his troops to wear. The veterans balked, and Schmidt bellowed the order to put the headgear on or risk suspension.
The other Bruins fixed their gaze on their young superstar to see what he would do, and when Bobby led them off the practice ice, they followed. Management rescinded the mandatory helmet order soon after.
Despite that crisis, and the by-now constant distress with his knee, Bobby Orr’s daring, at times reckless, style of play continued unabated, as did the drive to make Boston a cup winner. It was Mission: Accomplished by the spring of 1970, with Orr breaking new records with 33 goals and 120 points. The following season, the club had the look of a dynasty.
Espo ripped loose like a big stud, registering 76 goals and 76 assists for a league record 152 points. Captain Johnny Bucyk notched his first 50-goal season. Over that storybook 1970-71 campaign, the Bruins as a team scored 399 goals, setting 37 NHL individual and team records, enjoying a 13-game winning streak on the way to 121 points, easily topping the Eastern Conference.
Orr won his second straight Hart Trophy as league Most Valuable Player and his fourth straight Norris. Nor did he let Esposito have all the scoring fun, potting 37 goals and an incredible 102 assists of his own. Before the “plus-minus” statistic (how many goals one is on the ice for his team than goals against) became a widely known one, Bobby’s was an unheard-of plus-124!
Sports Illustrated magazine even got into the act, making Bobby its “Sportsman of the Year” for 1971, proclaiming the 23-year-old “the greatest ever to don skates; not just the greatest defenceman, the greatest player ever, at either end of the ice.”
But, more than anything else, Bobby Orr was becoming a Boston treasure, and tales of his generosity toward the less fortunate were becoming legion.
Boston reporter Russ Conway revealed long after Orr’s retirement how Bobby rescued his lousy day by taking him to a local hospital to watch him sign autographs and hand out pictures, sticks, pucks and other memorabilia.
When he saw how the faces of the kids lit up in Bobby’s presence — kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases — suddenly, Conway found that his problems didn’t seem so major.
Even the oldtimers, who hadn’t for the longest time appreciated how Bobby had changed the game, came around.
One morning, the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League were making a stopover in Boston on their way to a date with their rivals from Springfield. One was the Americans’ veteran defenceman Don Cherry.
Grapes confessed to sportswriter Brian McFarlane that at first he couldn’t stand to watch Bobby Orr; that the youngster’s free-wheeling style totally clashed with what Don stood for.
The Americans were waiting their turn to go onto the ice sheet at the Garden as Bobby and the Bruins came off. Cherry noticed the moves Orr was making – in practice – and found himself slack-jawed with disbelief.
Only five years later, Cherry would get to coach Bobby Orr.
In the spring of 1971, all the stars (both in the sky and on the ice) pointed to an easy victory for the Bruins in the three rounds of the playoffs. Boston fans struck up the piper for a second straight Stanley Cup dance; this time, set to waltz time.
But the Montreal Canadiens had other ideas.
Al MacNeil’s brigade, led by Jean Beliveau (who would call it quits that summer), was undergoing a rebuilding year. While such veterans as Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, and J.C. Tremblay were still solid, the bleu, blanc et rouge were dependent on an untested goaltender from Cornell University who’d served a brief spell with Canada’s national team. He’d also worked for consumer guru Ralph Nader; later would achieve a law degree, occupy the executive suite with the Toronto Maple Leafs, ultimately, to seek the leadership of the Liberty Party of Canada.
His name was Ken Dryden.
Game one in a raucous Boston Garden ended with the predictable result, but game two went in Montreal’s favour, and, to add insult, Orr had a meltdown with the officials, feeding suspicions that he and the men from Beantown were coming unglued.
The Habs would hold on to force game seven, to be played one fateful Sunday afternoon in April in the Garden, when Dryden pulled rabbits out of his hat, stifling Bruin shooters time and time again, to the point where Esposito, flying so high all season long, swung his stick, baseball-style, against the glass. The Bruins were beaten in their hearts, and on the scoreboard, 4-1, and had to watch the rest of the playoffs on TV, as the Habs would win an improbable Stanley Cup on the shoulders of playoff MVP Dryden.
After Bobby and the Bruins righted things the following year by winning back the Cup (the last in Boston to date), it was hoped that the Bruin magician would accompany other Canadian stars to the September Summit Series against the Soviets. But Bobby spent that summer of 1972 on the operating table, his battered knee going under the knife yet again. Other stars like Bobby Hull, J.C. Tremblay, and Bruin teammate Gerry Cheevers (who’d defected to the World Hockey Association), were also kept off Canada’s roster. No matter, most hockey fans from coast to coast thought out loud; we’ll roll over the Russkies like nothing.
Weren’t we in for a surprise!
The Soviets displayed their skating, conditioning and brilliant pass patterns in shocking Team Canada twice in four games in their own backyard, leaving fans wondering what the hell was going on.
In time, Canada’s character won out, and eventually, her players beat the Soviets in the last minute of the eighth and last game.
While the Canadian players who did venture to Moscow were alternatively feted for beating the Soviets and lambasted for making it so close – at times, looking like dockside thugs in doing so – Bobby Orr was convalescing. Lost in the roller-coaster of emotions experienced by Canadians that September was the great contribution Orr could have made, taking control of the pace of the game that that the men of the Kremlin appeared to have taken away. Make no mistake, with Bobby Orr in the red-and-white livery of Team Canada, the Summit Series of ’72 could have been very different.
That he played brilliantly for Canada in the first Canada Cup tournament four years later – when his knees were even more suspect – provided ample evidence of his preeminence in the hockey world.
Bobby would have one more chance at the Stanley Cup, in 1974, but his Bruins were confounded by a feisty group of Philadelphia Flyers, led by Bobby Clarke, who took the series in six games, a frustrated Bobby Orr off the ice for two crucial minutes in the third period of game six with a penalty.
A year later, Cherry took over as coach of the Bruins. His mouth still waters at the sight of Bobby swooping down on the enemy from his own end of the rink.
The game was against the-then Atlanta Flames (they didn’t move to Calgary until 1980). Bobby had the puck behind his own net, and started up wing. He got to just inside their blue line and began to rev up his speed.
Then, the Flames all ran at him and he sifted by them all, ending up behind the Atlanta net and their goaltender makes a stab at him before falling down. Orr slipped out in front and backhanded the puck into the net while his foes were all lying on the ice, then bowed his head as if to apologize for making the opposition look so bad.
When the first Canada Cup tournament was announced in 1976, involving Canada, the Soviet Union and four other nations, it was a natural that Orr, gimpy knee or not, would be an addition to the Canadian roster. Men who shared the Team Canada locker room that summer of ’76 were at once amazed at his skill level, and appalled at the sight of Bobby limping in beforehand on crutches, and unable to walk out of the arena afterwards without help.
His financial misfortunes would leave Bobby Orr feeling even more handicapped.
From the age of 18, Bobby Orr was a corporation, with the founding of Bobby Orr Enterprises, a company that control his holdings and act as a tax shelter. There were investments in real estate, men’s clothing, sporting goods and a hockey camp (run jointly with Leaf sniper Mike Walton). Endorsements, of course, were coming out his ears – ads for General Motors and Planter’s Peanuts among many others.
But such was the atmosphere of trust that developed between the athlete and his agent that Bobby very seldom questioned the decisions Alan made about his money. In fact, according to Net Worth, he didn’t know the full extent of where his money went.
Eagleson would often make substantial investments without consulting his client, as Bobby had not yet licked this sense of being “fixed for life.”
Nor did Eagleson, building his own empire, rid himself of the mindset that he was pulling the strings in the career of a famous athlete. Cruise and Griffiths also wrote that Eagleson denigrated and undermined Bobby Orr in a “thousand small ways”, speaking of him as “an inanimate possession, promising to turn him into this or that… Most often he predicted that he would make Orr a millionaire within five years, and when that didn’t happen, by the time he was 30.”
Neither came to pass.
The bond between Eagleson and his prize pupil grew so close that it ultimately precluded any communication between Bobby and Boston management. A classic example came in the mid-1970s when someone from the front office approached the star in the Bruin locker room at Boston Garden. They found Orr cycling away furiously, desperate to strengthen the knee once again. They in turn desperately tried to get his attention because of a proposition they had to make.
Bobby told them to go away, accusing them of trying to drive a wedge between him and his agent. The harder they tried to explain, the less willing he seemed to listen. Only after Bobby left the room did it become clear what the offer was: $925,000 a year, or, in lieu of that, a 18%-plus piece of the Bruin franchise, putting one of the stars in that rare position of ownership – while he was still playing. Eagleson, in a decision he would regret years later, turned the deal down.
The next year, 1975, after his best goal-scoring season ever (46), Bobby Orr, ailing in body, mind, spirit and pocketbook, was packing his bags and on his way to Chicago.
Things went from bad to worse for the men who had once called themselves “brothers”, with Eagleson often going days without even so much as to return Orr’s phone calls, unlike the golden days when Bobby was on top.
Bobby would play only 26 games over parts of three seasons in the Windy City, missing the 1977-78 campaign entirely, his demon knees no longer facilitating those moves that had once dazzled hockey fans the world over.
With his body and his friend both betraying him at once, Orr’s frustration grew, and he began to lash out, railing at his Blackhawk teammates when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Some expressed the view that they couldn’t do anything right for Bobby; that they had to work for their place in the game the way he never did.
One night in Vancouver, Bobby sparked a post-game fracas when his teammates met some Canuck players in a bar. The superstar started to accuse the Vancouver players of going dirty, of hitting below the knee. Canuck forward Hilliard Graves hauled off and slugged Bobby, after which the stricken Hawk defenceman apologized in the pub’s washroom, even thanking Graves for hitting him!
After he soldiered on for a few weeks in the fall of 1978, the sad sight that no one could have envisioned so soon became a reality: Bobby Orr was hanging up his skates for good.
He made good on one promise, that if he couldn’t be the Orr of old, he wouldn’t take Chicago’s money, a bit of vainglory that would cost him dearly.
Over the summer of 1979, he would learn that Bobby Orr Enterprises was not a valid shelter under U.S. tax laws, a discovery that started the avalanche of financial misfortunes that would provide the final breach between him and Alan Eagleson.
The wool was being removed from Bobby’s eyes. Not only was he not a millionaire at 30, as the Eagle had predicted, his $470,000 in debts, taxes and other liabilities more than superseded his $456,000 in assets! Bobby Orr, one of the men responsible for driving hockey players’ incomes skyward, was broke.
Eagleson would rub salt into the wound by telling folks it was Bobby’s own fault, that if he only got his spending under control, he’d have retired richer. That bit of hubris would cost Alan Eagleson, though it would take years for law enforcement authorities to catch up with his activities and send him to prison for misappropriating players’ pension funds. Much of the impetus for the movement to dump Eagleson came from Bobby Orr.
Justice also came Bobby’s way in the form of a second career. He rebuilt his bank account through endorsements and speaking engagements, and acquired a thriving Boston sports agency, representing the budding stars of today and tomorrow, guiding those young men away from the pitfalls that trapped him.
As he approached age 60, his mood remained upbeat and charitable. As he would tell anyone who would listen, he wished he could have played longer, but never dwelt on what might have been. He admitted playing a reckless game, and paid the price. But, overall, Bobby Orr said he was a lucky guy.
A generation of hockey fans was lucky to watch him!