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Bobby Orr is seen in this Globe and Mail photo from 1966, taken while he was an Oshawa General. Photo by: James Lewcun. (James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail)
Bobby Orr is seen in this Globe and Mail photo from 1966, taken while he was an Oshawa General. Photo by: James Lewcun. (James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail)

Roy MacGregor

Playing against Bobby Orr Add to ...

(From The Last Season, Roy MacGregor’s 1983 novel on the life and times of NHL enforcer Felix Batterinski):

… Bobby Orr would get the cover of Maclean’s. I almost got the cover of Police Gazette after the Billings incident. My rep was made. The North Bay Nugget’s nickname for me, Frankenstein, spread throughout the league. I had my own posters in Kitchener; there were threats in Kingston and spray-paint messages on our bus in Sault Ste. Marie; late, frantic calls at the Demers house from squeaky young things wanting to speak to the “monster!” They didn’t know me. I didn’t know myself. But I loved being talked about in the same conversations as the white brushcut from Parry Sound. … We met Oshawa Generals in that year’s playoffs, and the papers in Oshawa and Sudbury played up the Batterinski-Orr side of it. “Beauty and the Beast,” the Oshawa Times had it. The Star countered with “Batterinski’s Blockade,” pointing out that the Hardrocks’ strategy was to have Batterinski make sure Orr never got near the net, though no one ever spoke to me about it. I presume it was understood.

On March 28 we met on their home ice, the advantage going to them by virtue of a better record throughout the season. I said not a single word on the bus ride down, refusing to join Torchy in his dumb-ass Beatle songs, refusing even to get up and wade back to the can, though I’d had to go since Orillia. My purpose was to exhibit strength and I could not afford the slightest opening. I had to appear superhuman to the rest of the team: not needing words, nor food, nor bodily functions.

If I could have ridden down in the equipment box I would have, letting the trainer unfold me and tighten my skates just before the warm-up, sitting silent as a puck, resilient as my shin pads, dangerous as the blades. The ultimate equipment: me.

I maintained silence through the “Queen” and allowed myself but one chop at Frog Larocque’s goal pads, then set up. Orr and I were like reflections, he standing solid and staring up at the clock from one corner, me doing the same at the other, both looking at time, both thinking of each other. We were the only ones in the arena, the crowd’s noise simply the casing in which we would move, the other players simply the setting to force the crowd’s focus to us. Gus Demers had advised me to level Orr early, to establish myself. Coach Therrian wanted me to wait for Orr, keep him guessing. I ignored them all. They weren’t involved. Just Orr and me.

His style had changed little since bantam. Where all the other players seemed bent over, concentrating on something taking place below them, Orr still seemed to be sitting at a table as he played, eyes as alert as a poker player, not interested in his own hands or feet or where the object of the game was. What made Orr effective was that he had somehow shifted the main matter of the game from the puck to him. By anticipating, he had our centers looking for him, not their wingers, and passes were directed away from him, not to someone on our team. By doing this, and by knowing this himself, he had assumed control of the Hardrocks as well as the Generals.

…[But]I had seen how to deal with Orr. If the object of the game had become him, not the puck, I would simply put Orr through his own net….

… I felt my left blade slip and my legs stutter. I saw him slipping farther and farther out of reach, my strides choppy and ineffective, his brief, effortless and amazingly successful. I swung with my stick at his back, causing the noise to rise. I dug in but he was gone, a silent, blond brushcut out for a skate in an empty arena.

I dove, but it was no use. My swinging stick rattled off his ankle guards and I turned in my spill in time to see the referee’s hand raise for a delayed penalty. I was already caught so I figured I might as well make it worthwhile. I regained my feet and rose just as Orr came in on Larocque, did something with his stick and shoulder that turned Frog into a lifesize cardboard poster of a goaltender, and neatly tucked the puck into the corner of the net.

The crowd roared, four thousand jack-in-the-boxes suddenly sprung, all of them laughing at me. Orr raised his hands in salute and turned, just as I hit him.

It was quiet again, quiet as quickly as the noise had first burst through. I felt him against me, shorter but probably as solid. I smelled him, not skunky the way I got myself, but the smell of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. I gathered him in my arms, both of us motionless but for the soar of our skates, and I aimed him carefully and deliberately straight through the boards at the goal judge.

Orr did not even bother to look at me. It was like the theory you read about car accidents, that the best thing you can do is relax. Orr rode in my arms contentedly, acceptingly, neither angry, nor afraid, nor surprised. We moved slowly, deliberately, together. I could see the goal judge leaping, open-mouthed, back from the boards. I saw his coffee burst through the air as we hit, the gray-brown circles slowly rising up and away and straight into his khaki coat. The boards gave; they seemed to give forever, folding back toward the goal judge, then groaning, then snapping us out and down in a heap as the referee’s whistle shrieked in praise.

I landed happy, my knee rising into his leg as hard as I could manage, the soft grunt of expelled air telling me I had finally made contact with the only person in the building who would truly understand. …

Excerpted from Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost: And Other Tales from a Lifetime in Hockey. Copyright © 2011 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved

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