The voice on the other end of the telephone line is unmistakably Bobby Orr’s and, true to form, he is telling a story in his usual self-deprecating manner. Orr may be one of the greatest hockey icons Canada ever produced, but throughout a career that lasted just 12 years and saw him inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame at the precocious age of 31, he was known for both his modesty and his unflinching desire to stay out of the spotlight. Orr may look like the poster boy for Bob Dylan’s song Forever Young, but on Wednesday he will celebrate a milestone birthday. Ladies and gentlemen, No. 4 in your Boston Bruins program is turning 65.
Yes, unbelievably, the (still) fresh-faced kid from Parry Sound, Ont. is about to become a pensioner.
Orr guards his privacy carefully even after all these years and so it is not surprising that the first anecdote he spins in a far-ranging conversation is all about the joys of anonymity.
“I’ll tell you a true story that happened the other day,” said Orr, chuckling as he gets rolling. “We had a mixed member-guest-couples event at our golf course and I’m walking down the corridor to the men’s locker room and there was a board set up there, listing all the teams. A couple of ladies were standing there and saw my name, and I heard one say, ‘oh, he’s an old hockey player.’
“I looked at them and was thinking, ‘Old hockey player? Yeah, you’ve got that right.’ But the age thing, it doesn’t bother me. Life is great.”
For hockey fans of a certain age, there are two images inextricably linked to Orr. The first dates back to when he was the new kid on the NHL block, the teenager with the brush cut who joined the Boston Bruins in 1966 and in very short order, stood the NHL world on its ear. The second is of Orr, in mid-flight, tripped by defenceman Noel Picard, scoring the winning goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues to complete a sweep of the 1970 Stanley Cup final, the first of two championships he would win.
Orr helped revolutionize the game of hockey, with his ability to create offence from defence and influenced generations of players that came after him. There are many who believe he is the greatest player ever. Officially, Orr played only 657 NHL games over 12 seasons because of a series of debilitating knee injuries that prematurely ended his career, but he still scored an astonishing 915 points in that time – remarkable for any player, unprecedented for an NHL defenceman. Orr won eight consecutive Norris trophies as the NHL’s top defencemen from 1968-1976). In addition, he won three Hart Trophies as NHL’s MVP and is still the only defenceman in league history to win the Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s scoring leader (he did it twice, in 1970 and 1975).
A few years back, Orr’s battle-scarred left knee starred in Mastercard commercial, which traced every incision back to a career-defining moment. Knee concerns figured greatly in his career, starting almost from the moment Orr arrived in the NHL. He won the Calder Trophy in 1967, but was already dealing with the after-effects of the comparatively primitive surgical techniques of that time. By the time Orr played for Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup, he was limping before the games, limping after the games, but still played well enough to win the tournament MVP award. Orr completed his career with the Chicago Blackhawks,but played in only 26 games over a three-year period. By then, he’d undergone a dozen operations and played a significant portion of his career with damaged ligaments and torn cartilage.
Age is only a number if you have your health, but the good news, according to Orr, is since his knee replacement surgery, his health is pretty good.
“I mean, I have some aching in my knees and a little balance problem, but I don’t have any serious pain any more in my knees,” he said. “I get stiff and achy like most people who are 65. I have a little hand problem. I had a little surgery on my hand in November. My body’s been through a lot, but I don’t feel sick. Just aches and pains. Like most of us, I should probably exercise more. Overall, I’m thrilled.”
In any retrospective of Orr’s career, the question that unfailingly comes up is how good could he have been had all the new techniques involving knee surgery been around in the 1960s, when he first started to have his issues. It is a dangerous game to play – the what- if? game – and Orr won’t indulge, other than to acknowledge the obvious. Had doctors been able to repair his left knee arthroscopically rather than through the invasive surgeries of the 1960s, he would have unquestionably played longer and perhaps at an even higher level than he managed. But Orr is nothing but a bubbling cauldron of positivity and it comes through here too – noting that the technological improvements of the two past decades are “benefiting all of the old farts. The surgery today is much easier and much better. Back then, they’d open you up. That right away weakens your leg and your joints.”
Orr is in the process of putting the finishing touches on his biography and says the book would be about the things that matter most to him – the state of the game, from the NHL level on down.
Up to now, there have been other books written about Orr’s life and career, but this is the first time, he’s telling the story himself.
Orr promises this will not be a tell-all and it will certainly not be an expose of his relationship with his former player agent, Alan Eagleson, who represented him from the time he began his professional career until they parted ways in 1980, with Orr bankrupt at the end of his playing career. Nearly two decades after their split, Eagleson was convicted of fraud, embezzlement and racketeering in the United States and was eventually disbarred in Canada.
Question: After all this time, what made Orr finally venture down that path and become an author?
“I don’t know why I did it,” replied Orr, laughing again. “If anybody’s going to buy my book because they think there’s a lot of dirt in it, don’t buy it. It’s not going to be that. I’m talking about how I was brought up. I talk a lot about minor sports and parents. It’s not an autobiography. Obviously, I’ve got something in there about Mr. Eagleson – because they made me. If it were up to me alone, I wouldn’t have put anything in (about Eagleson), but they’re right, I have to put something in. I can assure you, I’m not going to go into the whole story either. That wasn’t going to take up the book, let me tell you.
“There are some times when I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ I didn’t want to do a book just to do a book. I want everybody to read it. Not everyone’s going to agree with what I say, but for everybody that reads it – my goal is that they’ll take something from it - one thing. I hope I make an impact, either with minor sports or where the game is at. I just hope that happens.”
Orr’s involvement in the game now is primarily as a player representative. In 1996, Orr helped start the hockey group in the Boston-based Woolf Associates agency, run by long-time Boston lawyer Bob Woolf and ultimately bought out the hockey group. In 2000, Rick Curran merged his agency with Orr’s and in 2002, it became incorporated as the Orr Hockey Group. Orr’s son Darren and Curran’s son Michael are both involved, as is former Toronto Maple Leafs executive Jeff Jackson. The changes since Orr’s early playing days until now are breath-taking. It is about labor, contracts, finance and social media – and every once in a while, they play a game and it briefly reverts back to ‘he shoots, he scores’ again.
“It’s really a changing world,” said Orr. “We work with young Connor McDavid. Think about the pressure. He’s 15 years old, for gawd’s sakes. He’s a hell of a talent, but are you kidding me? We’ve got the New York Times coming in to talk to him. We’ve got USA Today coming in. Nobody came to Parry Sound to talk to me. It’s really different today.
“If people would just think what all these young kids go through, with all the people in their ears. Or they go on the Internet and there are haters on the Internet. Not everyone is going to like you. That’s what their moms and dads have to understand. There’s negative stuff and now they go with dad, and there’s negative stuff from their dads and what the hell does that do for the kid? Let’s be positive with these kids.”
Nowadays, Orr’s greatest visibility is tied for a series of television commercials he does the Chevrolet Safe & Fun hockey program. Making hockey safer and keeping hockey fun are two goals that fuel Orr’s passions these days.
“When we talk about minor sports, we’re talking about games being played by our children,” said Orr. “Everything we can do it to make it safe and fun for our kids, we should be doing. I tell people: the chances of your son becoming the next Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky are slim and none. If it happens, just look at it as a big bonus. If it were easy to play in the NHL, everyone would be there. It’s not an easy goal to reach – and parents have to understand that.
“When I go to an event and there are a bunch of older people around, I ask them: ‘Why do you play old-timers hockey?’ They say, ‘to have fun.’ I say, ‘Really. OK, then why can’t every kid playing minor hockey or minor baseball or minor soccer be having fun every time he or she goes out to play?’ That should be our goal.
“I look back at my minor hockey days and those are my fondest memories – playing with my buddies. My dad’s advice to me was, ‘go out and have fun and see what happens’ – and that’s the way it should be.
“It’s not just an issue for parents either, but for the people who coach our kids too. Coaches can teach kids a lot. They can teach them about working together – be disciplined. Be a good person. Learn to say thank you. Develop values that you can apply to anything you do in the future – that’s what it should be about. Yeah, you want them to teach them the fundamentals, and how to compete and so on, but you’re trying to develop better people … who leave that sport, with it being a great memory.
“One thing we forget is, not only are we trying to develop players, but we’re also trying to develop fans. We want kids that are playing the game to want to go to our games. But if a kid has a bad experience, he’s not going to ask his dad to take him to a hockey game – or if he’s playing for a coach who’s an idiot or a parent that’s a fool. All they’re doing is driving the kids away – and that’s wrong. We don’t need that.”
The proof of Orr’s lasting legacy may be in the fact that he hasn’t played since the 1978-79 season and yet he is remains one of the most recognized people in the game – by all generations, not just his peer group.
“It’s nice,” said Orr. “The support I received and continue to receive is really wonderful. But I haven’t gone away. I’m still out there a lot, with the commercials and all the rest. I don’t hide away. I get parents who send their kids to get an autograph and they say, ‘why?’ Not everyone recognizes me. When I’m on the ice with the kids, I don’t expect them to know me, but before I leave there, I have fun with them and I hope that I’m their friend, even if it’s their mom or dad or their grandparents telling them I was a hockey player. It’s been great.
“I really didn’t think about this birthday until you called me, but it really doesn’t bother me. Look, my son is going to be 40 for gawd sakes. I’m thinking, oh geez, ‘I’ve got a 40-year-old.’ But I also have two little grandchildren now, a boy and a girl.
“Life is wonderful.”