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Wren Blair on June 7, 1967. (Fred Ross/The Globe and Mail)
Wren Blair on June 7, 1967. (Fred Ross/The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Wren Blair: ‘A great hockey man’ who never let up Add to ...

The Dunlops won, to great fanfare back home. The victory allowed Blair to leave his day job as an appraiser at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., where he was making $6,000 a year. Over the next few decades, he would coach, manage, scout for, build from the ground up, and co-own an array of clubs in several leagues, from the Kingston Frontenacs to the Oshawa Generals, from the Minnesota North Stars to the Los Angeles Kings. The film-loving Blair moved around the continent with his wife, Elma, whom he married in 1945, and their children Jill and Dan.

In the early 1960s, when he was managing the Frontenacs, a Bruins-affiliated team in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, Blair reached another pinnacle in his career when he scouted – and wooed – a young hockey sensation from Parry Sound, Ont. It took diligence, patience and a certain amount of coaxing to sign Bobby Orr, a story related in Blair’s memoir, The Bird .

Along with some other members of the Bruins organization, Blair went to check out a couple of Bantam players at playoff game in Ganonoque, Ont., in 1960. It was a younger player, a 12-year-old on the Parry Sound team, who caught his eye: “He never left the ice,” Blair wrote, “except once for a two-minute penalty … I thought he was out of this world.”

So did a few other people. The Bruins won the battle for Bobby Orr thanks in part to Blair’s careful cultivation of the young player and his parents, Arva and Doug. A player couldn’t sign a Junior A card until he was 14. For the next two years, Blair would make the Frontenacs’ team bus take a detour through Parry Sound so he could visit Bobby and his family, displaying a solicitude with the youngster that he didn’t lavish on his adult players.

“I always joked that every time Arva [Orr] came out onto the back porch to shake out her dust mop, I was sitting on it waiting for Bobby to come home from school,” Blair said in a documentary about the legendary Bruins defenceman. “I felt it was very important to build up a relationship with Bobby.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 1998, Orr said, “The Canadiens and Leafs both came up [to Parry Sound] and looked at me, but thought I was too small. I believe they became interested later on, but Wren Blair and the Bruins were the most aggressive and they talked my parents into letting me leave for Oshawa.”

In 1962, when he was 14, Orr signed with the Bruins-affiliated Oshawa Generals, a team that Blair had been instrumental in rebuilding (it had folded nine years earlier after Oshawa’s Hambly Arena burned down, and was resurrected when Blair built a consortium of the Bruins and local businesspeople to restart the franchise.)

Wren Blair was born in Lindsay, Ont., on Oct. 2, 1925, the son of Audrey and Alvin. The family moved to Oshawa when Alvin took a job in a dairy, and his son grew up playing shinny on the rink outside Westmount Public School. His strengths didn’t lie on the ice, as realized a couple of decades later when he put his first team together:

In 1967, the NHL doubled in size from its original six teams to 12, and he became the inaugural coach and general manager of the new Minnesota franchise. When the first game ended in a tie, he turned the air in the dressing room blue. A North Star tried to calm him down: “Chief, we have a whole season to go, take it easy. You’re going to have a heart attack.” The coach retorted, “I doubt I’ll ever have a heart attack, but I know one thing for sure – you never will.”

The first season was marred by the death of Bill Masterton, who hit his head after being knocked to the ice during a game in January. The North Stars played (and lost) a game with the Philadelphia Flyers on the evening of his funeral.

After Minnesota, Blair helped to rescue the Pittsburgh Penguins from bankruptcy and was director of player personnel for the Los Angeles Kings. He also helped to arrange the deal that brought the junior North Bay Centennials to Michigan as the Saginaw Spirit.

What was important to him was the game, not where it was played. “Hockey was in his blood,” says Gregory. “He thought about it constantly.”

Blair leaves his children, Jill and Dan, his grandchildren Ryan, Brandon, Laura and Jen, and his great-granddaughter Madison.

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