Among the pictures in Bobby Orr’s new book of photographs is a snapshot of Terry Fox with Orr’s father, Doug.
Fox was in the midst of his run across the country and flashing his back to show he’s wearing one of Orr’s No. 4 jerseys.
Orr is sitting in a hotel suite in downtown Toronto dressed like he’s going to a job interview – a shirt right out of the dry-cleaning bag, grey slacks, freshly shined loafers.
He’s going through the book, Bobby: My Story in Pictures, rhyming off names of people as though just now remembering they were in there. Occasionally, he’ll stop on someone and, in that charming rural way, say, “We lost him last year.”
People never die in small towns. They’re lost, as if they might show back up one day.
The Fox picture is one of his favourites, perhaps because Doug Orr looks so pleased in it.
“[Fox] was going through Parry Sound,” Orr says. “My dad said, ‘You want to give him something?’ I said, ‘Sure, give him whatever you want’. So he gave him my [1976 Canada Cup] Team Canada sweater.”
Orr was injured during the 1972 Summit Series and didn’t dress. That 1976 jersey is his most tangible connection to the country’s greatest sporting triumph.
Orr is touched that the Fox family still has that sweater and baffled by the suggestion that he might’ve wanted to keep it for himself.
“Why would I?” he says.
Orr is 70, but he doesn’t look all that different than he did back when he was changing the game. Same tidy mop of hair, same Shar Pei grin, same twinkle. It’s only when he moves that you get some sense of the effect a quarter-century of hockey has on a body.
As it does to all of us, age has made Orr a nostalgist, but he’s not nostalgic.
He never did collect things, or care much about them once he had. The only thing he’s kept are the trophies because who gets rid of a trophy? That’d be rude.
Posed the old “What would you save from a burning house?” question, Orr has to think for a while and then pops out with, “My wife.”
That one gets him laughing so hard that the cup of coffee he’s holding tips and a drop spills on his pant leg.
As he wipes it away, Orr, still laughing, mutters to himself, “I used to have good hands. That’s what they said, at least.”
Some people surprise you, and some are what you’d expect. Orr is a third kind, reserved for a small subset of the famous – exactly what you’d hoped. After 60 seconds in his company, Orr has already offered you everything in the room – “Coffee? You have a coffee. More coffee? Water? Maybe there’s juice. How about something to eat? Where would you like to sit?”
You have the suspicion that if you asked Bobby Orr for his car keys, he’d offer to drive.
He has a habit of ending thoughts with a staccato “duh-duh, duh-duh, duh,” said at a marching beat, where the rest of us would say “blah blah blah.” Sometimes he’ll reach down and tap it out with his fingers as he does it.
It’s just like Bobby Orr to think something we all do instinctively – speaking – might be improved by doing it differently.
Orr is steering you around the small room just in case you get confused, which I suppose people often do when first in his presence. He’s laughing at your lame jokes as if you’re Carson and keeps repeating how wonderful it is to see you.
The man is a Heritage Minute made flesh.
You could argue that he is also our last great connection to a national idea that is fading away – a hockey legend raised on the pond.
“Ten or 12 or 15 guys on the lake, the parking lot, the schoolyard. That’s how we learned to play.”
Orr wasn’t coached by anyone until he was 7 or 8, didn’t own a new pair of skates until he was 10 or 11 and didn’t attend any sort of hockey school until he was a professional.
His kamikaze style of play has been studied the way military colleges break down the tactics of great generals, but in general, it might be described as joie de vivre.
Similar to any kid in a Saturday afternoon game of shinny, he was always trying to do something fun out there. Even when others were trying to kill him as he did it.
Orr’s bad knees – the most obsessed-over recurrent injury in NHL history – undid him. He played too long on them and had to retire too early.
When he sits now, he is constantly readjusting himself in a chair, trying to find a more comfortable angle. When he’s thinking, a hand will move down and begin absently massaging a knee. It’s the tic that lets you know he is deep in consideration.
He is a hockey agent now. His firm, Orr Hockey Group, handles the careers of some of the NHL’s top talent, notably Edmonton Oiler Connor McDavid.
Despite the obvious financial incentive of professionalization at the lowest levels, Orr maintains a gentle, curmudgeonly suspicion of the way Canadians now approach hockey development.
The other night, Orr was, as he often is, out and about. Some kids came up and asked for advice. The implication is that they did not want to be told how to be more like Bobby Orr the person, but how to become Bobby Orr the NHL star.
“Love the game,” he told them. “Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat yourself. Do everything you can to be the best you can be. And in the end, if you don’t make it, you weren’t good enough.”
Orr is getting animated, a finger jabbing the air.
“Some of these coaches think the mortgage is on the line if they don’t win a peewee hockey game, for God’s sakes. We turn a lot of kids off the game.”
In the first line of the introduction to the book he’s promoting, Orr tells the reader what isn’t in there:
“Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos from my childhood of me playing shinny with my buddies on the Georgian Bay or the Seguin River, which runs through my hometown of Parry Sound.”
It’s something Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have written were he born in Cranbrook rather than Colombia.
There are no pictures because there were no adults at those games and thus, no cameras. Orr’s parents didn’t often watch him play, even after he’d entered an organized league. They were too busy working.
Doug Orr knew the game.
“They tell me he was a pretty good player,” Orr says, and then winks. “Well, he tells me.”
Though Doug has been gone for years, Orr still speaks about him in the present tense.
The Boston Bruins first spotted Orr by accident. He was playing in a tournament in Gananoque, Ont., – one of his first road trips. Bruins scouts had come to see a couple of players from another team but were drawn to the 14-year-old no one had yet heard of.
Orr’s remembrance of his professional life’s turning point? “We lost.”
Doug Orr had also been scouted by the Bruins but decided to join the Navy instead. After his son caught the same sort of notice, people would come up to Doug to congratulate him and tell him Bobby was going places.
“He’d just nod. His advice to me was, ‘Have fun. We’ll see what happens’. That was it. He didn’t coach me.”
“Never. We talked hockey, but he never said ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’”
Then how did you talk about hockey?
“I don’t remember,” Orr says, wistful now. “It was different then. We’ll never see it again.”
These days, Orr is in the position to give advice. He’s paid well to do so. Some aspects of the modern game trouble him, especially the injuries and the pressure. No one is in a better position to judge.
Searching around for an example of how crazy it’s all got, Orr recalls the time he was on the cover of Maclean’s magazine.
“Do you remember Maclean’s?”
Yes. It’s still going.
“We didn’t have any press coverage. That was huge!” Orr says. “These days it never stops. None of it. It’s 12 months of the year. Kids go 12 months a year. I worry about that.”
Mostly – and this is an odd position for someone in his line of work – he’d like people to slow down.
“I see some kids that move to play and there’s no reason to do it,” Orr says. “Everyone’s in a hurry. Mom, dad, everyone. This is not a sprint.”
Having got the benefit of a back-to-the-land, slow-hockey upbringing that now seems as old-fashioned as a butter churn, Orr wishes everyone else could see the value in it. That people could do the thing because it is worth doing, separate from the rewards that await a very, very few practitioners.
“There are communities where I don’t think they have hockey for kids who just want to play, with no chance of going anywhere. That’s terrible. Hockey is for everybody, not just for travel teams and the elite. It’s unbelievable.”
That finger is really jabbing now, and though Orr is not a big man, you cannot help but notice his hand is as wide around as a pasta bowl. You begin to slide back in your seat, just to be on the safe side.
When he thinks about fun in hockey now, his most famous charge rises to front of mind. Orr can go on and on about McDavid – his hands, how he moves with the puck, how he approaches the game the right (i.e. unhurried) way.
A general discussion about skills floats into bar talk. Who are Orr’s five best players in history?
“Mine? My own?” Orr says, as if you’d just stopped a guy on the street and asked him for three solutions to a sovereign debt crisis.
“I don’t know if I can say.”
No pressure. Just whomever you think.
“Now this is only my opinion.”
Then he rattles them off without pausing: “Wayne. Mario. Sid. Sid’s pretty good. Gordie. No particular order here. Those guys … “ – and then, like it’s an afterthought – “… McDavid’s going to be in that group.”
I know you played different positions, but is he the player who reminds you most of yourself?
Now Orr is really aghast. This is veering perilously close to self-congratulation. The hand gets on the knee and he’s shaking his head.
“No. No, no. I think we’re really different. This kid, he’s special.”
No. 4, Bobby Orr, does not think he was special? Seriously?
“Well, I could play. But I can’t do some of the stuff he does. He’s a lot smoother than me.”
One supposes this is how you know you’ve done something really well. That not only do you feel no need to praise yourself for what you’ve managed, but now feel the need to play down its quality. That’s confidence.
Eventually, the true greats – having never fallen in love with themselves – are anxious to fall in love with the work of others. That’s what keeps them engaged – watching the thing done even better.
At a certain age, they can see how they were part of a continuum – from the Seguin River, to the Boston Garden, to the Stanley Cup and, eventually, watching the cycle turn over to someone new.
Maybe that’s why Orr is an agent, so that he has a good reason to be around hockey players at work.
When he talks about what it all means, he returns repeatedly to the values of hockey, which, at their best, are indistinguishable from those of any prosperous community.
“Being a good teammate, being dedicated, being nice,” Orr says. “People are nice to me and I try to be nice to them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”
Orr rolls out his jabbing finger again, but it’s slower now. He’s making his core point, speaking with purpose.
“You have a level. I have a level. We all have a level. The level doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we go out every day and play at it.”