The legacy of Bobby Orr

If Michael Jordan had walked away from basketball at age 30, never to return to the game in any significant way, would basketball fans have wondered why? If basketball’s greatest prodigy had left the court battered and bruised, never teaching the game to his children, would NBA fans ask what happened?

He has been called the most fluid skater ever to step onto a hockey rink. At age 14, he was perhaps Canada’s first hockey prodigy, the poster boy for a new breed of hockey-hero teenagers to burst onto the scene with the advent of television and Hockey Night in Canada. As a defenceman for the Boston Bruins from 1966 through 1976, Bobby Orr did more than re-define his position. By re-defining what it meant to be a defenceman, Orr was the torch-bearer for the modern era of the game, an era of speed, skating and skill over brute force. There have been many hockey players who excelled at playing the game, beyond the scope of normal men, and Orr certainly fit into that category. But he went beyond it as well, changing what “playing the game” meant on a very fundamental level.
There are half a dozen stars, at least, who came after Orr, who owe their entire existence to Orr’s changing of the role of defenceman. Its hard to imagine Paul Coffey ever making it in a league where Bobby Orr never played, and even Ray Bourque, a star Bruin defenceman in his own right, was only doing what Bobby pioneered. Even less obvious stars like Al MacInnis were allowed an offencive component to their game that was unheard of before Orr showed it was possible to think about offence without ever sacrificing defence.

When he hung up his skates at age 30, in 1979, after spending 2 difficult years with Chicago, and a full year off the ice recovering from his 6th knee surgery, he was immediately inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only 10 players have had the 3 year waiting period waived, and there is little question that Orr deserved to be in that group. And then, Orr seemed to hobble away from the game that he gave most of his adolescence and adult life to, and the game that left him nearly crippled with knee problems.

Steven Brunt, a Canadian sports writer, has just written a book called “Searching for Bobby Orr” where he looks at Orr’s life and times, and Orr’s impact on the game. In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on the CBC, Brunt was asked what the biggest question left unanswered about Bobby Orr was, after he finished his book. Brunt’s answer echoed my question to start this post … he mentioned the 2 grown boys that Bobby Orr has, and mentioned that neither boy played hockey, or even learned to skate.

How does a man who has been described as the most fluid skater, the most natural skater, to ever play the game neglect to share that joy with his children? There are probably many answers … certainly a big one is that by the time he finished his playing career, Orr’s skating days were also over. His style of play was revolutionary, and while it ushered in a new era of hockey, it left the old era standing around, often looking silly while the puck was in the opposing net. The physical abuse suffered by Orr is no doubt part of the reason for his early retirement … while his skating style did place a lot of stress on his knees, his knee damage was far more the result of brutal stick work by beaten defenders desperately trying to stop a player who was faster and better than they were. There would be no old-timer’s hockey for Bobby, or even skating for fun around the rink on a crisp winters night … walking without a cane is challenge enough these days.

In fact, one of hockey’s most enduring images is a result of just that. Its an image that is seared into most hockey fan’s minds, at least those of a certain generation. A young man, dressed in Bruin Black and Gold, is sprawled out horizontal to the ice, flying through mid-air after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970. The goal itself is a study of Orr’s greatness, showcasing his skating abilities, his stickhandling and passing ability, his individual AND team effort, and the image is iconic as a symbol of hard work and skill paying off in the ultimate reward. But behind this image is a darker story, of course. Standing in the background, behind the airborne Orr, is an example of the old era, Noel Picard. Unable beat Orr in skills, Picard is left with the only defence available to him, hacking out Orr’s legs just as he scores the Cup-winning goal in overtime, sending him airborne. Its an iconic image for me at least as much because of the contrast between old and new, between the speed and skill of the new era, represented by Orr and the goal, and the brutality of the old game. More than any other moment, that goal marks the point at which skill players like Orr showed that no matter what, skill will always win out over brutality.

There are other possible reasons for his withdrawal from a game he clearly loved. Personal and business betrayal by Alan Eagleson hit Orr harder than it did other players, I think, and his move to Chicago at the end of his career was tied up in that as well. In the end, it was perhaps the business of hockey that ground Orr down and pushed him away from the game. The business that forced payers, without the skills to stop him within the rules, to go outside the rules, the business that turned friends into business rivals, turned Orr away from the game as well.

I think basketball fans would be confused if Jordan had just walked away from the game at 30, never really to look back. I would hope it might make the league think about why such a great player walked away. Hockey simply soldiered on, despite the loss of its first prodigy. They ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the room … Eagleson continued to act as a player’s rep for decades until he was finally convicted of a multitude of financial crimes in the late ’90s, and the 70’s and early 80’s were some of the most brutal years hockey ever witnessed.

Its hard to imagine the NHL today without Orr’s influence. Nearly every aspect of the modern offencive game comes from Bobby Orr. Its obvious to see his influences in the fluid skating defencmen that have become a staple of every team in the league, but perhaps less easy to see it elsewhere. Yet the free-wheeling style of speed and skill that forwards use today was pioneered by Orr in an era where crashing the net was the way to score goals. Even the dreaded neutral-zone trap can be traced back to Orr’s legacy … The trap was devised to slow down the free-wheeling play of a Bobby Orr type player streaking through the neutral zone, and its a testament to Orr’s innovation and pioneer spirit that it was a decade or more after Orr left the game before any coach or player found an adequate defence against his style of play, short of hacking out the legs of the streaking player.

Its true that Gretzky revolutionized the offencive game in the 80’s, and Lemieux in the 90’s. Phenoms like Teemu Selanne and Joe Sakic have taken their positions to new heights. Goalies like Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, and Grant Fuhr revolutionized the act of stopping a hockey puck. But across the game, across positions, across the economic spectrum of the business of hockey, its hard to imagine another player with the impact of Bobby Orr. He revolutionized the position of defence … his impact on the future of guys like Bourque and Coffey was never in doubt. But through that, he added dimensions to the game of future forwards like Wayne, Mario, Joe, and Teemu. Goalies were forced to re-learn their games because of the increase of speedy skill, players like Orr. Orr was the first hockey phenom, the first packaged product for a new television era … the story of his young life is the blueprint for the stories of young Wayne, and young Mario, young Eric and young Sydney.

All at once, the Orr story is a blueprint for almost all of what modern hockey is today, and yet, its a world that Orr himself shares little part in. He acts as a player representative these days (perhaps as much out of a desire to protect the kids of today from the Eagleson’s that are still out there), and once a year he coaches a team of top CHL players against his former Boston coach Don Cherry in the CHL Top Prospects Game, but aside from that, he seems to have completely left the game to which he gave so much. Perhaps its my age … when Orr was in his heyday, I was just starting to watch Hockey Night in Canada, and I lived for the chance to see Number 4 play on a Saturday night … but I simply can’t imagine today’s game without the contribution of Orr. For me, there is a clear path from Orr, through the other greats of the modern day, to the current game, but it is with Orr that it all begins to change. Its a shame that Orr doesn’t play a larger part in the hockey league that he, almost single-handledly, ushered in.

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