Bobby Orr at 64
"We did all our playing outdoors, just the kids, whether it be the school rink, the Seguin River, Georgian Bay, the parking lot, the road, that’s where we learned our skills." – Bobby Orr
Who was the best hockey player ever?
There are some Gordie Howe adherents, and many who claim it was Bobby Orr, but it is the wizard-like Wayne Gretzky, with his supernatural abilities as a playmaker in the offensive zone, who seems to be the consensus pick of most.
Orr falls in the rankings because his career was so short. He played parts of 12 seasons from 1966 to 1978 but due to injury, only in eight of those did he play more than 60 games. He was gone from the game by the age of 30.
But ask the question other ways: who stood out as the most dominant player on the ice when he played; who took control of the game, who made others appear as if they were standing in quicksand? Who was visibly the most gifted pure talent when he was on the ice; or, who played with such beauty and elegance that he took our breath away and caused observers to strain for new superlatives to describe his palpable greatness on the ice?
That would be Mr. Orr.
Orr has been reclusive at times during the 34 years since he played his last game for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1978-79 season. A few years ago the talented Canadian sportswriter Stephen Brunt wrote a whole book on Orr in which he pouted that Orr would not agree to an interview, as if the hockey great owed it to Brunt, and the rest of us, to sit and discuss his inner feelings.
But twice now Orr has agreed to talk to FYI, the first time years back after he had started up his player agency, and recently when he sat down in Toronto to discuss his promotion of a new pain relief medication that he uses.
In both interviews, in fact, pain was a theme. The Orr first interviewed was friendly but somewhat guarded as he commented on the progression of his life, from carefree boy playing on the outdoor rinks and waterways of Parry Sound, Ont., to the phenom who left home at age 14 to play for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario junior league, to his sensational years for the Boston Bruins beginning as an 18-year-old rookie, and then his retirement era. But the conversation took an uncomfortable turn when Orr was asked about his association with Allan Eagleson, his former agent and friend who betrayed him. Orr threatened to shut down the interview.
Orr had played a role in the exposure of Eagleson’s misdealing with players’ funds, launching a formal complaint of misconduct against Eagleson with the Law Society of Upper Canada, and in 1998 Eagleson was convicted of fraud, embezzlement and racketeering.
Orr also joined a 1991 lawsuit over pensions that retired NHL players filed against the league. Two courts ruled against the NHL, and the players won their case in 1994.
So it was that psychological pain that Orr refused to discuss in his first interview with FYI. But jumping ahead a decade to 2012, Orr came across as cool and casual as he fulfilled his role as a pitchman for the product LivRelief, a topical pain cream.
“I was in a lot of pain – my knees, my hands, my back,” he says. “And a friend in Toronto said, ‘I’ve got a doctor for you’. I said, ‘Get away from me, I don’t to deal with some quack,’” he laughs. “But the guy sent me some LivRelief.”
The result, Orr says, was “unbelievable. I’m a believer. My wife Peggy uses it. When we used up the first batch, she said to me, ‘Have you got any more of that stuff?’
“It’s amazing how it works on my sore tendons,” he adds. “I have tendon problems in my hands. LivRelief helps that. Both my knees are artificial. I’m at the point now where anything I can do for relief of pain I’ll try.”
It is hard for the layman to understand what it must be like for a former athlete like Orr to have sore joints everywhere in his body, when he once cruised around so effortlessly on ice that it almost appeared that he floated above the surface. Orr, the only defenceman in NHL history to win a scoring title, was perhaps most amazing killing a penalty; there was no-one like him, “ragging” the puck and circling his own end as the other team chased him in a hopeless game of keep-away.
“I loved the game, first of all,” Orr has told FYI. “It didn’t bother me to go out and skate hours and hours. Even after turning pro, I still loved the game, I liked to go to practice.
“Growing up ... we spent more away from organized hockey than we did in it. We had to wait our turn to get into the rink, so we did all our playing outdoors, just the kids, whether it be the school rink, the Seguin River, Georgian Bay, the parking lot, the road, that’s where we learned our skills.”
He was the most anticipated rookie to join the league in years when he stepped on the ice, crewcut, for his first game in the fall of 1966. But even he was not above the laws of physics – collisions at high speed meant busted knees and other joints, not long into that first season.
His injuries prevented him from playing in the Summit Series in 1972 against the Soviet Union, but he was part of Team Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup series, and when the Canadians beat the Czechoslovakians Orr was named Most Valuable Player. Fans were aware that Orr was playing basically on one knee.
“That was a great series,” he recalls. “I had Guy Lafleur as my roommate. We had a great time.”
Orr married Margaret Louise “Peggy” Wood in 1973 and today the couple lives in Cape Cod and Florida. He gets up to his home town of Parry Sound three or four times a year. The Orrs have two sons and several grandchildren.
“We fish in Quebec. I’d like to go out west salmon fishing in B.C. Every day is a vacation for us now.”
One son works with his agency. “I love working with the players, getting them to understand that if you’re going to be all you can be there’s a price you pay. You’ve got to be disciplined and make sacrifices.
“I never lost the love and passion for the game. That’s the key, in sports or in business.”
Now 64, Orr appears youthful, boyish even, and slim, although it is clear the “13 or 14 knee operations” have taken their toll on his body. On that hot summer’s day in Toronto’s Azure restaurant, Orr performed his job impeccably, talking up his new pain-relief product.
A week or so later, though, Orr was contacted for follow-up questions and was reached on the phone. He couldn’t talk, he said, his voice sounding weak. His back was killing him and he was going for treatment.
We wonder, as he lives this way, whether he understands that millions of North Americans of a certain age are supremely grateful that he sacrificed his body to give us thrills that will stay with us a lifetime?
• Born Parry Sound, Ont. March 20, 1948
• Only defenceman to win 2 Art Ross trophies, NHL scoring title
• 2 Stanley Cups, 8 Norris trophies (top defenceman) in a row
• Hall of Fame inductee at age 31, youngest ever