I was 13 when I first saw Bobby Orr in action at the Montreal Forum with my brother, also named Robert, and in my estimation, the Bobby Orr of art museum curators, who also turned 75 on March 20th. In 1969 he was a student at McGill ($500. semester US!) and I’d visit him often for smoked meat sandwiches at Ben’s, my first ever beer at Toe Blake Tavern, and the two-dollar standing room tickets we’d purchase to watch Les Club de Hockey Canadien from our perches behind the red seats where wealthy patrons rattled their jewelry at Gump Worsley.
I recall that the Forum crowd grew markedly quiet when Orr paused behind the Boston net in the moments before starting a rush. The Montreal crowd, which knows hockey the way Londoners know theater, observed the master and held their collective breath as their momentary silence was as much of a tribute to hockey’s Mozart as any of the countless ovations he received over the course of his all-too-short career.
As regards Orr’s playing career, there’s so much to ponder…….
*As a dazzlingly talented defenseman Bobby Orr was a de facto fourth forward while twice leading the NHL in scoring, yet his skill defied his ridiculously otherworldly statistical record. Fittingly, nobody that ever saw him play describes his career in terms of numbers. Instead, prepare yourself for a telling anecdote or two, or three recalling moments of unforgettable wizardry. Two of mine are the rink-length rush he made against Detroit to become the NHL’s first 100-point defenseman and the legendary penalty kill in Oakland where he dropped his glove and circled back to scoop it back onto his bare hand without missing a stride.
*He inspired the NHL to triple in size during his all too brief decade-long career.
*He helped all players to double and triple their salaries while also helping prompt the formation of the rival WHA.
*He led the swashbuckling team that inspired the building of countless rinks in New England.
*Ditto the team that prompted CBS to sign the NHL to its first network TV deal.
*Ditto the team that inspired the American players that won the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
As for his play, well, you really had to be there.
He had at least 10 different speeds, and, with ankles of iron, skated with the top three eyelets of his skates unlaced in order to help him make those impossible turns and dekes. He also skated barefoot and with the trademark single strip of hockey tape which allowed him to better feel the vibration of the puck on his stick blade. You Tube him to witness the greatest athlete these eyes have ever seen.
Apart from his phenomenal skills, the two characteristics that stand out were his engagement with teammates, making the collective as formidable a team as existed at that time and his unerring modesty manifest in his staring at the ice as if to wall off the thundering ovations that greeted the ceaseless WOW of his achievements.
And to think he skated most of his career on a badly wounded left knee that endured numerous operations and had him arrive at the rink hours before his teammates in order to receive the treatments he required even to play, much less dominate nearly every game he played.
He gave the last full measure of his left knee and career to Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup, a tournament in which he could only play games with no practicing as his knee couldn’t take it.
Regardless, he was the tournament’s MVP.
And, nothing against Wayne Gretzky, but Orr, like his greatest player bookend Gordie Howe, fought all his own battles. In fact, his contemporaries count him as one of the best fighters of his era. Just ask Ted Harris or Vic Hadfield. He had no Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley doing picket duty as bodyguards. His fists were just another hockey weapon in his unequaled arsenal.
My take is he was a sports equivalent to the likes of Issac Newton, Miles Davis, Einstein, and the aforementioned Mozart as a sport of nature, a human vessel for an almost divine combination of skills and character traits.
In addition, the list of his purposely uncredited acts of charity mimics that of super mensch Ted Williams.
The superstar as capital C Citizen.
Number Four. The one and only.
Sharing the digit with Jean Beliveau.
The NHL’s two singular icons of excellence, charity, and sportsmanship.