As the 1966-67 season concluded, significant change was about to happen in the National Hockey League, as it prepared to double in size from six teams to twelve. Expansion meant the end of the NHL’s Original Six era, but at the same time, something special was brewing in Boston.
After years of waiting in eager anticipation, the sad-sack Bruins and the club’s fans were rewarded with the 18-year-old hockey prodigy Robert Gordon “Bobby” Orr. The precocious blueliner arrived to remarkable fanfare in an age well before the proliferation of the internet and social media, more than living up to the hype that followed him down from Canada. Having been touted as a player who could help reverse Boston’s fortunes on ice, the rookie Orr took no time to establish himself in the NHL, going on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best first-year player. However, superb as Orr’s performance was, hockey is a team game, and he was just one man. His presence alone was not enough to secure a finish better than fifth for the first time since 1959.
The Bruins had been moribund for the entire decade of the 1960’s, finishing sixth, or last in the field five of seven years before Orr suited up for his first professional game. Prior to that, the B’s had not won a Stanley Cup championship since 1941, the season before the league’s Original Six era began in 1942-43. Long gone were the championships authored by stalwarts like Eddie Shore, Aubrey ‘Dit’ Clapper, Cecil ‘Tiny’ Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, Milt Schmidt and Frank ‘Mr. Zero’ Brimsek. An entire generation had grown up in Boston without a championship in hockey, and the pressure was on to make the team competitive again. Or, at the very least, get out of the shadow of a powerhouse they shared the Boston Garden with.
Today is Bobby Orr’s 72nd birthday- born March 20, 1948 in Parry Sound, Ontario.
My friend from New Brunswick, Ian Wilson, celebrates Robert Gordon Orr’s birthday every year and has been doing so ever since I got to know him online 22 years ago. I have no doubt Ian’s been toasting Bobby Orr Day long before I knew him, and as long as he draws breath in this world, every March 20 will be the same.
I never saw Orr play live…at least not that I remember. I wasn’t yet 4 when he left Boston and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1976, but by being a student of the game and watching endless clips of Orr’s glory years with the Bruins, I’m comfortable with calling him the greatest hockey player of all in my own opinion. After all, there are a lot of smart hockey people out there who played with him, played against him, saw him…and if they say he’s the greatest hockey player who ever lived, then who am I to disagree?
Wayne Gretzky revolutionized scoring and there will never be another one like him- there was so much that came together at the right time for the Great One to score the zillions of points he did with the Edmonton Oilers in the early 1980’s- that firewagon hockey that he exemplified will not be seen again. The goalies are much better today than ever, and that isn’t going to change. Different era, different game.
But Orr was in a class of his own in terms of how he redefined the way the defense position was played- he didn’t just perform- Orr revolutionized the entire concept of how defenders could join the rush and be as dangerous on offense as they could shut down scoring chances in their own end. Those words to describe what Orr did for the game seem so paltry and inadequate to capture the kind of effect No. 4 had on hockey. In the end, Orr changed the game. Scorers will come and go, and I’ll not take anything away from that- Gretzky owns the all-time record for career goals and Alexander Ovechkin may or may not ever break that one…but for me, Mike Bossy was the best pure goal scorer I ever saw. And that includes Mssrs. Gretzky, Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull. No one can ever “win” the debate- there are those who will effectively argue for their respective player. As for me, I’ll take Orr…please and thank you.
The world-renowned Spittin’ Chiclets podcast recently had Orr’s close friend and teammate Derek Sanderson on their show and the ever-colorful Turk had some terrific recollections of Orr. One of the best was when he said that he never saw anyone get the puck away from Orr when he had it…ever. And Sanderson is not exaggerating in the slightest. If you haven’t heard that episode, get going already…
As great as Orr’s eight consecutive Norris Trophies, 2 Stanley Cup championships, 2 Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP and Hall of Fame resume is, the sad thing is that we never really saw what he was capable of. Years of playing through serious knee injuries and deteriorating joints took an immeasurable toll on what might have been if Orr had the durability and staying power of someone like Ray Bourque.
What’s amazing about Orr’s accomplishments as a Bruin is that he did it from age 18-28. He left the city and team in his prime, though was fated to play only 26 more career games in the Windy City before his ravaged knees forced him to walk away from the game as a player forever. There would be no miracle comebacks for Orr, though had he played several decades later, he might’ve had a 15-20 year career…we’ll never know.
Orr is firmly cemented on Boston’s Mount Rushmore of sports icons and no one will ever take his place.
But don’t take my word for it- just watch him for yourselves. I’ve chosen these videos because they will give you a close look at the man…in his own words, as well as those of others who knew him best, competed against him and knew better than anyone what he was accomplishing for the sport.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Orr- may you enjoy many more!
NHL 100-year Tribute video
Peter Mansbridge’s interview on CBC from Bobby Orr’s autobiography launch in 2013