Jim Kelley
Thursday March 20th, 2008

It's taken awhile for Bobby Orr's "circle of life" to make the turn back toward where it all began, but hockey's quiet lion turned 60 today and the milestone event begs this question: Does he still hold his place as arguably the greatest player the game has ever known?

In a word: Yes.

In more than one word: Perhaps more than we ever realized.

I feel qualified to make those statements simply because I've been around long enough not to have just seen film and heard stories about the greatness of Orr. I saw him play quite often, when he was at the peak of his greatness. I also had morphed into a hockey writer near the tail end of his career, so I covered him a bit as well.

I also saw and covered the head-turning times of Wayne Gretzky. While I freely admit that I was awed by his individual brilliance and smitten by his personal kindness and penchant for always doing and saying the right thing (traits Orr never even attempted to embrace, let alone master during his playing career), I never quite surrendered myself to the argument that Gretzky was the definition of hockey greatness to the exclusion of all others.

The Great One was and is the Great One, and a glance through the NHL Guide and Record Book will attest to that. But trying to decide who was better and who was the ultimate "best of all time" is an endeavor I've never found attractive.

I've held to that not just because Orr preceded Gretzky or because the two played different positions in different eras, but because when you look at each in his own time and place in the game, how can you possibly pick one over the other?

Gretzky was magic on and off the ice. His multitude of records, capped by the one that likely will never be broken -- 50 goals in 39 games -- stand as a sentinel affront the door to the hall that houses the greatest of the greats. But time -- 30 years since Orr last played a meaningful game and even more since he last played in the fullness of health -- hasn't dimmed my memories of him. One could still argue that no one has risen to the level where they might even begin to match his distinctly different accomplishments.

The Bobby Orr I remember changed not just the way defensemen played the game, but he answered the call of the true measure of athletic achievement: he changed the game itself.

Orr twice won the Art Ross Trophy as the game's leading scorer. No defenseman has won two scoring titles since and only one, Paul Coffey, has seen his name in the top 10 and that was during the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95.

Orr won the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) a record eight times and the Hart Trophy (MVP) in three consecutive seasons (1970-72), an achievement no other backliner has ever begun to match. Orr was the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy twice (Boston's Cup-winning years of 1970 and 1972) and was the only player ever to win the Norris, Ross, Hart and Smythe trophies in a single season.

Orr scored the most points in one season by an NHL defenseman (139 during the 1970-71 campaign). He recorded the most assists in one season by a defenseman (102 that same season). Orr still holds the record for the highest plus-minus statistic ( +124) by any player, forward or defense. His 102 assists in 1970-71 have been bettered by only two people: forwards Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. His record for most goals by a defenseman, 46 in 1974-75, was bettered by Coffey (48), but not until 1986, when Coffey was playing more games and on what was arguably the greatest offensive team in NHL history.

Orr had six 100-or-more-point seasons. Only four defensemen since have ever logged 100 or more. None have done it since Coffey and, for the record, Orr racked up his record of 139 points in a 78-game season, not the 82 that has been the standard since the 1980s.

One of Orr's most overlooked talents was that he was an accomplished defensive defenseman as well as a scoring machine. He was a skater of such effortless acceleration that he could take the puck to the net and still get back in time to break up a rush going the other way. His plus-minus figures alone are a testament to his greatness. In addition, Orr could hit and take a hit as well as any player who ever played the game, and to finish the package, he was a leader of uncompromising standards.

I once saw Orr kick open the door of the Sabres bench in Buffalo and offer a challenge to all comers. This was in a time when even casting a glance at the opposition's bench while skating by was considered a challenge that could not go unanswered. Orr, incensed by Sabres defenseman Jim Shoenfeld's repeated fights with Boston tough guys and come-on to Phil Esposito, simply kicked the door in, stepped into the bench area and in essence told the Sabres to "bring it on."

Never before or since have I seen anything like it.

As we all know, the story ended badly for Orr. A series of knee injuries shortened his career to just 12 seasons, and the last three he barely played at all. He had off-ice problems with his agent, Alan Eagleson, and a bitter and controversial separation from his beloved Bruins, a team and franchise that has never been the same since he left.

The bad times have cast Orr as a tragic hero in our sporting times, but that's not the way I remember him, and from what I've read, at 60, that's not the way he sees himself. The bitterness of the Eagleson and Boston affairs seems to have eased in his mind. His two badly crippled knees have been replaced by the artificial variety that allow him to skate with family and friends and play golf almost to his heart's content.

"I feel normal again," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail this week.

If you knew and saw Orr at his best, you would understand that he has had to settle for normal. At his best, he was anything but, and even at 60 that's still the way I see him.

Orr bringing the puck up ice, kicking through the gears as easily as a finely tuned Ferrari, he moves effortlessly around a checking forward. Gaining the opposition's blue line, he banks the puck off the boards and back to himself to get around the upcoming defenseman. Alone and with a clear path to the net, he bears down on a now fearful goalie waiting for him to make the first move. When he doesn't, and when it appears the goalie is perhaps frozen by the sight before him, Orr drops his shoulder or shifts his hips, dekes and feints and moves the puck from his forehand to his backhand and back to his forehand. In a nanosecond the once well-covered net is laid bare. With the goalie hopelessly out of position, Orr taps the puck across the goal line and while barely raising his stick to note his accomplishment. Then he skates into the welcoming arms of adoring teammates, many of whom know they have witnessed yet another act of greatness, yet another moment forever frozen in their memory of time.

That's the Orr I remember -- an icon of an age never to be seen again, but even at 60 never to be forgotten.

Happy birthday, Bobby Orr.

Colorado comeback

If there's a comeback goalie of the year candidate on everyone's lips, it has to be Ty Conklin. Bounced from team to team and seemingly holding on to a final hope when signing as a free-agent backup with the Penguins, Conklin has once again found his game and is giving starter Marc-Andre Fleury a run for the No.1 designation after carrying the Pens to near the top of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

But if Conklin has a counterpart in the West, it has to be Jose Theodore. The one-time Hart Trophy-winner with the Montreal Canadiens, Theodore was slipping into oblivion with the Colorado Avalanche last season. He had lost his starting role to Peter Budaj, was plagued with off-ice problems that included tax woes and legal issues, and there was talk that the Avs, unable to move his $5.23 million contract, might buy him out just to get out from under his cap hit.

Instead, the Avs brought in a goalie consultant, worked with Theodore on his professional and personal issues, and slowly helped rebuild him to the point where he is again their No.1, the heir apparent to the great Patrick Roy and the main reason why the Avs have moved from near the bottom of the playoff picture to nearly being a lock for the postseason.

It's a success story we don't see all that often in the cash-driven NHL of today, but the investment in time and effort by both Theodore and the Avs has paid off. Proof once again that the very best-run teams don't dump their problems, they solve them.

Itchy trigger in Philly

Word out of Philadelphia is that Flyers owner Ed Snider is keeping a close eye on the fortunes of his team and its head coach, John Stevens. Snider, by nature not a patient man, is saying all the right things, including that Stevens was coach of the team when it was in first place in the Atlantic Division and that "he hasn't gotten dumber."

But that in itself is a message. Snider got jumpy last season when the team got off to a horrendous start and he fired Ken Hitchcock, a move that he might now concede was a bit hasty. Still, Snider stuck his neck out then and he likely won't do it to years in a row. Word is that if the Flyers fail to hold on to the eighth and final playoff berth in the East during the next two weeks, Stevens could be gone, but it won't be Snider making the announcement. That will fall to general manger Paul Holmgren. Sources tell SI.com that Holmgren isn't any happier with the play of his team than is Snider. Given the franchise's long history of blaming the coach -- where have you gone Ken Hitchcock, Bill Barber, Craig Ramsey and the "goofy" Roger Neilson? Holmgren will at least hear from Snider before the decision is made.

It might not be right and it certainly won't be fair given the way the Flyers overpaid for talent that hasn't always produced down the stretch, but when you're locked into multi-year contracts for far too many players, the coach is always the first casualty of a lost war.

Cat on a hot tin seat

There is speculation that Jacques Martin is in the same position as Stevens, but the coach and GM of the Florida Panthers has his team on a roll as the season comes to an end. The Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000, but going into Thrusday night's game with Carolina they are on the cusp. Ironically, the team they have to pass is the Flyers.

Given that Buffalo's Lindy Ruff has two years left on his deal and that Washington has already made a coaching change and gotten better for it, unless both Stevens and Martin make it in, one or maybe both is likely to pay the price for his team's failure.

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