Search

SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR: BOBBY ORR

Dec. 21, 1970
Dec. 21, 1970

Table of Contents
Dec. 21, 1970

Yesterday
No Miracle
Arms And Ogres
Sportsman
Nose Count

SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR: BOBBY ORR

Only 22, he set entire new standards of hockey excellence. While leading his team to a championship and emerging as an alltime star, he ushered a growing sport into the '70s with a flash of flying ice

When Robert Gordon Orr comes walking out of the Boston Bruins' dressing room in his halfway mod attire and head-down shy manner, you would be excused for thinking that he is the water boy or perhaps an assistant bookkeeper learning the trade of attendance-padding. He is a mere 5'11", 185 pounds, with blue-gray eyes and a thick shock of hair that is browner than blond and blonder than brown and flops down over his forehead, producing a little-boy-lost effect that is deadly to the female. His legs are muscular, but not much more than Carol Channing's. His arms are of normal length and look strong, but not strikingly so. His hands remind one of an e. e. cummings line: "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." His shoulders are squared, but not with the slablike precision of Bobby Hull's. His overall physique is adequate but not impressive; he will never gain employment as a male model or appear covered with salad oil in today's versions of Sunshine and Health.

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1970 issue Original Layout

At 22, Orr (see cover) is beginning to show the indelible facial evidences of his occupation: the thick tissue over the eye sockets, the spidery scars from interrupted pucks and sticks, the drooping lip and asymmetric nose from medical insult and injury. After five years in the bullpits of the National Hockey League, Orr does not yet resemble Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront ("Cholly, Cholly, I cudda been a contenduh!"), but he is en route. His nose has been fractured three or four times and he has taken 50 or so stitches, mostly in the face. His strong, sturdy jaw remains intact, but from the way he plays hockey one can easily foresee the day when he will be wired up and sipping tomato juice through a straw. Then the devastation will be complete, as it has been complete with almost all the great defensemen of the National Hockey League.

"Look at him," says Orr's crony and roommate. Assistant Trainer John (Frosty) Forristall. "He's the key to everything—to the Boston Bruins, to the National Hockey League, to the whole game of hockey. And he skates like he's afraid he'll be sent back to the minors. He takes chances like a rookie."

Let it be said and done with: by acclamation Bobby Orr is the greatest player ever to don skates. Not the greatest defenseman, the greatest player at either end of the ice. He was playing league hockey with grown men at the age of 14 and starring. As an 18-year-old Bruin rookie he made the NHL's Ail-Star team, and last season he was the league's Most Valuable Player, the acknowledged star of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the league's top-ranking defenseman and the league's top scorer. To comprehend what it means to be the best both defensively and offensively in the brutal game of ice hockey, the fan must imagine a combination of Dick Butkus and Leroy Kelly, of Boog Powell and Bob Gibson, of Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. Because of Orr, there are fewer arguments in the big hockey towns about "the good old days." He has brought a sheen to every skater, a gloss to the whole league and the whole sport.

This steady upgrading of Orr's abilities cannot continue much longer, because now he must compete with himself; he has reached the stage where the records he is shooting at are his own. 'Last year he scored 120 points on 33 goals and 87 assists, the most goals ever scored by a defenseman, the most assists ever scored by anyone. This year he will probably fall short of the record; the other teams are bearing down on him, slowing him, clutching and grabbing. But whatever his tribulations, Orr remains the pivot figure in the game, the single charismatic personality around whom the entire sport will coalesce in the decade of the '70s, as golf once coalesced around Arnold Palmer, baseball around Babe Ruth, football around John Unitas. Three years ago the cottage industry known as the National Hockey League reproduced like an amoeba and became 12 teams instead of six, and this season two more big-league clubs were added. The result has been dilutions, mismatches, distortions. Orr is the fixative that binds this unstable mess together.

Orr's style makes him the perfect player to lure fans to expansion hockey games. His coach, Tom Johnson, says, ' "Bobby has all the tricky moves, the fakes and blocks that excite the experts. He does things that no other hockey player can do, and a lot of people just take it for granted. But he also does the things that excite the newcomer: the rink-long rushes, the hard body checks and that whistling slap shot of his. He has the quality of directing the attention to himself. He runs things. The puck is on his stick half the time. If you're looking at your first hockey game—and lots of people are nowadays—all you do is watch Orr and you catch on fast."

Orr is on the ice, helping to kill a penalty. Three times St. Louis has rushed the length of the rink, and three times the Bruin defenders have stood fast. Now there are 30 seconds left in the penalty, and the Blues are threatening again. Christian Bordeleau winds up to shoot from the blue line. Out of nowhere Bobby Orr appears and lowers his stick across the line of the shot; the classic sweep check repels the puck, but Bordeleau has shot so hard that Orr's stick is knocked away. He lets it go and skates toward another St. Louis player whose stick is already on the backswing. Orr blocks the shot with his skate, chases the puck into the boards, immobilizes another St. Louis shooter and freezes the puck. One second later the teams are at equal strength. "Did you ever see a hockey player do things like that?" Tom Johnson asks later. No, never.

To students of Bobby Orr, the spectacular has become routine, and the routine has become unacceptable. One of a defenseman's primary jobs is to get the puck out of his own end and down the ice, and some players carry out this task with all the grace and ease of a starving man eating a pomegranate through a screen door. Orr does it routinely. "As soon as Bobby gets the puck on his stick," says Tom Johnson, "you know it's coming out. People take it for granted. They forget that this isn't automatic. At least it never used to be."

When the Bruins are on offense Orr takes up the traditional defenseman's stance, guarding the point, but it by no means is certain that he will remain there. "If he has the puck at the point and somebody takes a run at him," says a teammate, "that's the end. He'll give them that one-two-circle dance of his, that ballerina twirl, and he's moving in on the net at top speed. No other defenseman would dare do this, because meanwhile he's leaving the whole wing wide open. But I've never seen him get caught."

"If Bobby has a problem," says Boston Goaltender Gerry Cheevers, "it's just that he has no fear. No fear whatever. If nothing else will do, I swear he'll use his head to block a shot. He's already been hurt bad, and he'll keep on getting hurt. But that's his style. He won't change. He won't play it safe."

"He gives us the screaming meemies," says Frosty Forristall. "He'll take a defenseman right across the goal mouth with him, full speed, a few inches from the post. And all I can think is one bad move and he's in the post! Except for some knee injuries, he's only been hurt bad once—Frank Mahovlich hit him, separated his shoulder and broke his collarbone. It's a wonder it hasn't happened 10 times since then. Touch wood!"

All the talk, all the praise, seems to make Orr more demanding of himself. "Let 'em say all those nice things," he says, "but I know my mistakes, and I make plenty of them. They say practice makes perfect, and they're wrong. Practice'll make you better, but nothing'll make you perfect. At least I'll never be. I do dumb things. Once I was rushing against the Rangers, and I crossed their blue line and I heard a voice say, 'Drop it! Drop it!' So I made this drop pass and skated in to screen the goalie, and by the time I turned around Vic Hadfleld was on a breakaway for New York and he scored. He was the one that was saying, 'Drop it!' Every time I start to get a swelled head I think about that play or all the other mistakes I made and I still make. If the fans don't notice, well, so much the better." When he was a rookie Orr used to go to the bench quivering with rage about his ineptness and turn his head into the partition so that no one would see the tears of frustration. "The Orrs cry a lot," he says in his usual head-down mumble. "We're a blubbery, sentimental family of black Irish." But he no longer cries at hockey games.

In Orillia, Ontario, a pickup team of professional ice-hockey players is playing a benefit floor-hockey game against a team of retarded teen-agers. Up and down the hardwood floor they rush, trying to propel a doughnut-shaped piece of felt with broomsticks, and the checking is vicious. At a break in the action one of the retarded boys says to Bobby Orr, "Can I use your gloves?" The equipment trade is made, and the boy mumbles, "You know something? I don't like you." Orr says gently, "I'm sorry you don't." The game continues, and the boy checks Orr savagely. Then at the final whistle he walks over to Orr and flings the gloves right in his face. "I don't like you," he says again. Later Orr tells his friends, "Aw, it's nothing. He's just a poor retarded child who got something into his head." But when he retells the story he finds it difficult to finish and excuses himself to go into the kitchen for something he doesn't need.

"He's a bleeding heart and do-gooder, that's all," says his lawyer and friend, Alan Eagleson, a former athlete himself and Member of the Canadian Parliament. "And most of it's private. He doesn't even tell me about it. He doesn't get receipts, and we lose all kinds of tax deductions because he doesn't make a record of it. Every once in a while he cleans out his whole wardrobe and gives it to the priest over at the Sacred Heart in Watertown. No, Bobby's no Catholic; he's barely even a Baptist. But he's the most Christian man I've ever known. He'll get $500 for an appearance somewhere, and he'll give it to the first charity worker he sees. I asked him what happened to his bonus check last year. He says, "Oh, I remember, I endorsed it over to Father Chase." You wouldn't have space to list the things he's honorary chairman of: Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada, United Fund of Boston, March of Dimes, all kinds of things. But that isn't where his time goes. His time goes in visiting hospitals, orphan homes, poor kids, things like that. It's more than a duty with him, it's an obsession."

Orr's charitable activities have become a quiet legend in hockey, even while he does his best to keep them personal and private. He turns the subject off whenever it comes up. It takes a week of persistent questioning to elicit the following: "O.K., I'm lucky, right? I've been gifted, right? But the world is full of people who've not been gifted. Not only haven't been gifted, but have had things taken away from them. All I have lo do is see one of them—some little girl that can't walk and yet she keeps on smiling at me, some lady like Deanna Deleidi who goes home to an iron lung every night and still gives me a kiss and a hug after every hockey game. All I have to do is see someone like that and then I don't think I'm such a big hero anymore. I think that compared to those people I'm a very small article! A very small, lucky article! It knocks me down pretty bloody fast. It cuts deep into me, and I'd rather not talk about it. It's very personal with me. Ask me about broads or booze, anything else."

"He's been too damn good, and he better cut it out," says a teammate. "He's even given money to some hockey players. He thinks it's a loan, but it's a gift—he'll never see it again. All this running around to mental hospitals and V.A. hospitals and poor people's parishes—it's gonna start showing up on the ice, in his play. This is his big problem, the way other people have problems with liquor or dope or women."

"It's reached the point where something's got to give," says Frosty Forristall. "It's either gotta be his play or his charities. Every time I turn around in the apartment there's five kids from Cerebral Palsy and a photographer, and it's time to go to the game and Bobby's saying, 'No, no, no hurry, this is more important," and he'll sit there forever with those kids."

Early afternoon in Boston. The Bruins have finished a short workout, and now several of them have repaired to the 99 Club, a Joycean bar-and-lunchroom not far from the Boston Garden. One of them is Bobby Orr. He is sitting at the rearmost table eating cheeseburgers and drinking beer and pausing every few minutes to sign an autograph or accept an outstretched hand.

The bartender comes over to the table for about the fifth time. He bears slips of paper for autographs, and he issues instructions, which Orr meticulously follows. "Write: To Evans from your pal Bobby Orr, the bartender says. "Here, on this one make it: 'To Julie with love." She's 5. On this one here make it: 'Dear Barrie—that's B-A-R-R-I-E—hope you get well soon!' "

From time to time various women appear at this far end of the bar, and Orr is not unappreciative of their charms. A few women detach themselves from the others and saunter over for introductions. Orr is polite and restrained. A teammate whispers, "Bobby's got this thing about women, see. They all want to mother him and follow him home and do his cooking and everything else, and Bobby's as normal as the next guy, right? But then he can't get rid of them. It's not in him to treat a woman badly. So when he's seen enough of some broad it'll take him four months to let her down gently."

The afternoon wears on. Orr is drinking beer after beer and is showing no effects whatever. If the Chicago Black Hawks cannot knock him down, neither can Michelob.

"See that bartender?" Orr says to a visitor. "That's Tommy Maher. Watch out or he'll hit you for a five-or 10-dollar bill. A few weeks later you'll get a note from the cancer ward of some children's hospital thanking you for helping them get a color TV. He's always selling my equipment. I gave him my skates; he auctioned them off for $1,000 for a youth center. Now he wants my shirt and my sticks."

Late in the afternoon Orr and the philanthropic bartender retire to a corner table. "What're they doing?" someone asks.

"They're working out their charity deals," a Bruin player answers. "They're figuring where they can do the most with what they've got."

An unbelieving observer slides over to see what he can hear. "Get me all the tickets you can," Maher is saying. ""I can get $54 for expansion-game tickets and $116 for regular. When they find out it's for the youth center they get the dough up fast." The two men are talking sotto voce, as though planning a bank job. "Another thing," Maher says, "this year I can get $5,000 for the skates. You just decide where you want it to go." The last thing the observer hears is Orr telling Maher, "No, Tommy, you're wrong about that one. I think we get a better deal from the nun...."

"He is entirely unmotivated by any personal desire for money," says Alan Eagleson. "If he doesn't want to do something he won't do it no matter what the money. I have him on an allowance of about $20,000 a year, and he kicks back maybe half of it unused. He makes a quarter of a million a year off the ice—endorsements and private deals and things—and I'm not saying how much on the ice. He'll be a millionaire in a few years, and he couldn't care less."

In a crassly materialistic society it almost requires the use of hallucinogenic drugs to comprehend Bobby Orr and his relationship to money, things, possessions. In the world of sport, where so many people are willing to sell their souls for 50¢ and a genuine simulated Leatherette wallet, Bobby Orr is sui generis. If, for example, you were to walk into Orr's high-rise luxury apartment overlooking Boston's Back Bay and Beacon Hill and hand him the keys and the title to a brand-new $20,000 Lamborghini sports coupe, Orr most likely would say thank you and hand them back. He already has more luxury cars than he needs—and they cost him nothing. He drives a blue Cadillac Eldorado, allows friends to drive another freebie car that is replaced each year with a new model, and his father drives still a third, a fancy station wagon. Snowmobile companies line up for the honor of giving the Orr family of Parry Sound, Ontario half a dozen of the latest models each year. A furrier insisted that Orr take a full-length mink coat as a gift, "but I chickened out on that one," Orr recalls. His consuming passion is anonymity. "That mink coat wouldn't have helped at all," he says, laughing.

The ease with which Orr turns dollars is probably unmatched in sport; certainly it is unmatched in the mid-range sport called hockey. Bobby Orr Enterprises Ltd., a Canadian corporation, sails blithely upward toward the multimillion level, and the only fingers that Orr must lift to earn most of the money are raised in his normal role as a hockey player. His most recent deal, for an unannounced but large sum, requires him to play golf with a few important people two or three times a year and show up at the company's Christmas party. Nothing more. Another company gave him $10,000 for doing two radio commercials and making a single appearance. He has deals with Yardley of London, Bic Pens, General Motors, General Foods and others. He owns all or part of a hockey camp, a car wash, apartment projects, various common stocks, a farm, a condominium in Florida. A picture book about him, Orr on Ice, was expected to sell 5,000 copies; it sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks and will probably top out at around the 100,000 mark. He has been offered $15,000 in advance for a book to be called Dear Bobby: Children's Letters to Bobby Orr, a literary motif that has heretofore been restricted to God, Santa and Art Linkletter.

"All of this is going on around him, and he doesn't give a damn," says Eagleson. "He'll think nothing of carrying $20,000 worth of checks for five months. He gave me a check last June that he's had in his wallet since Jan. 18. It was for $11,000. I think one reason for this is that a part of him doesn't want to have this kind of money because it sets him apart from his teammates, and that's the one thing he hates the most in the world. That's the one thing he'll fight you about, if you set him up as something apart from the team. He's the best team man there ever was."

It is 4:30 in the afternoon, and the night game at the grimy old Boston Garden will not begin until 8, but Robert Gordon Orr is already lounging on a bed in the Bruins' training room. "Hey," he says to no one in particular, "can a girl know you for two days and be in love with you?"

"Bobby, why don't you stop asking questions like that all the time?" Frosty Forristall says. "Stop taking 'em all so serious."

"Well, she brought me a nice present," Orr says. "It made me wonder."

"Yeah," Forristall says, "everything that happens makes you wonder."

"To tell you the truth, I think I've got the perfect number of girl friends right now," Orr says.

"How many's that?"

"Four."

It will be an hour before the other players begin trooping in, and Orr occupies the time taping his sticks and badgering Forristall. "Hey," Orr says, "how much did you pay for that shirt?"

"I think $13," the assistant trainer says.

"For that price you coulda got a new one!" Orr says, and laughs at his own joke. A few minutes go by, and he says, "Hey, did you know there was a Chinese goaltender in the league?"

"Yeah? Who?"

"Lum Lee!" (The player was Harry Lumley.)

Don Awrey walks in. "Who were you wrestling in the fight the other night?" Orr asks.

"I don't know," Awrey says disgustedly, "but he had the worst breath in Canada."

"Hey, Slippery Lips," Derek (Turk) Sanderson says to Orr. And Orr whispers, "Turk's been calling me Slippery Lips ever since we had a big argument the other night. He said in football a field goal's measured from the line of scrimmage, and I said it's measured from the point of the kick, and I proved it to him and he still won't admit I'm right. Watch!" He cups his hands and calls into the locker room, "Hey, Turk, a field goal's measured from the point of the kick, right?"

The voice of Boston's dead-end kid comes back loud and clear. "No, it ain't!" he says.

"See?" Orr says. "He just won't admit he's wrong. He's a great kid, but he just won't admit when he's wrong." He lets a few minutes go by, then calls: "Hey, Turk, I read in the paper there's a new Joe Namath fan club, but there wasn't any mention of a new Turk Sanderson fan club."

"Bleep Joe Namath," the voice responds.

"See?" Orr says gleefully. "He's mad now! See how easy it is?" Later Sanderson stomps by, three inches taller in his skates. "It's measured from the line of scrimmage!" he says to Orr.

"O.K., O.K.," says Orr. "If you say so, Turk!" The two teammates begin laughing and head out toward the ice together.

"Bobby Orr is a whole 'nother ball game, a whole new breed of superstar," says a National Hockey League official. "He brings a new image to the game. He's modest, he's restrained, he's understated. He's the exact opposite of a Joe Namath. Namath reached millionaire status as a kind of mixed-up antihero, but Orr will reach it as a hero in the classic sense. The ones who cultivate the image of the big bad athlete, boozing or chasing broads or blowing their cool, they're the vanishing breed: the Namaths, the Denny McLains. The Bobby Orrs are the incoming breed, and we better be thankful they are around."

"It's very nice of people to say that I have a special role," says Bobby Orr, "but all I can do about it is go out there and play the very best I can. I can't let it bug me. We have 18 guys and they all play to win. The Bruins, they're team guys."

On this night the Bruins have lost at home for the first time in 29 consecutive games at the Garden, and everyone dresses quietly. A few players grumble about the clutch-and-grab hockey played by the opponents. Bobby Orr says almost nothing. He has been snakebit all evening. He hit the post on two successive rushes and the second enemy goal—the one that salted away the 2-0 game—shot over Orr's stick and into an empty net; an utterly excusable event, but one that bothers him nonetheless. "Come on," he says grumpily, "let's get out of here."

Outside the dressing room the usual crowd waits. Orr signs a few autographs and bends over Deanna Deleidi's wheelchair to kiss her on the cheek. "How's your love life?" she says.

"I'm waiting for you," Orr says.

"Watch out," the young woman says. "I'll jump right out of this chair!" Orr backs away in mock horror.

"Isn't she something?" he says on the way to the parking lot. "You start out feeling sorry for her, but you get over that fast. The little bugger—she doesn't feel sorry for herself, so why should you?"

Orr fumbles a long time for the car keys. He burns rubber driving the Eldorado out of its private parking space and distractedly cuts off another car when he reaches the street. A truck, in turn, cuts him off, and Orr stands on the brakes and curses. "Two tie, all tie, you bleep!" he says. A few seconds later he crosses the yellow double line. He takes the West Boston Bridge over the Charles River, guns the long blue car the wrong way up a one-way street and swerves sharply into the parking lot of a hotel. "Come on," he says. "I got a quiet bar up here."

The entertainment at the "quiet bar" turns out to be nine earsplitting mariachis, three of them on brass, and by the time Alan Eagleson and another lawyer and Orr's petite young late date arrive the conversation has unavoidably become loud. A frowning maître d'hôtel comes over and beckons Orr and his friends to speak more softly, and Orr says, "You listen to me! Don't you ever come over to my table and tell me and my friends to be quiet!"

"What the hell," Orr says when the cowed maître d' leaves, "let's have another round and forget our worries." He orders beer for himself and drinks for the others. After a suitable interval one of the members of the party says softly, "You don't like to lose, do you, Bob?"

Orr looks at him quizzically. "Docs anybody?" he says. But he relaxes the look. "No," he says, "nobody on our club likes to lose. Nobody in sports likes to lose. But sometimes you have to. Sometimes it's good for the team." He laughs. "Anyway, that's what I keep telling myself." He orders another round.

"Hey, Alan," Orr cries over the mariachis' din. "How much did you pay for that shirt?"

"I heard that one!" Eagleson shouts back.

"Yeah? Well, did you know there was a Chinese goaltender in the league?"

"I heard that one, too, but if it'll make you feel better, go ahead."

"Lum Lee," says Bobby Orr, and three tables are convulsed with laughter.

TWO PHOTOSThe Sportsman's trophyFOUR ILLUSTRATIONS