It was a maneuver that Bobby Orr had orchestrated hundreds of times before. He cradled the puck on his stick inside the blue line and lured the St. Louis defenseman from his position near the goal. Click. Orr slid the puck past the on-charging defenseman to a teammate at the side of the net. Click. Teammate No. 1 passed to teammate No. 2 in front of Goaltender Ed Staniowski. Click. Red light. The resurrection of Bobby Orr as a Chicago Black Hawk was only 92 seconds old last Thursday night, and on his very first shift in a red, black and white uniform he had engineered Chicago's first goal of the season. With fine dramatic emphasis, the first huzzahs of the new hockey season had been earned by the game's richest and most celebrated team-switcher.
Unfortunately for the Blues, Orr was just warming up. On his third shift, Orr initiated the passing play that led to the second Black Hawk goal. Early in the second period Orr scored himself, his first Chicago goal, working a give-and-go with Cliff Koroll and then blasting a 40-foot wrist shot past Staniowski. And later he started the play that produced still another Chicago goal. When his debut was over, Orr had been on the ice for each of the six goals that the Black Hawks had scored in their 6-4 victory over the Blues. "You know," Chicago Center Stan Mikita said with a smile, "hockey just may be fun again."
Maybe in Chicago, but not in Boston.
As Orr opened for the Black Hawks, the Bruins played the Minnesota North Stars before only 9,221, the smallest non-snowstorm crowd in Boston since Childe Bobby arrived to save the franchise in 1966. The Bruins' owners surveyed the 5,376 empty seats in the Boston Garden, and the next day they went to the courtroom of Judge W. Arthur Garrity in search of an injunction that would prevent Orr from playing for the Black Hawks until the Bruins received proper compensation for Chicago's signing of Orr as a free agent last summer. Hearing of this, Orr's attorney, Alan Eagleson, announced in Toronto that the Black Hawks would breach Orr's five-year, $3 million contract if they gave compensation to the Bruins, and that Orr would be a free agent again.
October 17, 1976
Boston's court action clearly had the Black Hawks—and Orr—in an unsettled state Saturday night when they lost to the New York Islanders 2-1 at the Nassau Coliseum. Obviously worried that someone might slip him a piece of paper with Judge Garrity's autograph, Chicago Coach Billy Reay steeled himself in the dressing room before the game and posted injured Defenseman Bill White outside the door to keep intruders away. During the game White and Dave Logan bookended Reay behind the Chicago bench, and escorted him Secret Service style to and from the dressing room between periods. After the game Reay bolted the door again and refused to meet with reporters. Reay arranged for Orr to have a private police escort from the building, and later Reay and the other Black Hawks had their own police protection as they exited through a back door.
"I don't know what Reay's worried about," said Islander Coach Al Arbour. "People have been chasing Orr for 10 years now and haven't been able to catch him. How's some judge going to do it?"
Orr himself masked uneasiness with cheerful talk. "It's just great to be back playing hockey," he said. "I wasn't always sure that I'd be able to say that. But here I am a Chicago Black Hawk—and trying to help them win some games."
At 28, Orr was a Black Hawk after having spent half his life in what he has called "servitude" to the Bruins. He had signed with Boston as a 14-year-old amateur for a few hundred dollars in cash, a new coat of stucco for the Orr family's house in Parry Sound, Ontario, a secondhand car and the promise—never fulfilled—of some new clothes. During his decade with the Bruins, Orr radically altered the style of hockey by introducing defensemen to the attack side of the game, and he twice scored the winning goal for the Bruins in the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He also had five operations on his ravaged left knee (and one on the right knee), including two last season that limited his activity to just 10 games and convinced the Jacobs family—the third organization to own the Bruins in three years—that he was not worth any $3 million. So now he has resettled with his wife and son on a quiet street in a Chicago suburb, far from his skyscraper penthouse in downtown Boston.
"Orr has been our leader from the minute he walked in on us," Reay says. When Orr walked into Reay's office at the Chicago Stadium, his picture was already on the wall—watching Bobby Hull's 400th career goal go into the Boston net. Reay wisely allows Orr to miss some Black Hawk practices in order to rest his knees, but Orr has fit in easily with the Chicago players. "Bobby's a superstar who acts like a rookie on the fourth line," says Defenseman Dale Tallon. "He disappears into the middle of the group."
Orr's first trip with the Black Hawks began with little ceremony. There were no television crews awaiting his arrival at the St. Louis airport, and there were no bothersome autograph-seekers to disturb him when he went off for some Chinese food with St. Louis Goaltender Eddie Johnston, an old Boston teammate. His opening-night performance impressed his new teammates. "From a distance you can't appreciate Bobby Orr," said Forward Darcy Rota. "He's maybe the best who has ever played the game, yet he's still so gung-ho. Before the game he goes around to each guy in the dressing room and bangs him with his stick, wishing him luck. He's so enthusiastic, so intense, you feel you have to be the same way. And he keeps it up on the bench."
When Orr was off the ice and supposedly resting between shifts against the Blues, he stood in front of the Chicago bench and yelled encouragement to the other Black Hawks. When Mikita scored Chicago's sixth goal, Orr skated some 50 feet to embrace him in congratulation. It was an odd sight; only two years before, Orr and Mikita had engaged in a violent stick-swinging and spearing match in Chicago and afterward had not refrained from making derogatory comments about each other.
"My knee feels good," Orr said the following day on the Black Hawks' flight to New York. "I know I have a way to go, but I know now that it's going to keep getting stronger. Sure, I'm not the same player I once was, but I've learned a lot, too."
Indeed, unlike the old Boston Orr who streaked down the right side on Kamikaze flights and hurdled bodies to score goals, the new Chicago Orr showed against the Blues and the Islanders that he prefers to weave toward the middle of the ice and then slow up at the blue line in order to assemble his teammates for a play. "Bobby doesn't have that great acceleration anymore," Mikita says, "and he doesn't make the sharp, quick cuts he used to. But now, well, he's so damned smart." Even against the tight-checking Islanders, Orr had no trouble getting the puck out of the Chicago zone and onto the attack. Orr's old swashbuckling style always obscured the fact that he is hockey's most ingenious passer of the puck, and now he obviously concentrates on body and stick position with passing—not rushing—in mind. "He starts to break for that blue line like he did in the old days," says the Islanders' Eddie Westfall, another former Boston teammate, "and then remembers he doesn't want to get trapped up ice out of position."
Orr brings to the Black Hawks an offensive dimension that they have lacked since 1972, when the Chicago management refused to sign Bobby Hull for about half the $3 million it cost to obtain Orr. "Last year our power play was so bad that we used to talk about refusing the penalties," says Pit Martin. With Orr controlling the action from his right-point position, Martin scored three power-play goals in the Hawks' first two games. The Black Hawks converted four of their five power-play opportunities in St. Louis and were on the power play when they scored their only goal against the Islanders. Leading New York 1-0 in the third period, Chicago had another one-man advantage, but Reay decided that Orr needed some instant rest and kept him on the bench. The Chicago attack stuttered, and the Islanders scored a shorthanded goal to tie the score. Billy Harris of the Islanders later beat Goaltender Tony Esposito with a high shot to give New York its 2-1 win. Still, Reay was hardly despondent.
"I'm convinced now that the personality of a team needs a player with charisma," he said, "and Orr's presence definitely has changed this team's personality. Before, we had guys going backward when they should have been going forward. We had to scratch for anything, and we never had any of those rocking-chair games that make the season less drudgery. I'm optimistic, very much so."
Orr's arrival so far has not produced the financial lift the Black Hawks had expected when they shelled out their $3 million. Chicago still has not signed a local television contract. None of the exhibition games in Chicago were sellouts, and last Sunday night's home opener, a 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks in which Orr set up three of the goals, attracted only about 16,000, 4,000 short of capacity. The Black Hawks refuse to disclose any ticket information, so there is no way to determine what effect Orr has had on season ticket sales.
In Boston, though, the Bruins' season sales have dropped by 2,200 per game, and the club has had little response to a heavy media advertising campaign. Orr, in fact, attracted a larger crowd when he played in Boston as a 17-year-old with the amateur Oshawa (Ontario) Generals than the Bruins lured for their first game in the post-Orr era. Irate Bostonians hung signs from the balconies, THE JACOB'S BROS SOLD US DOWN THE RIVER WITHOUT AN ORR, one read, COMPENSATION ORR CANCELLATION, said another. In the street a scalper lamented, "The business is gone. This is worse than the days when they never made the playoffs." In the 3Bs, the preferred watering hole of the Boston players, Orr's old Boston pictures have been moved aside and replaced by a photo of Orr in his Chicago uniform. In Jeremey's, a Hanover, Mass. bar where two years ago each Bruin game was watched on a huge television screen by crowds so large they bulged the walls, only a few customers showed up Thursday night, and they watched Captains and the Kings—not the Bruins—on a 20-inch Magnavox. Co-Owner Paul Coady knew why. "When Orr left, all the fire in the hockey interest died," he said. "People don't care about the Bruins anymore."
Exactly what Chicago owes the Bruins for Orr is unclear. There is speculation that Chicago's payment to the Jacobses consists solely of the concession rights at Chicago Stadium. Indeed, in an interview with Boston journalist Clark Booth last month after the Canada Cup, in which Orr was MVP, Bruin President Paul A. Mooney seemed to state Boston's position with perfect clarity when he said: "They say he [Orr] was great last week and I guess he was. But he won't last the season. Our diagnoses tell us he can't possibly do it. What's in there [the knee] can snap at any time, and we know it will. It could be next week. It could be next month, but it will go."
A month has passed since Mooney made those remarks, Orr has played without any knee problems, and now the Bruins have gone to court for compensation. Still, the doubts remain. "Will he hold up in the grind of January and February?" asks Defenseman Denis Potvin of the Islanders. "Even if he does, I think it will be much tougher in the playoffs, when teams really concentrate on checking and hitting."
Orr agrees. "I said last winter I'd give it one last shot," he says, "and this is it. So far everything's been more than I could have dreamed of. Afraid? If afraid is lying awake in bed at night, hoping I'm not going to get hurt again, then I'm afraid. But when the uniform goes on, I don't think about it. I'm going to get hit. I know it. When you become protective, you get hurt."
As Potvin says, the question is. 'How long can he stay healthy?"