OF COURSE the parents try to stay cool. But when the phone rings and that voice says,"This is Bobby Orr,..." some can't help themselves. "No!"they'll say, or giggle and talk too loud: Just the idea of telling the cousins,the folks at work, You won't believe who called last night, is enough to get the nerves jangling.
This is an article from the March 2, 2009 issue
Still, this is their boy's future at stake, so they usually recover and manage a few hard questions, and then the conversation will start sailing along and, Why, he's just so easy to talk to, so down-to-earth, like everyone said, and soon it's just two people gabbing, no starry-eyed stuff until the voice says something about coming by to talk a bit more. Then it sinks in: Come by? Him? And, still listening, now there's this quick scan of that family room in Thunder Bay or Hull or whatever Canadian town happens to have produced the next raw piece of hockey talent, a desperate glance at the stains on the coffee table, the drapes that long ago needed replacing.... Here?
"It's unbelievable," says Barbara Tavares, mother of top Canadian junior John Tavares. "Your legs are like jelly."
Bobby Orr—for many the greatest hockey player ever, the defenseman who altered the essence of the game—has been making his living as an agent for 13 years now, and he's become, as celluloid agent Jerry Maguire put it, good in the living room. Heand partners Paul Krepelka and Rick Curran incorporated his Orr Hockey Group in2002 and have built a clientele of 33 active NHL players (fourth most of any agency) that includes Ottawa center Jason Spezza, Carolina's Eric Staal and CamWard, and Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter, who last June signed a three-year,$15 million extension. Neither lawyer nor marketing expert, Orr leaves negotiations to his partners, serving as all-around adviser, player counselor,exemplar and conversation stopper. "We were talking to different agents,but once I met him, my decision was pretty much made," Spezza says.
Who, after all,could better understand the pressure of becoming a national darling at 14, the psychic toll exacted by injuries, the threat of business "advisers"ever ready to sink their teeth into an athlete's balance sheet? Who better to remind overpaid kids of their responsibilities to their talent, teammates and public?
Indeed,"Bobby Orr: Agent" might make perfect sense, except there's simply no even less precedent for a generational icon to enter this long-derided trade and even less reason to think the fiercely reticent Orr would be the first. Even now,it's no secret that he regards player representation as a generally dirty business; in 1996, when Orr began working as an agent, the irony was lost on neither friend nor foe.
"I found it hard to believe," Alan Eagleson says.
Yet here Orr is,despite—or perhaps, because of—the fact that Eagleson, the fallen power broker whose hockey empire grew out of his role as Orr's agent, left him all but broke as part of one of sports' most spectacular financial scandals. Here Orr is,knees and fortune rebuilt, 60 years old and rounding a corner in 2009. He has now been an agent for longer than his run as an NHL star and with his clientele growing and his firm embroiled in a big-time fee dispute with Islanders goalieRick DiPietro, Orr is playing hardball. And on his terms: All agents alternate between vocal advocate and secret-keeping consigliere, but Orr has taken the public-private shuffle to new extremes, keeping his face before the Canadian public in TV ads that highlight his self-deprecating humor and that eternally boyish Bobby-ness, while keeping any thoughts on the league, his business and his life under tight wraps.
Orr hasn't given a substantial interview in nearly two decades and doesn't need to. Thirty years after the Boston Bruins retired his number 4, the hockey world is still dazzled by the magic of his name: Parents will always take his call, team execs and coaches who played against or idolized him will always agree to meet. And once inside Orr works to defuse any hero worship. He'll giggle and tell jokes at his own expense, recall how it was for him to be young and homesick and crying, how it felt rising so fast. He'll steer the conversation to what he can do for your boy. Sometimes, though, the family will want a little more. And when, in the case of a prospect like Spezza, whose Canadian junior career nearly matched Orr's for bated-breath mania, a cocky little brother pipes up at the dinner table, "I bet you can't score on me!" well, sure, Orr will take that bet: 10 shots, score fewer than five and the kid wins.
So it was that,in the fall of 1998, 11-year-old Matt Spezza found himself scrambling down to the basement in his Mississauga, Ont., home to strap on goalie pads, gloves and mask. Finally Orr pushed away from the table, hobbled downstairs in his golf shirt and slacks, and picked up one of Jason's sticks. He flipped the first two shots up, easy to block, but Matt was cocky and started taunting the man who scored 296 goals, the player known in practice to gather a puck off the ice as if with a spoon and with back to the goal swat it on a line into the top corner of the net. "Is that it?" Matt said. "Come on, let 'em go."
It happened fast:Boom, boom, boom. One low, right under the glove, then another and another;everybody laughing, but the room getting warm. "You could see it," Matt says. "He could put it wherever he wanted." Then as quick as it came,the moment passed. Orr eased up, let the kid knock away the last pucks and win by one, done with remembering what Bobby Orr could do.
HE RAN A tight room," former Bruins center Derek Sanderson likes saying about the man who helped saved his life, but that doesn't do the matter near enough justice—not with Orr's first Boston coach, Harry Sinden, calling him the Godfather and his last, Don Cherry, relating how teammates shortened it over the decade that Orr played a kind of hockey no one had ever seen. "God here yet?" the otherBruins would say, or "Where was God last night?" But not to Orr's face.Not once.
God came toBoston in 1966, 18 years old, and within two seasons the once-pathetic Bruins had been transformed into a spectacular, mean, winning bunch. Some of that was due to the '67 trade that brought in scoring machine Phil Esposito and forwardsKen Hodge and Fred Stanfield, but it was Orr, the working-class product ofParry Sound, Ont., who set the tone. His on-ice artistry—coupled with a willingness to hurl that 6-foot frame in front of any slap shot, into any opponent—endowed him with ultimate authority. He barely had to say a word.
Game days, Orr would arrive at 2:30 for a 7:30 start, play cards, bang around the emptiness,sort through the 144 sticks sent him every few weeks—weighing them, selecting two, maybe three, discarding the rest—getting himself ready. His teammates would file in at five or six o'clock. He'd wander about then with one stick weighted with lead or with pucks taped to the blade, shifting it from hand to hand. Locker room music rarely played. "I have never run into any player who brings the intensity that he brought," says Sinden, who spent 45 years as a coach or front office executive. "His silence, his looks, were enough to tell you if he didn't like what was happening. And he made the rest of us the same way. You could not be around him without feeling that and getting inline."
If you had a bad period? Or dogged it? Sanderson's locker was by a pillar, and he'd set his chair so the pillar would block Orr's view from across the room. "Is he looking?" Esposito would whisper. Always, Orr would be staring lasers.Sanderson only felt worse when Orr would wait until he was alone, come over and mutter, "You got to pick it up. We need you."
"God here yet?" the other Bruins would ask about Orr, or "WHERE WAS GOD LAST NIGHT?" But not to Orr's face, not once.
Then Orr would hit the ice again, and it was wondrous to see—for the fans, yes, but even opponents found themselves entranced. When Bobby Clarke was a rookie center for the Philadelphia Flyers—the team that later raised the ante on Boston's bruising ways—he found himself all but cheering Orr's speed and control; he couldn't help himself. It wasn't just the end-to-end rushes, Orr's thick legs pushing him to a gear few could match, to scoring levels unheard of for a defenseman. It was his style. There was just one strip of black tape on Orr's stick and the puck seemed glued to it, that fine detail so compelling thatBoston strippers took to sporting the equivalent of today's French bikini wax—a thin strip of pubic homage dubbed "a Bobby Orr."
During one penalty kill against the old Seals in Oakland, Orr swooped behind goal in possession, tussled with an opponent and lost a glove. "He went around by the blue line, came back, picked up his glove—still had the puck," Esposito says. "[Goalie] Gerry Cheevers was on the bench, and I'm standing there andI hear Cheesy say to me, 'Espo, you want The Racing Form?' I said, 'Might as well; I'm not touching the puck!' Bobby killed about a minute and 10, 20seconds of that penalty—and then ...," with even the Oakland players cheering now, "... he scored. Greatest thing I ever saw."
In 1969--70 Orr became the only player to sweep the league's top awards—MVP, defenseman,playoff MVP and scoring title—and capped it off by scoring the StanleyCup--winning goal over St. Louis in overtime. The following season, the Bruins scored 124 more even-strength or shorthanded goals than they gave up when Orr was on the ice, and that remains his most lasting monument; the man most mentioned as Orr's rival for the title of greatest ever, Wayne Gretzky, never cracked +100.
Yet Orr bristled at the attentions of superstardom, would tell coaches to find reasons to bawl him out like the rest. His last good season, 1974--75, he scored 46 goals but probably gave away a half dozen more by insisting that teammates had deflected the puck in. It's no accident that his signature play—and the one that won the first of his two Stanley Cups, against the Blues—was a give-and-go. Orr's best rushes were never look-at-me affairs but a storm he brewed on one end of the ice, gathering in his fellow Bruins for the inexorable sweep forward. When he began to move, says former Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, the sensation was unique: All the Canadiens began backpedaling in a small panic, like beachgoers sighting a coming monster wave.
"He brought others with him; he wanted them involved," says Dryden. "That's what made him so different: It felt like a five-player stampede moving toward you—and at his pace. He pushed his teammates, [because] you're playing with the best player in the league and he's giving you the puck and you just can't mess it up. You had to be better than you'd ever been."
LORD, DO they remember. For hard men of a certain age, and for Canadians, especially, the mere mention of Orr can undam a rush of feeling. "Guys make fun of me because I'm always talking about him," says Cherry, whose second life as a hockey broadcaster gives him plenty of opportunity. "My son made [an Orr highlight] tape to Carly Simon—Nobody Does It Better—and I cry every time I see it. I don't know why."
It's no mystery.Orr did it all: blocked shots, dealt out punishing blows, endured the swooping hits of players desperate to stop him, somehow. When it came time to defend a teammate or himself, he fought. Gladly. "Too much," Esposito says."He didn't have to, but he had a temper."
The fact is,despite his schoolboy haircut and shy grin, Orr was a killer on the ice. He laid out the Blackhawks' Stan Mikita with a perfect forearm cheap shot,hammered the hell out of Mikita's teammate Keith Magnuson at every opportunity,waited a year to get his revenge on Toronto's Pat Quinn—Orr jumped him in a brawl—after Quinn knocked him unconscious with a riot-sparking hit in the '69playoffs.
"Pound for pound, he might've been the toughest guy in the game," Quinn says. "He wasn't a hold-and-throw like a lot of guys. He could go with both his hands,like a prizefighter."
A game-changing talent, a taste for blood: Those were enough to make Orr a hockey hero for life. But vulnerability is what makes him resonate still. A recent TV ad shows Orr sitting silently while a lengthening scar on his famous left knee serves asa time line of victory, and loss; he played, really, only eight full seasons,and operations on both knees left him a near cripple at 30. Ever since,commentators have made him the equivalent of Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax, even JohnF. Kennedy, shooting stars who left the world wondering what might have been.His last hurrah, the 1976 Canada Cup series, provided the perfect, bittersweet coda: Orr in so much pain that he couldn't practice, beating the Russians on one leg, outplaying the Czechs single-handedly, "the most courageous thatI've ever seen a hockey player," says Clarke, the captain. Hockey nation didn't disagree.
"He isCanada," says Barb Tavares, whose son nevertheless ended up signing with another agent. But if Orr is how a certain segment of Canadians want to see themselves—self-effacing, self-sacrificing, quietly great—there's a glint of recognition too, in what lies beneath the forced politeness, the goofy charm.In any conversation there's a tension that never leaves Orr, the feeling that his spring-loaded temper might snap and turn the warmest banter to ice. When first contacted by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Orr couldn't have been more welcoming,shuffling through his calendar for interview dates; in a second phone conversation he declared that he didn't want, as he has told many journalists,"a story about the agent business." He never returned another call.
Cherry has felt more than one freeze-out as Orr's coach in the 1970s and even after the two battled as celebrity coaches in the annual Top Prospects Game a few years ago.That time Orr didn't speak to him for six months. "Great heart, but he hates pretty good," Cherry says, and when asked how Orr was to coach, he pauses.
"I got to be careful here," he says finally. "You had to handle him right. You had to know when to talk to him; he was not an easy guy. He could spot a phony a mile away. There were so many people after him all the time that he became suspicious; he was never really friendly with a lot of people. When I first went there, I made the mistake: He was eating alone, and I made conversation.How was the fishing this year? And he picked up right away that I was just making conversation, and he didn't like that. He didn't like any bull----, and you know what? He's exactly like that today. He's pretty unforgiving. If you cross him, you will never get the chance to cross him again."
Eagleson crossed him the worst, of course, exposing a weakness as damaging as any knee injury. Once the cocky and high-flying master of the hockey universe, an irresistible force who rode Orr's celebrity into a multi hatted—and conflict-ridden—position as executive director of the NHL Players' Association, hockey's most powerful agent and chairman of Hockey Canada's international committee, Eagleson would be accused of pilfering money from player pension funds and disability payments, and in 1998 he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud, including those involving the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canada Cup proceeds. He served six months in a Toronto jail, was disbarred, got kicked out of the Canadian sports hall of fame.
Eagleson's bargaining tactics had made Orr the NHL's highest-paid player as a rookie, and Orr expected to be a millionaire when he retired in 1978: Eagleson had promised him, after all. But in '90 Orr told a Canadian newspaper in detail how, in blindly following Eagleson's tangled financial advice, he had ended up with just $450,000 in assets—and tax bills that wiped him out. He had his homes inBoston, Cape Cod and Florida and a name to sell, but a wife, Peggy, and two sons, Darren and Brent, to support. And the money was gone.
For press and public, Eagleson's crime against Orr was best summed up by the pair's final contract negotiation with the Bruins in 1976. Boston offered a multiyear deal that included an 18.5% ownership stake in the team, worth an estimated $49million today. Though Eagleson made that offer public, Orr insisted that he didn't know about it until years later and, more to the point, believedEagleson when he said there was a better deal to be gotten with the Chicago Blackhawks—owned, it just so happened, by Eagleson's close friend Bill Wirtz.Such obliviousness seems incredible, but then Orr had known Eagleson for 15years. "He had total control," Orr said in '90. "He said we were brothers. And I trusted him like a brother."
For his part,Eagleson won't talk about specifics and says, "I wouldn't do anything differently. That's how I was and that's how it is, and in the long haul of life the truth will eventually out."
What's not in dispute is the depth of Orr's trust. Esposito didn't like Eagleson, but Orr wouldn't hear a harsh word against him, and the tension between the teammates became palpable anytime his name came up. One day in the spring of '76, with negotiations at an impasse—Orr would eventually sign a five-year contract with the Blackhawks, but injuries limited him to just 26 games in two seasons—Cherry was alone at one end of the Boston Garden dressing room, fixing a stick for his son, when he noticed Bruins president Paul Mooney walk in and approach Orr as he sat pedaling on an exercise bike.
"Bobby, can I speak to you a minute?" Mooney said, puffing on a pipe.
"F--- off,Paul," Orr replied. "You're trying to drive a wedge between Al andI."
"Just let me talk to you for 30 seconds."
"F--- off.Don't talk to me."
Mooney shook his head and walked out.
"They were going to offer Bobby all that money, 18 percent," Cherry says. "Nope:'F--- off.' That's how loyal he was to Eagleson. You couldn't convince him.Once he made up his mind? Forget it."
RICK CURRAN first heard the question six years ago, after he became Bobby Orr's business partner.Does Bobby participate? He's got the name, and you guys do all the work, right?Come on, Rick: Is he involved?
"You don't understand. This guy gets up 5:30, 6 o'clock every morning," Curran says."By the time I talk to him—and we talk every day between 7 and 7:30—I can tell by the sound of his voice whether our clients had a good or bad night the night before. He knows how everybody did; if someone's minutes are down, we know he's either injured or hasn't done what he should've been doing. And by the end of the conversation we have a list of seven or eight items for that day that we're going to address. Involved? He still lives and breathes it."
Endorsement contracts and public relations work had lifted Orr out of the financial ashes left by Eagleson, and in 1996 Orr bought into the Boston agency created by Bob Woolf. Now agenting gave him a chance to attack business as relentlessly as he did the game. "Dozens of calls every day—to players, to scouts, to skill coaches: How's our guy doing?" says Jay Fee, who worked at the agency before going out on his own in 2002.
Orr also drew a clear line: His agency would not handle—as Eagleson had—player finances."Being victimized by a bad agent, I think Bobby wanted to run a business that would never do that to anybody," Fee says.
Still, Orr leaves much of the on-the-ground detail to his partners. The Flyers' JeffCarter—handled primarily by the Philadelphia-based Curran—emerged as a breakout star for the firm this season, and he has scarcely any relationship with Orr.Meanwhile, Orr's Boston-based partner, Paul Krepelka, is the agent of record inDiPietro's case; he represented the Islanders goalie up to and including the moment DiPietro signed a record 15-year, $67.5 million contract in 2006. The relationship frayed soon after and DiPietro fired the firm, refusing to pay its percentage because he had never signed a standard player agent contract. Last summer, Orr filed a grievance with the NHL Players' Association, butDiPietro—who declined to speak to SI—says he owes nothing. Krepelka agrees thatDiPietro didn't sign a contract with the Orr Group, but says he negotiated the pact and should be paid. The grievance is expected to be heard this spring and"could segue into a lawsuit," Krepelka says.
His talent, his taste for blood, were enough to make Orr a hockey hero for life. But VULNERABILITY IS WHAT MAKES HIM RESONATESTILL.
Orr's role,though, was never about pen and paper. Then and now, he has traveled widely to take in college and pro games, bundled golf rounds with contacts in coaching and broadcasting, used his stature to gain an entrée denied rival agents. He often showed up unannounced at the Maple Leafs' offices when Pat Quinn, his old sparring partner, was coach and general manager from 1998 to 2006. Quinn usually didn't deal with player reps, but he always welcomed Orr. Eventually talk would turn to a client like defenseman Tomas Kaberle, and Quinn says, Orr would "get to where he wanted to go. And it was always about the kid, abouthis best interest." When, during Kaberle's 2001 holdout, hockey analyst Gord Miller of The Sports Network in Canada took an on-air shot at Kaberle's defense, Orr got in Miller's face, stats at the ready, snapping, "You'd better rethink that!"
Orr's loyalty to the faithful is just as fierce. If he has refused to donate signed pictures or gear to a desperate fan, or refused a charity golf tournament or hospital visit, no one has heard of it. In 2006 a story ran in The Boston Globe about a high school hockey player, Bill Langan, who played in a regional title game on the day of his mother's wake; the kid mentioned that his mother used to watch Orr play. Orr called, asked if he could help. Langan asked him to come to a team dinner. Orr made no promises. But he showed up without warning and stayed an hour.
As for the big,bad—and now old—Bruins, Orr is, Sinden says, "still the Godfather."When the flamboyant and reckless Sanderson showed up in Chicago in the winter of '78 stoned and unable even to hold a cup of coffee steady, Orr personally checked him into a hospital and was there when Sanderson woke up with three doctors staring at him. "Who's going to tell him?" one said.
"I'll tell him," Orr said and then leveled with Sanderson: "You're a full-blown alcoholic and a drug addict. It's over. You've got to go to rehab." Orr paid for that first stint. When Sanderson relapsed, he says, Orr paid to send him back. And then again. "He never left me," Sanderson says.
When Sanderson finally cleaned up, and began a new life as a financial adviser for athletes in the 1990s, Orr invested with him, gave Sanderson the chance to work with Orr's clients too.
Orr also paid for rehab stints for former Bruins trainer John (Frosty) Forristall, his roommate during his first years with the Bruins and an irreverent bon vivant whose alcohol problems led Esposito, then the general manager of the Tampa BayLightning, to let him go in 1994. Forristall returned to Boston jobless, and soon after he was told he had brain cancer. Bobby and Peggy took Forristall into their home for a year until he died in '95 at 51.
"I'm glad somebody was there for him," says Frosty's older brother, Bill, fromFlorida. "He wouldn't come down here. I was a little too hard-nosed; I wouldn't put up with his drinking." Orr stood by Frosty to the end,hovering over him in the hospital, serving as a pallbearer at his funeral. But he wouldn't speak to Bill.
"Bobby wasn't too happy with me," Bill says. "John apparently said something that put me in a bad light. I've never been able to figure it out."
MAYBE IT was the fact that he'd just turned 60, or that two knee-replacement surgeries had freed him of cane and pain. Maybe he figured he could finally take the onslaught of memories without breaking. But on Nov. 27, Orr relented at last, stood on the ice at the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ont., and allowed the junior team he left in 1966 to retire his number.
Still, he could barely sleep for two nights before. Oshawa, after all, had known him all the way back in 1962 when Orr was raw, wide-open, 14 years old and missing his parents, Doug and Arva, up in Parry Sound. Oshawa was where Wren Blair, a G.M.in the Bruins system, planted him and where the Eagle got his hooks in.
But Arva died in2000 and Doug in '07, both in winter, and when Orr took the microphone that night, his voice quavered and his eyes filled. "I know my, uh, mom and dad are watching tonight," he said. "I know they're very, very happy ...very proud. My mom and dad were the perfect minor hockey parents. Their whole philosophy was, Look, go out and play, have fun, and let's see what happens.And I wish there were more parents that thought like that when it came to their kids playing hockey...." And the standing crowd cheered the dig at hockey parents gone wild, cheered how things used to be.
Yet as much as he doesn't like being called an agent—"He'd rather it be, 'family representative,'" Sinden says—that's what Orr is. He famously never put either of his sons on skates, but he has his oldest, Darren, 34, working forThe Orr Group in Boston. Bobby Orr is now part of the machinery of parents,media, teams and agents dedicated to finding the next Bobby Orr.
In January, Orr returned to Oshawa to coach against Cherry in the 2009 Top Prospects Game, the annual showcase for top junior talent. It was Orr's 10th appearance; he took part in the inaugural event in 1996 as a celebrity, but once he became a player rep, competing agents cried conflict of interest—he would, after all, be coaching a game designed to help determine draft order, salaries and the sizeof an agent's commission. Orr offered to withdraw. Organizers wouldn't hear of it.
As much as he DOESN'T LIKE TO BE CALLED AN AGENT,that's what he is—part of the machinery dedicated to finding the next Bobby Orr.
On the morning of this year's game Orr and his team of prospects posed for the traditional team photo. Afterward, the coaches and players scattered to the locker room, leaving their chairs and platforms and mess behind. Orr didn't say a word. He grabbed two chairs and skated them off the ice. Then he went back for a riser, bent over, and shoved it slowly to one end of the empty rink: wrong door. He wheeled and shoved it the length of the ice again, leaving it at the right one so the arena crew would have a bit less work.
The players returned after a few minutes and began circling the ice counterclockwise. Orr joined in, dipping into the flow and skating hard again, reversing time if only for a few laps. Cherry hadn't seen Orr on the ice pain-free in 35 years."Before, it was push and glide, really sad to see," he said. "Now? You would never know."
Orr gathered up a puck and wristed it low into the empty goal, making the net shiver. He stopped,began feeding all the young men as they swooped past, clockwise now: Foligno, Holland, de Haan, Tavares, O'Reilly. He tapped gloves with one, cracked a joke with another. Now Eakin, McNabb, Roussel flashed past, and now Schenn, and Orr motioned with his stick, and Schenn passed back the puck, maybe three inches wide. "Hey!" Orr snapped, and banged his stick on the ice to say, right here, and Schenn got closer with the next one. Orr gave him a grin.
He came off the ice later, and the press gathered and someone asked if he remembered what it felt like to be that young. He spoke about playing as a kid, outdoors mostly,shooting through the fierce cold on the Seguin River, on Georgian Bay,scrapping on icy parking lots. "No coaches, no parents," he said."Get the puck and just go.
"It was never a job for me. Even during my pro days, it was never, ever a job. That's what these kids have to understand: Just enjoy it, keep that love and passion for the game. I think what sometimes we do—we, the pressures, the coaches and parents—we just suck that love and passion from our kids. And I think that's wrong."
He and Cherry hada bet on the game, $100. That night Orr's side won 6--1, and Cherry gave it upat the handshake. "Money goes to money, you see that?" he said.
And then Orr,icon and agent and coach all in one, raised the bill over his head and waved it in triumph. Thousands roared. Thousands laughed. Their Bobby was back, no limp,and eyes shining. It felt perfect, the way any church does when the ceremony goes off without a hitch and the light streams just so.