Perhaps half or more of contemporary hockey fans never saw the incomparable Bobby Orr perform, and with this in mind, we’re indebted to Stephen Brunt and his literary landscape-altering effort Searching for Bobby Orr (Triumph Books, 2007).
A Canadian sports journalist, a hockey fan and one of Bobby Orr most particularly, Brunt in his book catapults us back into the rural rearing grounds of Parry Sound, Ontario, of the 1950s and ’60s. He invites us into his immaculately constructed, heart-felt reminiscence of an iconic prodigy, a figure whose virtuosity transcended his sport.
It was Orr — not Richard, not Howe — who first represented hockey for Sports Illustrated in its Sportsman of the Year designation, in 1970.
A literature professor once told me you could identify a great book by the success or failure of its opening and closing sentences. If those two impress you, he told me, you can be reasonably assured that what resides between them is nourishing as well. Brunt begins his examination of Orr thusly:
“On the river, he could skate forever.”
Actually, the concluding paragraph of Brunt’s Prologue foretells a special treatment thereafter. In it he artfully delineates his first-ever attendance at a hockey game, as a youth in Ontario, the beneficiary of a hockey-loving neighbor who prevailed upon Brunt’s hockey-indifferent father. Back then, there was no such thing as attending a Maple Leafs game by the common Ontario family. So Brunt in the company of his neighbor Reg did what just about everybody else did then — he patronized the local junior team. But there was a particular reason for attending on the particular day they did:
“Remember, Reg said. Remember who it was you saw today. Remember so you can tell your own kids someday. Remember. For forty years, I have tried my best.”
Hockey, for Canadians, Brunt tells us, “seems organic. It emerges out of the trees and rocks and ice, out of the long winter months, the rare, precious daylight, out of facing down nature, surviving and embracing whatever it can throw at us, enduring to spring.” It is a reflection that speaks directly to the plasma and marrow of the book’s subject. Bobby Orr wasn’t manufactured in any rink or out of any structured hockey program. His greatness arrived remarkably early in life, outdoors, and it arrived of his own passion and seemingly of God’s blessings.
Just how great, how early? For the 1962-63 hockey season Orr joined the Oshawa Generals as a bantam-aged 14-year-old. The Generals were so covetous of him that they allowed him to skip all of the team’s practices during the week, every week, and merely skate in the team’s weekend games, in deference to mother Orr’s wishes. He was selected as a second-team All Star that rookie season in Juniors. He also completed the eighth grade.
Brunt is at his best when honing in on his memory’s scrapbook of Orr’s brilliance on the ice. It is a memory that paints a vivid portrait of a player forever changing the confining notion of his position before reaching his twentieth birthday.
“Wherever he was on the ice, the puck just seemed to come to him, as though directed by a higher force. And when he carried it, when he was stickhandling, Orr never needed to look down. He could somehow feel the puck there on his stick blade . . . Orr’s skating ability was remarkable but not startling at first glance . . . Orr seemed to have five or six different speeds, different gears, each of which he could achieve without any obvious extra effort. When he accelerated, there were no little stutter steps to get going, just the same smooth, graceful motion.”
If it’s numbers you need to evaluate Orr’s best-ever brilliance, consider no more than this one: in his 1970-71 season with the Bruins Orr amassed a plus-minus tally of . . . plus one hundred and twenty four. To put that feat into perspective, consider that in his absolute prime — 1985 — the 208-pt. Wayne Gretzky skated a +98.
“The truth is,” Brunt observes, “you can adjust Orr’s statistics all you want, you can build in qualifiers, and he still stands alone . . . Just measure Orr against his contemporaries. Measure him against all others competing in the same position. There is no comparison — and his 1970-71 season stands alone as the greatest ever played by a defenseman, if not the greatest ever played by anyone in the history of the NHL.”
In chronicling Orr’s era and the athlete’s role in it Brunt selects New York Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath as a referent, a touchstone to #4. The two achieved stardom strikingly early in their pro careers, and as the ’60s ushered in redefined notions of culturally acknowledged sexuality in America, both exuded compelling and marketed-for-the-first-time-by-athletes sex appeal. But Brunt wants his reader to recognize the limitations with the comparison. Namath actively nurtured his sexual aura, and sought off-the-field fortune and diversion with it. Orr’s was less brazen and crude — he was Canadian modest through and through.
To an extent. Brunt’s eighth chapter, ‘Spin the Bobby,’ ventures where no others in journalism seemed to have before. It details the late-night practice by Orr in Boston bars when, well-beered, he’d stand before a literal wall-length of willing women and submit to being spun around by his teammates, his right arm and index finger outstretched, and end the evening back home with her his spinning stopped upon.
And did you know that Orr’s influence extended even to America’s strip clubs, based on his method of taping his stick?
” . . . years later, in the stripper’s trade, a ‘Bobby Orr’ would be a way of describing how the girls on stage trimmed their pubic hair, with just one strip down the middle.”
Who knew a biography of Bobby Orr could be a summer potboiler?
The story of Orr can’t be told without its tragic dimension: ‘Hockey Achilles’ is the narrative of the Orr knees. There are two inescapable truths about them (principally his left one): almost certainly they bore an inherent weakness or fragility that bordered on the congenital; and were his career to have commenced just 10 years later than it did, it’s virtually certain most if not all of the insidiously aggressive, invasive corrective procedures on them — career-shortening in their cumulation — would have been avoided.
I can’t guarantee that Searching for Bobby Orr will be the best book you read this summer. But I can guarantee though that should you pick it up you’ll finish it with a heightened love for the game we love.