It grips the reader’s attention and refuses to let go. Brunt will receive wide acclaim for this work, and it will be deserved both for his fluid writing and telling it like it really was in the days when Orr made such a huge impact in hockey on and off the ice.
The Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman shunned the project, telling Brunt he planned on writing an autobiography at a later date. Orr’s rebuff was, in retrospect, the best thing that could have happened because Brunt was thus freed from any pressure to sugar-coat Orr’s past. Many in Orr’s inner circle also refused to talk to Brunt.
“It was an interesting challenge, a tricky one,” Brunt explained during an interview.
There is an irony in the cold shoulders he got.
“The people who closed their door on me would have been people who would have had only good things to say about him – teammates, coaches, people who probably worship at the alter of Bobby Orr anyways and who would have told me what a great player and teammate he was,” says Brunt. “It’s not that there are deep dark secrets there.
“I didn’t go out to find the worst thing the guy had ever done. That wasn’t the idea. But I hit some barriers.”
The Globe and Mail columnist opted to do a period piece on Orr. The environment from which Orr emerged, his rise to stardom and his influence on hockey are chronicled. It doesn’t deal much with Orr’s life after the 1976 Canada Cup tournament. David Remnick used this method in his excellent 1999 book on Muhammad Ali.
“I’ll take whatever comes from the book,” Brunt replies when asked about eventual feedback. “I believe in it. I’m not hiding from anybody.”
Orr’s emergence brought big-money contracts into hockey.
“He comes along coincidental with the great expansion and with the modernization of hockey as a business,” says Brunt. “He’s the poster boy in a lot of ways for the big expansion, and he’s inextricably linked to the guy who was the first agent in hockey – one of the first agents in all sports.
“He brings (Alan) Eagleson into the game, Eagleson brings him to a different level of celebrity and wealth, and he becomes the greatest advertisement for the services of an agent. If you look at everything that fell out of that for hockey, Orr had a massive effect – probably more than anything he did stylistically on the ice.”
A teen arrived from Parry Sound, Ont., and changed the sport.
“On a lot of levels, he was an insecure guy from Parry Sound who got dropped into an entirely different world,” Brunt explains. “Parry Sound was like the 1940s.
“You go from the 1940s to Boston in 1966 and it’s a different place. He was in a lot of ways trying to cover his tracks – not in any kind of horrible way. He’s a smalltown, undereducated kid from Parry Sound who always realized that.
“Eagleson was the buffer. Eagleson did the talking for him, told him what to say, what to wear. Eagleson did a lot of things for him. Bobby was always sort of trying to appear cool, calm and collected. He was all those things on the ice. Off the ice, he was worried about somebody saying, ‘Hey, you’re just a hick kid from Parry Sound.’ “
Orr, in his youth, was a raw talent. Today, teens such as Sidney Crosby are more worldly. Orr “looks like a terrified kid from a small town, absolutely spooked” during his first on-air interview on a Saturday CBC hockey broadcast.
“Now, they wouldn’t be,” says Brunt. “I don’t think Sidney Crosby has ever looked like that in his life because he’s been prepared.”
There could be a dark side to Orr, which is understandable given the knee injuries that reduced his NHL career to only nine full seasons, and because of Eagleson’s influence. Long after his playing days, Orr would be instrumental in bringing The Eagle down.
“What would have happened had he played out a full career? It’s one of the great questions in hockey,” says Brunt. “It’s an open question.
“I assume that modern medical technology would have made a huge difference. Everything I’ve been told suggest it could have made a huge difference and he could have played well into the 1980s.
“That’s part of the arc of the story, the tragic underpinning. Plus there is the great betrayal, the father figure who let him down.”
Orr did not respond to a request for a comment regarding Brunt’s book.
(Searching For Bobby Orr, by Stephen Brunt, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, $34.95).