TORONTO – Bobby Orr waited 35 years after his final NHL game to write a book.
The result is a reflection on the nostalgia of playing hockey on frozen ponds growing up in Parry Sound, Ont., the physical and emotional pain of knee injuries that cut his career short and the off-ice struggles that the legendary Boston Bruins defenceman hasn’t talked much about.
“Orr: My Story” was also created as something of a how-to book by a grandparent about how parents, coaches and children should approach the sport.
“I touch a lot of things, people who have made a difference, people who have sacrificed so I could reach my goals,” Orr said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I talk about a lot of different things and finally I convinced myself that maybe I could put something together that the reader will get something from.”
Over roughly 300 pages, Orr, with the help of author and former player Vern Stenlund, describes his beginnings as a talented young rushing defenceman through his Hall of Fame NHL career. Lessons, like his father’s hands-off approach to hockey, are dropped in along the way.
“People would come up to my father and say, ‘Your son’s going to play in the NHL,'” Orr said. “And he’d come to me and say, ‘Look, go out and play, have fun and we’ll see what happens.’ That’s how it should be.”
Regrets aren’t a major part of the narrative, aside from the knee injuries that limited the eight-time Norris Trophy winner to just nine full NHL seasons and parts of three more. In the past, Orr hadn’t been all that open about discussing his knee issues, and this book offers a look into the psychology of injury and the mindset of an athlete robbed of the physical ability to do what his mind thinks he can.
“In the end that’s why I stopped,” he said. “I had a way I played, and I just couldn’t play like that anymore. I couldn’t skate. Skating was my game, and I just couldn’t play the game that I used to play, and that was very difficult. To finally sit there and say, ‘Hey, it’s over, you’ve taken my skates from me, I can’t play anymore’ was a very difficult thing to do. But I just couldn’t do it.”
Orr mentions early on that it wasn’t his intention to dig up dirt from the past. For much of the time, the focus remains on his journey to the NHL and the two Stanley Cups he won with the Bruins.
The one person who isn’t spared harsh criticism is former agent and former NHL Players’ Association executive director Alan Eagleson, who stole money from Orr and others along the way. Orr’s finances were destroyed by a man who went on to be convicted of fraud and embezzlement.
Orr had to be convinced by the book’s publisher to write about Eagleson, but he conceded it was the right decision and then didn’t hold back.
“He stole from the guys that he was representing and back in those days, early on, this was supposedly going towards pensions for the players,” he said. “Here’s a man, he’s been a convicted felon, stripped of his Order of Canada, out of the Hall of Fame, disbarred. What he did was disgraceful to the people that trusted him like I did. I trusted Alan. He was like a brother and I trusted him with everything. Not only me but so many players, he hurt so many players. It’s incredible.”
Orr left plenty of room for praise, especially of his wife, Peggy, several minor-hockey coaches, and the player he still admires more than any other, Gordie Howe. Perhaps more than anyone else, Orr singles out Don Cherry, as an entire chapter is devoted to “Grapes,” one of his coaches with the Bruins and a longtime friend.
“Don came to Parry Sound for an Easter Seals skate-a-thon, so before leaving town we went over to see Grandma Orr,” Orr said. “Gram Orr was, she was over 90 then and she was a little lady. We walked in, she didn’t see very well and I walked over and said, ‘You know Don Cherry.’ She’s looking up at him and she says: ‘I like you. You’re the only one that tells the truth,’ and she’s poking him in the chest. She’s over 90. Like him or dislike him, they watch and they listen.”
Orr contends that Cherry belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, more for his years on “Coach’s Corner” as a respected voice than for his one game as a player and six seasons as an NHL head coach.
That’s far from the only opinion Orr shares. Now an agent and the head of The Orr Hockey Group, the 65-year-old believes fighting and hitting should remain in the game but that the red line should be put back in and the trapezoid behind the net taken out to reduce injuries.
“I think today our game is a little more dangerous because of the size of the players, the speed of the players, the strength of the players, and we have no barriers,” Orr said. “I like the open game, but I think we’ve got to really be careful now. The players always have to be aware of where they are. Many of them are coming through the middle with their heads down.
“We are a contact game, but the thing we’ve got to rid of, we’ve got to get rid of those high, blind-side hits, the hitting from behind.”
Even with the concerns about getting hit, Orr said he’d enjoy playing today because as a creative skater and puck handler he’d have more room to work with than during his career. But he doesn’t know if his risky style would be tolerated, especially growing up in an age where kids learn systems and are coached to make the smart play from a young age.
“I played a style that most defencemen didn’t play,” he said. “Coaches didn’t like that style: defencemen going down the ice. They did not ask me to change from the time I was 14 through junior and into the pros. They just thought that’s the way I was most effective, and I would hope if I was coming into the game today that the coaches and the team would think the same thing.”
Times have changed, something Orr freely acknowledges. The innocence of he and his friends leaving in the morning to play hockey and being told by their parents to be home by dark just isn’t possible in a lot of places anymore.
But that doesn’t mean Orr is afraid to share his philosophies, like the notion that children—even if they’re that “Next One”—shouldn’t play hockey year-round and should be encouraged to play other sports. More than an attempt to get the NHL to change its rules, Orr wants his autobiography to be a teaching tool for parents, coaches and young players.
“We don’t have any control on what goes on at the NHL level in minor sports. But we’re supposed to have control over our kids’ programs,” Orr said. “There should be rules (for) what happens inside their organizations, and we all have to work together to make sure it’s a great experience for every kid. In my case, my fondest memories are of my days of minor hockey, and for some kids that’s not happening and that’s wrong.”
Eric Lindros’s parents asked Orr’s folks for advice when Lindros was the so-called “Next One.” Their answer was to do nothing, a sentiment their son tries to pass along decades later.
“I guarantee any of the parents, if your son or daughter has the ability to play at a higher level, as long as they’re having fun, as long as they love the game, as long as they have passion for the game, they’ll get a chance,” Orr said. “Keep in mind, .0025 per cent of all kids playing hockey ever play one game (in the NHL), so the chances of your son being the one, it’s slim.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Leave the kids, let them play, let them have fun, we’ll see what happens.”