One day last May, moments after his overtime goal had produced Boston's first Stanley Cup since 1941, a young man scarcely out of his teens stood in the Bruins' dressing room with the famed trophy in his left hand, a bottle of champagne in his right—and the world at his feet. No player in hockey history ever had a season quite like that just completed by Bobby Orr. A rookie only three years earlier, he finished 1969-70 as the league leader in scoring—an unprecedented accomplishment for a defenseman—the Most Valuable Player during the regular schedule, the Most Valuable Player in the cup playoffs, the leader of the No. 1 team in the game and, obviously, the best defenseman in the National Hockey League. And he still was only 22 years old. "So," asked a nearby newsman, "what next, Bobby, what next?" Orr stopped squirting champagne for a second. "Let's do it all over again," he said.
As Orr said it. it was just the happy gag of a momentarily elated kid and, naturally, everyone in the dressing room cheered. But considered soberly at the start of another hockey season, Bobby's statement becomes more of a mandate than a mere boast. If the expanded NHL is to go on making it big at the box office, this fantastic young spark of the Boston Bruins practically has to do it all over again. For in big-league hockey right now, overinflated and out of balance as it is, there is one Bobby Orr and a lot of other guys named Guy.
Three years ago the National Hockey League blew itself up into a soft, unwieldy mess by adding six teams from the minor leagues to its old roster of six. This year, before fully digesting that expansion, it has added two new teams to its Eastern Division—the Sabres in Buffalo and the Canucks in Vancouver. (Vancouver is east of Tokyo.) Last year's regular season champions, the Chicago Black Hawks, meanwhile have been sent to the West.
All of this has created so much competitive imbalance among the 14 teams in both divisions, not to mention the imbalance within each division, that virtually every other game promises to be a real yawn-maker. In the East neither Buffalo nor Vancouver has the remotest chance to make the playoffs. In the West, by any kind of form, Chicago will have clinched the championship by Christmas. The cold statistics as well as a comparison of playing personnel clearly indicate that seven of the 14 clubs cannot hope to compete on an equal basis. Consider these facts:
In 1967-68, the optimistic first year of expansion, the new six-team West Division won a fair 35% of its game? against the established East. In 1968-69, however, the West won only 24% of the interdivision games and last year it won only 19%. Moreover, during those three years, only one West team, the St. Louis Blues, won more games than it lost in a season. Last year the Blues won the West championship by 22 points, but they would have finished sixth in the East. Finally, in three Stanley Cup championship series against the East winner, the West team has not won a single game.
Nevertheless, despite this record of futility, there will be proportionally more interdivisional—and hence more lopsided—games than ever before. Failing tight competition to lure the fans to the ice and to the TV tube, the NHL this year must therefore depend on flashy personalities. Yet from where most of the fans sit, there is only one personality around: Orr. No matter how you count it, Bobby is box-office; Bobby is television; Bobby is $$$$$$$—for the owners, for himself, for the league, even for his fellow players.
In NHL cities where sellouts are not the rule, Orr always lures the largest crowds. It is no accident that Orr and the Bruins will be playing at Oakland this week as baseball's irrepressible Charlie Finley makes his hockey debut as owner of the Seals. In Eastern cities, where sellouts are the rule, some owners are riding along on Orr's skates to raise their ticket prices while holding down complaints.
Bobby Orr may, in fact, be the only reason why the NHL still has a national television contract. Although ratings went up 33% last year, the hockey telecasts, for the rights to which CBS paid less than a million, still failed to make a profit. '"We've lost money every year," said a CBS executive, "but maybe with this kid Orr playing like he is we'll be able to break even or maybe make a little."
Almost singlehanded, Orr has made hockey a truly major league sport. When he came into the league in 1966 the average player salary was less than $17,000, and even that of Gordie Howe—generally rated as the greatest player of all pre-Orr—was around $50,000. And most hockey players did not even know what a lawyer was. Orr changed all that, thanks to his own lawyer, Alan Eagleson, who negotiated Bobby's first contract with the Bruins and formed the NHL Players' Association. Now, four years later, the average NHL salary is more than $25,000; several players, including Howe and Bobby Hull, make $100,000; and a surprisingly large number of players are signed at more than $60,000. Dave Keon of the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't really mean it when he held out this year for $125,000; but the $65,000 he got was more money than he ever expected to see.
Knowing their stars get paid well, however, is not what brings the fans to a hockey game. What they want and have to have is hockey. And so, though Bobby Orr is the man who plays it best, the cry on the ice is, paradoxically, '"Stop Orr!" For unless you stop Orr, you can't stop the Bruins. And unless you stop the Bruins, or make a good try at it, you won't have any competition on the ice. But trying to stop Orr is one thing. Stopping him is quite another.