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Ever since Bobby Orr came into the National Hockey League in 1966 and singlehandedly changed the concept of how to play defense, people have been waiting for his successor. The next Orr! Every young defenseman who showed flashes of greatness, from Dale Tallon to Denis Potvin to Ray Bourque, has had the name Orr slung around his neck like an albatross. It has happened so often that the comparison has taken on sarcastic overtones—as in "the next Babe Ruth"—and suggests a young hotshot who will never live up to expectations. "The next Bobby Orr," one scout smirks to another as some phenom messes up. Then their two scarred faces frown and they slowly nod, remembering. Because beneath it all they miss Orr. They miss his reckless, end-to-end rushes—the excitement he generated when he touched the puck. But in their hearts they would like to, really and truly, find the guy. The next Bobby Orr.
"Well," says Glen Sather, a former Boston Bruin teammate of Orr's and now the coach of the Edmonton Oilers, "he's here."
Here? Or heresy? Not according to the stats: The Oilers' Paul Coffey is knocking at the once secure doors of Orr's records. By age 24, Orr had played six NHL seasons and had scored 152 goals; the 24-year-old Coffey has 144 goals in five seasons. But forget the numbers. No one is saying Coffey is better than Orr, nor as revolutionary, nor that his skills are quite so astonishingly complete. But he is the first defenseman to come along who can play Orr's game—who can suck the air from a cram-packed arena, then bring it out as a gasp. "Orr controlled the pace of the game more than Coffey," says former Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor. "He seemed to burst, then slow down again; burst, then slow down. But for pure speed I've never seen anyone like Coffey. When he winds up behind his own net and breaks down the middle in full flight, it takes your breath away."
Whoooshh! And effortless! "When he wants to he can go around anyone in the league," says Wayne Gretzky, who refuses to skate beside Coffey in Edmonton practices for fear it would shake his faith in his own speed. "And he doesn't even have to stride around them. He gets going so fast, he just glides by."
"He's probably the most dominating skater in the game," says Sather. "When Paul gets the puck, the whole building starts to rumble."
At no time was the rumbling louder than during last season's playoffs, when Coffey led the Oilers teams to their second straight Stanley Cup. He scored a record 37 points in 18 playoff games—12 more than Potvin's previous mark for a defenseman—and outshone even the luminescent Gretzky. Coffey's 12 playoff goals broke a record that had been held by Orr and Brad Park and those goals were magnificent in their diversity: blasts from the point, tap-ins from the crease, breakaways off feeds from Gretzky. "For the last two months of the season Coffey was really the guy who ran our team," says Sather, who believes that the playoff MVP trophy, voted to Gretzky, should have been split between the Great One and Coffey. Gretzky agrees.
Adds Ted Green, another Bruin teammate of Orr's and a former Oiler assistant coach, "In last year's playoffs we leaned on Coffey the way the Bruins used to lean on Orr. No one could have risen to the occasion better. Not even 'himself.' "
Himself. That's Orr, of course. And no one is more embarrassed by being likened to him than Coffey. A late bloomer, Coffey was spared such comparisons until the last two seasons, when his scoring totals—126 points in 1983-84 and 121 points in '84-85—were the third- and fifth-highest for a defenseman in NHL history, the first, second and fourth highest totals belonging to Orr. Coffey is the only defenseman besides Orr to score 40 goals in a season, and many believe he'll be the first to crack 50. "He'll do it," says North Star general manager Lou Nanne. "He gets more goals than most defense-men get shots on goal."
"I still get goose bumps when people mention me in the same breath as Bobby Orr," says Coffey, who last season was named the league's top defenseman for the first time. "I don't have those moves Orr had in tight, that quick cutting ability that let him lose two or three guys at once. His side-to-side skating was phenomenal. My style is more pure speed."
The secret to Coffey's speed is his stride. It's enormous. He seldom looks like he's skating hard because he eats up so much ice with one stride that his pursuers need two to keep pace. "Push and glide, that's all it is," says Coffey, who has an unusual "hollow" sharpened into the blades of his skates to reduce the friction. "My father used to tell me when I was a kid that if my groin muscles weren't sore after skating, then I wasn't working hard."