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The Ever Elusive, Always Inscrutable and Still Incomparable BOBBY ORR
March 02, 2009
At 60 he's been a player agent for longer than he ruled the ice. He is fiercely private and deeply loyal, and the force of Orr's singular presence has not waned
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March 02, 2009

The Ever Elusive, Always Inscrutable And Still Incomparable Bobby Orr

At 60 he's been a player agent for longer than he ruled the ice. He is fiercely private and deeply loyal, and the force of Orr's singular presence has not waned

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It happened fast: Boom, boom, boom. One low, right under the glove, then another and another; everybody laughing, but the room getting warm. "You could see it," Matt says. "He could put it wherever he wanted." Then as quick as it came, the moment passed. Orr eased up, let the kid knock away the last pucks and win by one, done with remembering what Bobby Orr could do.

HE RAN A tight room," former Bruins center Derek Sanderson likes saying about the man who helped saved his life, but that doesn't do the matter near enough justice—not with Orr's first Boston coach, Harry Sinden, calling him the Godfather and his last, Don Cherry, relating how teammates shortened it over the decade that Orr played a kind of hockey no one had ever seen. "God here yet?" the other Bruins would say, or "Where was God last night?" But not to Orr's face. Not once.

God came to Boston in 1966, 18 years old, and within two seasons the once-pathetic Bruins had been transformed into a spectacular, mean, winning bunch. Some of that was due to the '67 trade that brought in scoring machine Phil Esposito and forwards Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, but it was Orr, the working-class product of Parry Sound, Ont., who set the tone. His on-ice artistry—coupled with a willingness to hurl that 6-foot frame in front of any slap shot, into any opponent—endowed him with ultimate authority. He barely had to say a word.

Game days, Orr would arrive at 2:30 for a 7:30 start, play cards, bang around the emptiness, sort through the 144 sticks sent him every few weeks—weighing them, selecting two, maybe three, discarding the rest—getting himself ready. His teammates would file in at five or six o'clock. He'd wander about then with one stick weighted with lead or with pucks taped to the blade, shifting it from hand to hand. Locker room music rarely played. "I have never run into any player who brings the intensity that he brought," says Sinden, who spent 45 years as a coach or front office executive. "His silence, his looks, were enough to tell you if he didn't like what was happening. And he made the rest of us the same way. You could not be around him without feeling that and getting in line."

If you had a bad period? Or dogged it? Sanderson's locker was by a pillar, and he'd set his chair so the pillar would block Orr's view from across the room. "Is he looking?" Esposito would whisper. Always, Orr would be staring lasers. Sanderson only felt worse when Orr would wait until he was alone, come over and mutter, "You got to pick it up. We need you."

Then Orr would hit the ice again, and it was wondrous to see—for the fans, yes, but even opponents found themselves entranced. When Bobby Clarke was a rookie center for the Philadelphia Flyers—the team that later raised the ante on Boston's bruising ways—he found himself all but cheering Orr's speed and control; he couldn't help himself. It wasn't just the end-to-end rushes, Orr's thick legs pushing him to a gear few could match, to scoring levels unheard of for a defenseman. It was his style. There was just one strip of black tape on Orr's stick and the puck seemed glued to it, that fine detail so compelling that Boston strippers took to sporting the equivalent of today's French bikini wax—a thin strip of pubic homage dubbed "a Bobby Orr."

During one penalty kill against the old Seals in Oakland, Orr swooped behind goal in possession, tussled with an opponent and lost a glove. "He went around by the blue line, came back, picked up his glove—still had the puck," Esposito says. "[Goalie] Gerry Cheevers was on the bench, and I'm standing there and I hear Cheesy say to me, 'Espo, you want The Racing Form?' I said, 'Might as well; I'm not touching the puck!' Bobby killed about a minute and 10, 20 seconds of that penalty—and then ...," with even the Oakland players cheering now, "... he scored. Greatest thing I ever saw."

In 1969--70 Orr became the only player to sweep the league's top awards—MVP, defenseman, playoff MVP and scoring title—and capped it off by scoring the Stanley Cup--winning goal over St. Louis in overtime. The following season, the Bruins scored 124 more even-strength or shorthanded goals than they gave up when Orr was on the ice, and that remains his most lasting monument; the man most mentioned as Orr's rival for the title of greatest ever, Wayne Gretzky, never cracked +100.

Yet Orr bristled at the attentions of superstardom, would tell coaches to find reasons to bawl him out like the rest. His last good season, 1974--75, he scored 46 goals but probably gave away a half dozen more by insisting that teammates had deflected the puck in. It's no accident that his signature play—and the one that won the first of his two Stanley Cups, against the Blues—was a give-and-go. Orr's best rushes were never look-at-me affairs but a storm he brewed on one end of the ice, gathering in his fellow Bruins for the inexorable sweep forward. When he began to move, says former Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, the sensation was unique: All the Canadiens began backpedaling in a small panic, like beachgoers sighting a coming monster wave.

"He brought others with him; he wanted them involved," says Dryden. "That's what made him so different: It felt like a five-player stampede moving toward you—and at his pace. He pushed his teammates, [because] you're playing with the best player in the league and he's giving you the puck and you just can't mess it up. You had to be better than you'd ever been."

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