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LORD, DO they remember. For hard men of a certain age, and for Canadians, especially, the mere mention of Orr can undam a rush of feeling. "Guys make fun of me because I'm always talking about him," says Cherry, whose second life as a hockey broadcaster gives him plenty of opportunity. "My son made [an Orr highlight] tape to Carly Simon—Nobody Does It Better—and I cry every time I see it. I don't know why."
It's no mystery. Orr did it all: blocked shots, dealt out punishing blows, endured the swooping hits of players desperate to stop him, somehow. When it came time to defend a teammate or himself, he fought. Gladly. "Too much," Esposito says. "He didn't have to, but he had a temper."
The fact is, despite his schoolboy haircut and shy grin, Orr was a killer on the ice. He laid out the Blackhawks' Stan Mikita with a perfect forearm cheap shot, hammered the hell out of Mikita's teammate Keith Magnuson at every opportunity, waited a year to get his revenge on Toronto's Pat Quinn—Orr jumped him in a brawl—after Quinn knocked him unconscious with a riot-sparking hit in the '69 playoffs.
"Pound for pound, he might've been the toughest guy in the game," Quinn says. "He wasn't a hold-and-throw like a lot of guys. He could go with both his hands, like a prizefighter."
A game-changing talent, a taste for blood: Those were enough to make Orr a hockey hero for life. But vulnerability is what makes him resonate still. A recent TV ad shows Orr sitting silently while a lengthening scar on his famous left knee serves as a time line of victory, and loss; he played, really, only eight full seasons, and operations on both knees left him a near cripple at 30. Ever since, commentators have made him the equivalent of Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax, even John F. Kennedy, shooting stars who left the world wondering what might have been. His last hurrah, the 1976 Canada Cup series, provided the perfect, bittersweet coda: Orr in so much pain that he couldn't practice, beating the Russians on one leg, outplaying the Czechs single-handedly, "the most courageous that I've ever seen a hockey player," says Clarke, the captain. Hockey nation didn't disagree.
"He is Canada," says Barb Tavares, whose son nevertheless ended up signing with another agent. But if Orr is how a certain segment of Canadians want to see themselves—self-effacing, self-sacrificing, quietly great—there's a glint of recognition too, in what lies beneath the forced politeness, the goofy charm. In any conversation there's a tension that never leaves Orr, the feeling that his spring-loaded temper might snap and turn the warmest banter to ice. When first contacted by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Orr couldn't have been more welcoming, shuffling through his calendar for interview dates; in a second phone conversation he declared that he didn't want, as he has told many journalists, "a story about the agent business." He never returned another call.
Cherry has felt more than one freeze-out as Orr's coach in the 1970s and even after the two battled as celebrity coaches in the annual Top Prospects Game a few years ago. That time Orr didn't speak to him for six months. "Great heart, but he hates pretty good," Cherry says, and when asked how Orr was to coach, he pauses.
"I got to be careful here," he says finally. "You had to handle him right. You had to know when to talk to him; he was not an easy guy. He could spot a phony a mile away. There were so many people after him all the time that he became suspicious; he was never really friendly with a lot of people. When I first went there, I made the mistake: He was eating alone, and I made conversation. How was the fishing this year? And he picked up right away that I was just making conversation, and he didn't like that. He didn't like any bull----, and you know what? He's exactly like that today. He's pretty unforgiving. If you cross him, you will never get the chance to cross him again."
Eagleson crossed him the worst, of course, exposing a weakness as damaging as any knee injury. Once the cocky and high-flying master of the hockey universe, an irresistible force who rode Orr's celebrity into a multihatted—and conflict-ridden—position as executive director of the NHL Players' Association, hockey's most powerful agent and chairman of Hockey Canada's international committee, Eagleson would be accused of pilfering money from player pension funds and disability payments, and in 1998 he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud, including those involving the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canada Cup proceeds. He served six months in a Toronto jail, was disbarred, got kicked out of the Canadian sports hall of fame.
Eagleson's bargaining tactics had made Orr the NHL's highest-paid player as a rookie, and Orr expected to be a millionaire when he retired in 1978: Eagleson had promised him, after all. But in '90 Orr told a Canadian newspaper in detail how, in blindly following Eagleson's tangled financial advice, he had ended up with just $450,000 in assets—and tax bills that wiped him out. He had his homes in Boston, Cape Cod and Florida and a name to sell, but a wife, Peggy, and two sons, Darren and Brent, to support. And the money was gone.