OF COURSE the parents try to stay cool. But when the phone rings and that voice says, "This is Bobby Orr,..." some can't help themselves. "No!" they'll say, or giggle and talk too loud: Just the idea of telling the cousins, the folks at work, You won't believe who called last night, is enough to get the nerves jangling.
Still, this is their boy's future at stake, so they usually recover and manage a few hard questions, and then the conversation will start sailing along and, Why, he's just so easy to talk to, so down-to-earth, like everyone said, and soon it's just two people gabbing, no starry-eyed stuff until the voice says something about coming by to talk a bit more. Then it sinks in: Come by? Him? And, still listening, now there's this quick scan of that family room in Thunder Bay or Hull or whatever Canadian town happens to have produced the next raw piece of hockey talent, a desperate glance at the stains on the coffee table, the drapes that long ago needed replacing.... Here?
"It's unbelievable," says Barbara Tavares, mother of top Canadian junior John Tavares. "Your legs are like jelly."
Bobby Orr—for many the greatest hockey player ever, the defenseman who altered the essence of the game—has been making his living as an agent for 13 years now, and he's become, as celluloid agent Jerry Maguire put it, good in the living room. He and partners Paul Krepelka and Rick Curran incorporated his Orr Hockey Group in 2002 and have built a clientele of 33 active NHL players (fourth most of any agency) that includes Ottawa center Jason Spezza, Carolina's Eric Staal and Cam Ward, and Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter, who last June signed a three-year, $15 million extension. Neither lawyer nor marketing expert, Orr leaves negotiations to his partners, serving as all-around adviser, player counselor, exemplar and conversation stopper. "We were talking to different agents, but once I met him, my decision was pretty much made," Spezza says.
Who, after all, could better understand the pressure of becoming a national darling at 14, the psychic toll exacted by injuries, the threat of business "advisers" ever ready to sink their teeth into an athlete's balance sheet? Who better to remind overpaid kids of their responsibilities to their talent, teammates and public?
Indeed, "Bobby Orr: Agent" might make perfect sense, except there's simply no precedent for a generational icon to enter this long-derided trade and even less reason to think the fiercely reticent Orr would be the first. Even now, it's no secret that he regards player representation as a generally dirty business; in 1996, when Orr began working as an agent, the irony was lost on neither friend nor foe.
"I found it hard to believe," Alan Eagleson says.
Yet here Orr is, despite—or perhaps, because of—the fact that Eagleson, the fallen power broker whose hockey empire grew out of his role as Orr's agent, left him all but broke as part of one of sports' most spectacular financial scandals. Here Orr is, knees and fortune rebuilt, 60 years old and rounding a corner in 2009. He has now been an agent for longer than his run as an NHL star and with his clientele growing and his firm embroiled in a big-time fee dispute with Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, Orr is playing hardball. And on his terms: All agents alternate between vocal advocate and secret-keeping consigliere, but Orr has taken the public-private shuffle to new extremes, keeping his face before the Canadian public in TV ads that highlight his self-deprecating humor and that eternally boyish Bobby-ness, while keeping any thoughts on the league, his business and his life under tight wraps.
Orr hasn't given a substantial interview in nearly two decades and doesn't need to. Thirty years after the Boston Bruins retired his number 4, the hockey world is still dazzled by the magic of his name: Parents will always take his call, team execs and coaches who played against or idolized him will always agree to meet. And once inside Orr works to defuse any hero worship. He'll giggle and tell jokes at his own expense, recall how it was for him to be young and homesick and crying, how it felt rising so fast. He'll steer the conversation to what he can do for your boy. Sometimes, though, the family will want a little more. And when, in the case of a prospect like Spezza, whose Canadian junior career nearly matched Orr's for bated-breath mania, a cocky little brother pipes up at the dinner table, "I bet you can't score on me!" well, sure, Orr will take that bet: 10 shots, score fewer than five and the kid wins.
So it was that, in the fall of 1998, 11-year-old Matt Spezza found himself scrambling down to the basement in his Mississauga, Ont., home to strap on goalie pads, gloves and mask. Finally Orr pushed away from the table, hobbled downstairs in his golf shirt and slacks, and picked up one of Jason's sticks. He flipped the first two shots up, easy to block, but Matt was cocky and started taunting the man who scored 296 goals, the player known in practice to gather a puck off the ice as if with a spoon and with back to the goal swat it on a line into the top corner of the net. "Is that it?" Matt said. "Come on, let 'em go."