Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 2, 2009
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?
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 15 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 Senators center Jason Spezza, the three Staal brothers (the Hurricanes' Eric, the Penguins' Jordan and the Rangers' Marc), Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward and Flyers forward Jeff Carter. Orr leaves negotiations to his partner, serving as all-around adviser, player counselor, exemplar and conversation stopper. Here Orr is, 63 years old. He has been an agent for longer than his run as an NHL star. And he has done it on his terms: All sports 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 Bobbyness, while keeping any thoughts on the league, his business and his life under tight wraps. More than three decades after the Boston Bruins retired his iconic number 4, the hockey world is still dazzled by the magic of his name.
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.
"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."
If you had a bad period? Or dogged it? 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 Flyers 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 of the puck, 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."