Following on yesterday's latest Dave Bidini offering, it's more words on hockey today. It’s been near 30 years since Bobby Orr last strapped on NHL blades, and in the interim precious little has been written of weight about one of the hockey world’s undisputed icons. Now Stephen Brunt has come out with Searching for Bobby Orr, an unauthorized biography in that Orr refused to have anything to do with it.
In the telling, it doesn’t really matter. Brunt’s a fine enough stylist to handle the assignment, getting enough of the little details around the myth of Orr (strippers of the day gave themselves "a Bobby Orr" in honour of the way he taped his stick, for example; and Orr the superstar athlete bachelor in Boston has rarely been explored in this kind of detail). True, Orr’s role in the downfall of Eagleson is never really explained in total - no one has really managed that trick, in fact - but this is the fullest, most human look at Orr presented yet, and immensely readable despite the subject's reticence to get involved (and perhaps to an extent because of it, Orr being an immensely private person).
Brunt succeeds best at sketching a portrait of where Orr came from – Parry Sound in the early 1960s, as if unearthed from a time capsule – and how he got out of there, rink rats like Wren Blair and Bucko McDonald playing key roles in his maturation and, ultimately, his exit (Blair profited handsomely from the transaction, ending up in Minnesota, his big NHL ticket come at last, after signing the prodigy for the Bruins):
Elma Blair was sitting outside in the car waiting for her husband when he bolted out the door of the Orr family home. He had the car started and moving before he said a word. You’d have thought he just robbed a bank. He was breathless.
“How’d you make out?” Elma asked, breaking the silence.
“I finally got him signed.”
“Where are we going?”
”What’s the hurry?”
“I’m afraid his mother is going to find a car and hunt us down, grab this card away from me if we don’t get the hell out of here right now.”
Moments like these are full of understated comedy in retrospect – a flight to Huntsville! A $10,000 signing bonus that cheapo Boston owner Weston Adams wanted paid in U.S. dollars, because they were slightly below Canadian par at the time (Blair paid it in Canadian, anyway)! And the Leafs owner Stafford Smythe cornering Blair in the Gardens a short time after, telling him he shouldn’t feel all that smart:
“We had him signed long before you did,” Smythe said.
Well, that was interesting. “If that’s the case, Staff,” Blair wondered, “how come Orr isn’t wearing a Leafs uniform right now?”
“Because my people were too goddamn stupid,” Smythe said.
There’s a bigger story at work here, too, that Brunt doesn't miss. Orr’s appearance on the continental stage coincided with hockey’s big bang, which followed on baseball and football in the 1960s - franchises moving into virgin territories, lucrative television deals being signed, and free agency for the hired hands all steps in the process.
One last point: It’s easy to forget just how short Orr’s career really was, from his NHL debut in 1966 to, barely a decade later, a painful final star turn at the ’76 Canada Cup. Orr’s timing, so impeccable on the ice and in a historical context, was just a little off when it came to more modern surgical techniques. Imagine, given the kind of treatment available shortly after he retired, how different it could have been:
There would have been more years, and more good years, and he would have been able to play against the Russians in ’72, and won further Stanley Cups and retired gracefully when the time was right, happy and wealthy and satisfied. But instead, he was the hockey Achilles, and because of that his fate was sealed.
This is not an easy trick, to take a long-ago figure and bring him and his times back to life for the generation that remembers him, and those grown up since who never had the pleasure of watching him at work. Brunt nails it. A fine, fine read.
Tomorrow: FIFA World Cup 2006: A Verse Chronicle.