Bobby Orr was the finest hockey player I ever saw.
Oh, I’ve seen outstanding players since I started watching hockey in 1950s at the age of 4 or 5. I was too young then to really see the Rocket in his prime. I did see Howe throughout the 1960s, but while (as a Leaf fan) I was always afraid when he was on the ice, he did not quite dominate a game, in my mind, the way Orr did when he joined the NHL in 1966. Bobby Hull had a magnetic presence about him, with his rink-long dashes. Jean Beliveau was an on-ice General, and Dave Keon was perhaps the most complete player I ever saw. Gilbert Perreault was the most spectacular and Gretzky was obviously remarkable. Current players such as Ovechkin and Crosby are highly skilled, but Orr remains the finest I have seen.
Orr’s number 2 was retired not that long ago by the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. Orr played in Oshawa from the age of 14 to his graduation to the Bruins at the age of 18. By all accounts the Oshawa organization had offered this honor many times over the years, but Orr declined because he was uncomfortable with all the fuss that would be made. (Orr has been, in recent years, a successful and well-regarded player agent.) He finally relented and the night in Oshawa went well.
His achievement recalled for me a chance encounter I had back in the fall of 1966, Orr’s rookie season as an 18 year-old with the Boston Bruins.
I was raised in a small town in southwestern Ontario, about a 4 hour drive from Toronto in those days. My eldest brother was receiving his Masters degree at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on a Friday night. (I believe the late Carl Brewer, a wonderful player with the Leafs in the early 60s who had retired from pro hockey for a time, was also receiving a degree that night. I remember hearing his name called on a long and dull night for a young boy.)
I was the youngest of the family and we drove up that day to attend the graduation ceremony. Typical of my family’s decision-making, we had not announced our intentions early enough to obtain seats for everyone, so my Dad and I were the ones left to “stand”, while my Mom, sister and my brother’s fiancé found seating.
That night, I never got inside the auditorium. Instead we just stood in the winding hall, waiting for the lengthy event to end. (When you’re 13, hearing hundreds of names read out in sequence when you can’t even see the “action” was pretty numbing stuff.)
With nothing to do but kill time, I roamed around the halls. My Dad was leaning up against a wall near the exit, reading a newspaper.
I happened to notice some men (at least they all seemed like fairly old guys to me) in a small group, sharing stories and having a few laughs. One of them, younger than the others, was taking part in the frivolity. What caught my eye was that the young guy seemed somehow familiar. To me, he looked like Bobby Orr.
Now to put things in context, back in 1966, we didn’t have the kind of media exposure that is common today for politicians, entertainers or athletes. I had seen Orr’s picture in the hometown newspaper’s sports pages, and maybe had seen him interviewed on television on Hockey Night in Canada.
But this was Orr’s rookie season, and as ballyhooed as his arrival to the NHL was back then, I could not be sure of what I was seeing right in front of me.
I ran over to my Dad and told him that I thought I had just seen Bobby Orr. My Dad didn’t even look up from his newspaper. “Why would Bobby Orr be here?” he said. He wasn’t being sarcastic, simply, in his mind, realistic. Kids, after all, are prone to dramatize.
But I knew the Bruins were playing the Leafs in Toronto the next (Saturday) night, so I knew that Orr could be in Toronto, at least.
I went back to eavesdrop on the group’s conversation. Just at that moment, the young guy started to pull away from his friends, and I heard someone say, “See you, Bobby”.
That was all I needed to hear. I hustled over to my father and announced what I heard, and pleaded with him to at least check this guy out. By now, even my Dad was sensing I may not be crazy. It so happened that the young fellow had to work his way through a crowded hall and walk by us to get to the exit.
It was a moment I no doubt sized up as a once-in-a-lifetime fluke that would not ever come my way again. With my hopeful eyes on the fast-developing situation, my Dad rose to the occasion and gently, but firmly, grabbed the young man by the arm as he hustled by.
“Excuse me,” my Dad said to him. “This young man (me) here thinks he knows you. Do you mind if I ask you your name?”
“Bob Orr,” came the brief but polite reply.
I’d hit the mother lode. My Dad said, “Shake hands with my son”. I shook Orr’s hand. He was quiet, and gracious. He was only 5 years older than me, but honest to God, I might as well have been meeting Jesus. It was that big a deal to me.
When we had driven back to my older sister’s home (she lived in Mississauga, as I recall, though it wasn’t called that in those days. It was probably Port Credit) I thought not about my brother’s hard-earned academic achievement, which was the reason for our rare visit to the big city but about meeting the best young hockey player I had ever (and as it turns out, would ever) seen.
I joked about never washing my right hand again, and probably didn’t, for a time.
Certainly there are athletes today who are gracious and humble, and would be so in meeting a young admirer. But all too often you have to stand in line and pay for the honor.
The world has changed in the last 40 years. Attitudes, media, technology, money.
So it was particularly nice to read about Orr’s comments on his special night in Oshawa- a man of 60+ now, but still publicly humble and gracious.
Just as he was meeting me, when he was 18.