He’s just hockey’s hottest bet for stardom

TRENT FRAYNE February 20 1965

He’s just hockey’s hottest bet for stardom

TRENT FRAYNE February 20 1965

Who is Bobby Orr?

He’s just hockey’s hottest bet for stardom

An all-star since lie was 14, at 16 the pride of home-town Parry Sound and the Oshawa Generals’ hockey fans, next year he could be the youngest super-star of the big league — and might even skate Boston back into the NHL

TRENT FRAYNE

IT'S LAMENTABLY TRUE that the 1960s have seemed like forever for the lowly Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League, but the fact is that the Sixties may one day be regarded as their most significant decade. It was in the Sixties, you see, that the Bruins discovered Bobby Orr.

Briefly, Bobby Orr is the finest professional-hockey prospect in Canada today, and Boston owns title to his services. Bobby Orr possesses the potential to become the finest offensive defenseman since Doug Harvey, the former nonpareil of the Canadiens. Bobby Orr is a swift powerful skater with instant acceleration, instinctive anticipation, a quick accurate shot, remarkable composure, an unrelenting ambition, a solemn dedication, humility, modesty, and a fondness for his parents and his brothers and sisters that often turns his eyes moist. Put simply, Bobby Orr is too good to be true. But there he is.

A crew-cut, blue-eyed, well-adjusted, polite, medium-sized boy of sixteen, he is now playing his third full season of junior hockey for the Oshawa Generals. Last season, when he was fifteen. Orr was the unanimous choice of the Ontario Hockey Association Junior A's eight coaches as all-star defenseman on the first team. The year before, when he was fourteen, he was named to the second all-star team in competition with players who were crowding twenty. Last year, in addition, he set a goalscoring record for defensemen in the Junior A circuit, the top junior league in the country, with thirty goals in the fifty-six-game schedule. He is eligible for another four seasons of junior play but, things being what they are with the limping Bruins, it appears almost certain that he will leap right into their lineup the instant he turns eighteen — the league's legal minimum—which will fall on the night of March 20, 1966.

"He amazes me every time I see him,” says the beleaguered general manager of the beleaguered Bruins,

Lynn Patrick. "The way he can anticipate what's going to happen is sometimes uncanny; you know, sensing where the puck is going to be and moving there even before the puck does. 1 never saw a more promising player.”

"Have you ever considered that the game of hockey is unique?” asks Wren Blair, a brisk and vigorous young veteran of numerous hockey jobs, who as a key man in the Bruin organization was one of the first who sawand finally signed young Orr over the importunities of numerous other NHL team representatives. "A good hockey player can play all games well, but few stars of another sport can play hockey at all. Can you imagine Mickey Mantle or Cassius Clay or Arnold Palmer or Johnny Unitas able to make even a school hockey team? Yet Gordie Howe used to work out regularly with the Detroit Tigers, and when Jim Norris promoted all the big fights and owned the Red Wings he'd look at Howe stripped down in the dressing room and he’d say. ‘Gordie, with a build like that you could be the heavyweight champion of the world.Any number of hockey players can hit a golf ball as far as most pros; in fact, a lot of them are pros in the off-season.

"The point is, every hockey player must have the attributes of the top athletes in any game, except he must then add the encumbrance of skates. We grow up taking these things for granted in Canada, but the truth is that hockey is the most difficult of all games to master.”

Accordingly, an outstanding star at sixteen has no guarantee that he will continue to develop and be still outstanding in five years when he is in against the Hulls and the Hortons and the other one-in-a-hundred survivors of the junior leagues.

Thus, at this stage in Bobby Orr's development, the Bruins cannot allow themselves to be more than unusually hopeful that the fates have equipped Orr with an intangible urge to rise with fire in his eyes after some hulking oaf of an NHL defenseman has flattened him. And they must await nature's whim on whether his present slender five-foot-nine and hundred and sixty-six pounds spread up and out in maturity.

There are. of course, controllable elements that contribute, and the Bruins, like every other major-league team, seek endlessly to nurture these — such things as the fundamentals of shooting and passing and positional play and back-checking and even physical condition and discipline. Then, equally important as Wren Blair sees it. are factors to be avoided or. at least, placed into proper perspective — publicity, backslappers. and what Blair calls "the cause of the greatest casualty list of them all — girls.”

He snorts, "They bug hockey players. They hang around the dressingroom door after a game, waiting for the players to come out. hoping for a pickup. They'd like nothing better than to hook a guy. especially in junior where these kids are as big with the teenage crowd as the Beatles.

"Hockey players are Canada's glamour boys,” he reasons. "They get a kind of Hollywood adulation, particularly in the smalland medium-sized towns w here junior hockey flourishes. In the smaller papers they get more space than Mike Pearson. particularly young Orr who, because of his extreme youth, has been getting incredible publicity for three years now. 1 mean, imagine playing Junior A hockey at fourteen — that alone is enough to attract wide attention. So I’ve drummed it into him over and over that it’s his responsibility to be level - headed enough to handle it.”

Orr smiled wanly when I asked him if the publicity bothered him. "I try not to read about myself,” he said quietly. "So many people have told me not to get a swelled head that I'm scared to read the stuff.”

Blair, one of whose duties with the Bruins is that of general manager of the Oshawa Generals, a Bruin - sponsored team, warns Orr and the other Generals to take back-slappers in stride.

continued on page 37

"You brute!” cried Marg, planting a punch. “Don’t you dare hit Bobby!”

continued from page 17

“You’d be surprised how many hero-worshippers there are,” says Blair. “Even in hig businesses in big cities there are guys who pander to name athletes just to be seen in their company. They wine and dine a good athlete, wanting to be seen by their friends with a celebrity. Sure, it’s a free ride for the athlete, but he'll wind up a lush if he doesn’t learn to handle fair-weather friends.”

Blair, an outspoken, profane, dedicated hockey man who was general manager of the Whitby Dunlops when they defeated the Russians to win the world's championship at Oslo in 1958, feels that discipline is the best antidote for young players’ nonathletic hazards. With the Generals, there is a 10.30 curfew; nine o'clock on nights before games. The team’s coach, Jim Cherry, makes spot-check telephone calls to the boarding houses where Oshawa players live. If a boy isn’t home he must call the coach when he does arrive, and he’s reprimanded on his first offense. If he’s not home the second time, a letter is wmitten to his parents, explaining that he has been breaking team rules. On the third offense the player is suspended by the team and sent home. Bobby Orr missed the curfew call early in December, the first time he’d been guilty, and recalls with a wry grin that he w'as “tongue-lashed.”

The curfew grows even tighter during school examinations. "There'll be no practices until after the exams,” Blair told the players prior to the Christmas exams. “We expect you guys will be on top of those books, so the curfew will be nine o’clock every night until they're over.”

The Bruins pay tuition to the board of education for all their players, buy their books, pay their room-andboard and give them ten dollars a w'eek spending money. In addition — although they retain “amateur” status — the players are paid up to sixty dollars a week for hockey. Blair points out that that’s only for the senior players, the top nineteen-yearolds. The average is about fifty dollars a week, and those who don’t attend school arc permitted to find jobs.

Blair had to use all his persuasiveness in convincing Orr’s parents that even at fourteen their son was not too young to leave home and play junior hockey in the Bruin organization. Bobby is the third of five children of Doug and Arva Orr, who live in Parry Sound, 140 miles north of Toronto, with their other four children — two girls, Pat and Penny, who are nineteen and thirteen, and two boys, Ron and Doug, eighteen and ten. Doug the dad is a lean, tall, crew-cut, gregarious, sports-loving man of thirty-nine, born and bred in Parry Sound and a hockey player there in his youth. His forthright wife has a strong will, a level eye, a plain-spoken pride in her brood.

It’s virtually impossible to curb her when she’s watching Bobby play hockey. “I try to let on I’m not with her,” says Bobby's sister Pat, with a smile. “Let’s say she’s unrestrained.”

Arva doesn’t like sitting with her husband at hockey games. “He sits me down too often,” she explains.

Doug’s married sister, Marg Atherton, is equally unfettered. Once, at a game in St. Catharines, a hometown player, Chuck Kelly, got in a fight with Bobby near Marg’s seat. “You brute!” cried Marg, reaching toward Kelly and actually planting a punch on his forehead. "Don't you dare hit Bohby!”

Doug Orr works for Canadian Industries Limited, packing high explosives five days a week and viewing the Generals on car trips to Junior A towns on weekends. Tenyear-old Dougie, a devoted Toronto Leaf fan, is dismayed by Bobby’s affiliation with Boston. “I'll cheer for Toronto until Bobby turns pro.” he says gravely, “and then I guess I'll sw'itch.”

He is not alone in wondering why Bobby selected the battered Bruins, but the player himself, even at fourteen when he made the decision, showed a precocious business sense. “They need players,” he noted to his dad. In other words, the top cluhs are well stocked; the road to a regular herth is longer.

The Bruin saga in signing Orr began when the boy was twelve. He was playing for the Parry Sound bantams who traveled to Gananoque, near Kingston, for a provincial playoff. This was the spring of 1960 and Blair, general manager and coach of the professional Kingston Frontenacs, had just joined the Bruins. He’d been watching a couple of Gananoque kids and he invited Lynn Patrick to give his appraisal of them in the games against Parry Sound.

Toward the end of the first period, he turned to Patrick. “Do you see what I see?” he asked.

"I see what you see.” said Patrick. “Who is he?”

“You got me.”

Blair moved off to inquire.

"That number 2 is named Bobby Orr ', reported Blair. “Nobody’s sponsoring them.”

Orr was too good to let get away, and it was Blair’s job to see he didn’t

What this meant was that no professional team held sponsorship rights in the Parry Sound area. So no pro team had a claim on the players.

I asked Blair recently what he’d seen in this twelve-year-old youngster that set him apart. “Oh nothing much,” he replied. “He was only skating rings around everybody on the ice, he had the puck all the time, and he played the whole game save a two-minute penalty.”

For two years Blair haunted Parry Sound, visiting with the Orrs at every opportunity. When the Kingston Frontenacs were traveling, he always arranged a stop for a meal at Parry Sound and dropped in at the Orrs’ big, comfortably old stucco house to advance the advantages of Boston. To enhance Bruin prestige in Parry Sound, the NHL club paid a thousand dollars a year for three years toward minor hockey there.

In the autumn of 1962, when Bobby was fourteen, Blair persuaded the boy’s parents to let him attend a Boston junior tryout camp at Niagara Falls. By now he was old enough that Blair feared another NHL club would induce his parents to let him move to a town whose team it sponsored.

“We had about seventy players at the Niagara Falls camp,” Blair recalls, “and the kid was a stickout. My wife Elma and I drove immediately to Parry Sound to convince the Orrs that Bobby ought to move to Oshawa and sign a Junior A card with the Generals. Then we'd have him, and my worries would be over.” The Orrs were reluctant. All through a Saturday evening Blair talked to Bobby’s father, but though Doug was beginning to bend, he wouldn't break. Through Sunday Blair cajoled and implored.

“Mr. Blair, he’s just too young,” said Mrs. Orr. “Next year, I promise you, he’ll go. But not yet.”

“I’ll find a fine family for him to live with in Oshawa,” countered Blair. “He’ll get the best of care. If he stays here another year he’ll just deteriorate as a hockey player. He’s too good for these boys. He'll just learn bad habits.”

And then Blair had an inspiration. “Just let him come on a four-game trial basis,” he suggested. "You come with him. See the school. See the folks he'll live with. Watch him play. If you’re not convinced after four games, we’ll forget it.”

So they went.

After four games, and some relatively modest financial arrangements, the Orrs agreed, with the stipulation that instead of moving to Oshawa, Bobby would commute.

And so he did. Two or three nights a week and on Sunday afternoons, the Orrs or friends of the family drove Bobby one hundred and fifty miles south for the games and one hundred and fifty miles north after them, through snowstorms

sometimes, and sleet and rain.

“Imagine,” marvels Blair now.

“The kid never once practised with the club and he made the second allstar team.”

When he was fifteen, Bobby moved to Oshawa, where he now lives in a red-hrick modern bungalow with Mr. and Mrs. Jack Wild. He scored three goals in the second-last game of the fifty-six-game schedule for a total of thirty goals, which beat the old record established by Jacques Laperrière, now of the Montreal Canadiens, when Laperrière was nineteen. And he attained a 71.3 percent average in passing grade nine. He kept in frequent telephone touch with the family and sometimes hitchhiked from Oshawa to Parry Sound to visit.

“We’re a nutty family,” says Bobby's sister Pat. “We’ve all got wild tempers but we’re soft as mush. too. Every time Bobby phones I cry and I can hear him start to blubber, too. I always cry when 1 see him. Dad thinks we’re nuts; we’ll all be watching a television program, and I look over to see if Mom’s crying, and she is, and she looks at me and we both look at Penny and we’re all sitting there blubbering. Dad looks at us and just shakes his head.”

Meantime, in the off season Bobby does what he can to improve his NHL chances. He works on barbells twice a day for forty-five minutes, and carries a set of handgrips with him which he squeezes by the hour to strengthen his big wrists and forearms. He runs twice around the harbor every day — two miles per trip. He picks up what money he can, too. When he was thirteen he was a bellboy at a dollar a day at the Belvedere Hotel, which has since burned down, and earned five hundred dollars in tips. When he was fourteen, after the hotel burned, he got ten dollars a month from the school board for being the caretaker’s helper after school, cleaning out furnaces and shinnying up and down narrow flues to clean them. At fifteen, he spent the summer working in his uncle's butcher shop for twenty-five dollars a week and all the steaks he could eat. Last summer he made thirty-five dollars a week as a clerk in Adams Men's Wear.

"He lost money on that deal,” says sister Pat. “He poured all his money on his back. What a Beau Brummel!” Through all of these years, in most waking hours and some of the sleeping ones, too, he's dreamed of playing for the Bruins. He's dreaming of that moment now, and so is sister Pat and his mother and his father. And so is Wren Blair, who’s brought him along to this point, and so is Lynn Patrick, who has suffered through the Sixties with the Bruins and could stand a little sunshine.

“That’s apt to be a big night,” Patrick noted not long ago, “that night of March 20, 1966.”

And then Lynn Patrick said it all. “We’ll see,” he mused. “We’ll see.”