Sports

A farewell to greatness

Robert Miller February 21 1977
Sports

A farewell to greatness

Robert Miller February 21 1977

A farewell to greatness

Sports

Robert Miller

Late last month, in what was probably his last appearance as a professional hockey player, Bobby Orr was able to play only two shifts against the inept Vancouver Canucks. Power plays, of course. During the second, the puck skipped past him at the Vancouver blueline. Instinctively, he started to whirl and give chase. But he couldn’t do it. Even a routine pivot was beyond the wounded knee. Orr winced, limped to the Chicago bench and sat, with buried heart, watching the game sputter along to a weary draw. The world’s greatest hockey player—and who, really, can argue the point? Denis Potvin?—was through. Even Orr thought so. Washed up and perhaps even permanently crippled at the age of 28. “I can’t go on like this,” he said a day or so later, before leaving for Florida and writing off yet another National Hockey League season. No, Bobby. You can’t. Neither can we.

It has been said far too often: Bobby Orr on one leg is better than most hockey players on two. Maybe he is. Certainly he is better box office. But Bobby Orr was never just a hockey player. He was a virtuoso, an original, possibly a genius—and he had been those things since boyhood, skating his way from the ponds of Parry Sound to the great arenas of the continent. Glenn Gould can probably play a brilliant onehanded piano. Rudolf Nureyev can certainly dance a mean boogie. But would they? Should they? Why should Bobby Orr try to play one-legged hockey? Why should anyone—fan, owner, coach, teammate—demand it of him? Let him go now, away from the pain and the spotlight. Let him leave with his dignity and his millions. He has earned them. Let him leave us with the memories, with the knowledge that when we watched him we were watching a man/boy play our game at a level we had never realized it could reach.

Canadians have always made too much of hockey—and not enough. It is, as a friend of mine often says, our third official language. Well, Bobby Orr gave it a grammar and a new accent. He changed hockey, and our perception of it, in a way that no individual performer had ever changed a team sport before. The Russians, perplexed, called him a halfback, borrowing a football term to explain Orr’s innovative approach. How else to explain a defenseiman who won scoring championships? -sEver practical, though, the Russians did not attempt to play in the “Boo-bie Orr” manner. They left that to the less gifted North American pros. The Russians knew £what we all knew: there was only one

Number 4. Anyway, when translated into Russian, Canada’s third official language became ideologically correct: a collective pastime, played impersonally, impassively, efficiently. Orr, a capitalist, played it all by himself, even though he always let his teammates share in the fun, the exuberance, the rewards of the game. He made them better than they were, richer than they dreamed. In the good years, he absolutely dominated. There was nothing he couldn’t do with a puck, a stick and a pair of skates. His fellow pros paid him the ultimate compliment: they never took their eyes off him when he was on the ice. Later, in their own practices, they would try to copy the things he did. The most talented would master some of Orr’s moves. Orr would simply invent new ones that rendered the old ones obsolete,and take the game on to a higher level.

When he left Boston, home of the GOD BLESS ORR COUNTRY bumper sticker, Mayor Kevin White was able to say without blushing: “Bobby Orr has been to Boston the equivalent of a great natural or historic resource, like Paul Revere’s house or the Bunker Hill monument.” When he signed with the Black Hawks for three million dollars (not one cent of which he has accepted, because he doesn’t feel he has earned it), The New York Times made him the subject of its “Man in the News” column, where normally statesmen and tycoons are profiled. Although the press in Canada faithfully chronicled his exploits, his agonies and his wretched medical luck, a strange resentment seemed to lurk between the lines. A Toronto newspaper poll coughed up his name as one of the world’s

biggest bores. How typically Canadian.

We have too few heroes in this country, just as the Americans have too many. We have a habit of chipping away at our heroes, digging for flaws, hauling them down and, finally, enjoying their humiliation. Orr deserves better, but could be pardoned for doubting he’ll get it. He has heard the boobirds of Maple Leaf Gardens. He has seen the anticipatory glint in the vulture’s eye every time the knee went. He has read the injudicious (and, until now, premature) obituaries. Denis Potvin, an excellent defenseman whose talent nearly matches his ego, has even dared to disparage Orr’s work in the Canada Cup series last fall. Overpraised, grumped Potvin, who complained that his own efforts had been simultaneously under-appreciated. Wrong. I remember Orr, bad leg and all, taking on the world at half speed and still showing everyone, Potvin included, how it’s done, how our game is played. Orr has endured it all—the boos, the bloodlust, the jealousy and the pain— without complaining, just as he has accepted the cheers and the honors and the fame and the money without gloating.

But how frustrating the past few seasons must have been. How infuriating for the body not to be able to obey the brain’s commands. How depressing to watch lesser talents flash by, doing their best but not quite doing it right. How satisfying it would be to come back, just one more time, healthy, and win a scoring title or a Stanley Cup. It would be in Orr’s nature to try. AÍ MacNeil, one of the four Team Canada coaches last fall, says he has never seen an athlete with as positive a mental attitude. “The guy is just fantastic, that’s all.”

Orr and his friend-lawyer-agent-bigbrother Alan Eagleson insist that no final decision on Orr’s future has been made: the doctors and the knee will decide next summer. Hockey fans everywhere, to say nothing of beleaguered franchise owners, naturally hope a medical miracle will occur. But if there is to be no miracle, if there is only to be a half-speed Orr, a one-legged wonder, then I hope the player and his agent will agree to leave well enough alone. The fans don’t owe Orr anything but respect; he has always given them his very best. Orr doesn’t owe the fans anything either, except maybe the right to remember the way he played our game. No one wants to see Orr tagged a has-been. Let him surrender his mantle to PotVin or, more likely, Larry Robinson or Borje Salming. But don’t let one of them tear it off his shoulders as he tries to hobble by.