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Few players have graced the ice with the same amount of flare and genius as Bobby Orr. The Canadian born hockey star revolutionized the NHL in the 1960’s and 1970’s with his dramatic play at the defenseman position. Hockey ran in the Orr family blood, with Bobby’s father, Doug, being a prospective star player during his years on the ice. Bobby’s talent was noticed and encouraged early in life, as he would join his first recreation team at just five years old. Though born sickly and weak, Orr was a natural on skates, flying past his peers with speed and quickness. His youth coach, former NHL player Bucko Mcdonald, saw the hidden talents in Orr’s game, and made a position change for the young player from wing to defenseman during his teenage years. Though initially displeasing to both Bobby and his father, the shift to defense would lead to Bobby becoming a game breaking professional player.
At just thirteen years old, a Bobby Orr was noticed by a variety of NHL franchises, including what would become his first team, the Boston Bruins. Player scout Wren Blair of the Bruin’s franchise described Orr as, “A combination of Doug Harvey and Eddie Shore.” Blair would go out of his way to recruit the uber talented young player, frequently making visits to the Orr household and attending a plethora of Bobby’s junior league games. During Bobby’s high school years, Blair acted a liaison between his family and the Bruins franchise. This relationship, though difficult at times, finally resulted in Bobby’s “C-Form” signature, effectively ensuring his commitment to the Bruins franchise when he finally turned professional.
Bobby’s time in the junior leagues proved the promise of his future in the NHL. Consistently improving his skills and goal totals every season, Orr would set a variety of records, and led the Oshawa Generals to an Ontario Hockey Association Championship at the peak of his junior career. As Orr’s promise began to shine through, it became increasingly clear to both Orr and his family the lack compensation he was slated to receive from the Bruin’s franchise. This realization led Bobby Orr to make a decision that would forever impact the National Hockey League, before he ever set foot on the ice.
At age sixteen, still two years away from debuting for the Bruins, Orr and his family were seeking a massive restructuring of his promised deal with the Boston franchise. With little options in terms of negotiations, the Orr’s made a desperate move for legal counsel, hiring Toronto lawyer Alan Eagleson to represent them in their struggle against the franchise and current player options offered by the NHL. By threatening to withhold services from the Bruins, opting instead to play for the Canadian National Team, Orr and Eagleson successfully coerced the Bruins franchise into offering Bobby one of the highest paying contracts in the league at the beginning of his career. This move, though surely a momentous occasion in the young career of Bobby Orr, served as a benchmark moment for the NHL. Up until this time, players and prospects were unable to truly negotiate their deals, and were at the mercy of management in what they would be offered. Bobby Orr’s partnership with Alan Eagleson effectively began the player-agent era, and gave players a much greater power in negotiating their compensation. It also acted as the launching point for Bobby’s legendary career on the ice.
Finally to the NHL
At the onset of Bobby’s career, the Bruins were still unsure at his potential on defense, trying him at a variety of positions in the pre-season and early games. As the season progressed, however, Bobby began to prove his toughness to both his own franchise and his peers. By taking on veteran, household names such as Ted Harris and Marcel Pronovost, Bobby began to build his reputation as a gun slinging, tough minded defenseman who had a flair for the dramatic on the open ice. Orr finished his rookie season with 13 goals and 28 assists, garnering both the Calder Memorial Trophy and recognition on the Second All-Star team.
By Bobby’s second year in the NHL, sporadic knee injuries began to fester that would haunt the remainder of his career. Orr would play just 46 games with the Bruins in his second year, although his limited game opportunities remained outstanding in terms of production. Orr would score 11 goals and collect 20 assists in those games, helping the Bruins to make the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. By making his first of eight NHL First All-Star Teams, Orr became a household name in Boston. Every game in which he played caught national attention and was sure to sell out. The Bruins had found their cornerstone player, and although trounced in the first round of the playoffs, they were ready to build something special around Bobby.
The Bruins had made significant moves in the off-season to position themselves for a playoff run by the beginning of Bobby’s third season. Adding veteran stars Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, along with rookies Derek Sanderson and Glen Sather, the “Big Bad Bruins,” as they were now known, took some of the pressure off Bobby, and more importantly his knees. Making the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Bruins would sweep Toronto out of the first round in what became a playoff series of the ages. In a pivotal first game, rookie Pat Quinn knocked Bobby Orr unconscious sending the Boston crowd into a frenzy. Although the Bruins went on to win the game in dominating fashion, Quinn’s check was met with severe unrest, with fans threatening and even attempting to attack him in the penalty box. At the game’s conclusion, a police officer on the season stated, “The fans here don't like anybody to touch Orr. He's their Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong rolled into one. To my thinking, it looked like a clean check.” Regardless, the hit by Quinn inspired the Bruins who would sweep Toronto before being bounced out of the playoffs in the second round.
Playoff Breakthrough and Major Success
Bobby’s breakthrough year occurred in the 1970 season. With a burning motivation to succeed in the playoffs, the Bruins marched through the season as Stanley Cup favorites. When crunch time came in late spring, Bobby did not disappoint his team or fans. Scoring 9 goals and collecting 11 assists through the playoffs, Bobby capped off one of the most immaculate postseason performances in NHL history off with “The Goal.” Coming off a give and go with teammate Derek Sanderson, Bobby soared through the air after realizing his shot went it, landing flat on the ice in front of thousands of screaming fans. The moment was captured perfectly and seemed like a flawless ending to Bobby’s best season yet.
With the pressure of winning a Stanley Cup off the backs of the Bruins, Bobby began to shine even brighter, signing an unprecedented 200,000 USD contract with Boston in the offseason. He would be second in the league in total scoring with 139 points, only behind his teammate Esposito. Although the heavily favored Bruins would break a plethora of offensive records in the 1971 season, they were stunned in the first round of the playoffs by Montreal. Over Bobby’s final five seasons with the Bruins, they would win the Stanley Cup one more time (1972). Bobby would set the NHL record for most goals by a defenseman in a single season, scoring 46 in the 1975 season. The following year, after an array of internal issues between Eagleson and the Bruins front office, Bobby’s relationship with both sides became strained. The brutal negotiations for a new contract resulted in Bobby’s departure from the Bruins, and eventually his dissociation from Eagleson. Orr signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent in 1976.
Although Orr’s deal was staggering (3 million USD guaranteed), Bobby would never cash a check from Chicago, refusing to be paid if he could not play. By the start of the 1976 season, Orr’s knee injuries had become unbearable. Bobby missed the entire 1977 season, and officially retired at the conclusion of the 1978 season at just 30 years old.
Even in his final years filled with torturous knee pain, Bobby Orr was the best player on the ice. His unfathomable skill and ability to seamlessly transition from defense to offense left opponents reeling. It was said by teammate Darryl Sittler, “Bobby Orr was better on one leg than anyone else was on two.” Although his career was cut noticeably short by injury, Bobby is undoubtedly one of the greatest to play the game. On an emotional night in 1979, the Bruins officially retired Bobby’s #4 in what would become known as “Bobby Orr Day.” Nearly 50 years later, Bobby is enshrined in the NHL Hall of Fame and is regarded as one of the most influential players in hockey history.
Celebrate the legacy of Bobby Orr with this framed print from the famous 1970 Stanley Cup.
Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.