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Sunday Long Read

Sunday Long Read: Orr's impact remains omnipresent

Sunday, 10.27.2013 / 3:00 AM / Sunday Long Read

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Sunday Long Read: Orr's impact remains omnipresent
Legendary NHL defenseman Bobby Orr redefined the game on ice, but still has impact today.

The anger, and the disbelief, in Derek Sanderson's voice are unmistakably present 30 years after the fact.

A long-ago attempt to besmirch the reputation of Bobby Orr remains a fresh wound, still galling despite the passage of time.

At the time, Sanderson was approached by a reporter researching a story on Orr, a former Boston Bruins teammate and one of his best friends. In fact, Orr played a leading role in Sanderson becoming sober and finding his way back from the abyss.

So there was an eagerness to talk about Orr. Almost immediately, however, Sanderson sensed this was not going to be a flattering tale about his respected and revered close friend. Sanderson had developed a sense for these things because this wasn't the first time a reporter had come to him looking for a speck of dirt on Bobby Orr.

"Every once in a while somebody tries to come and sneak a question by," Sanderson told NHL.com. "[The reporter] started asking me some questions about how Bobby could be a businessman because he never graduated college. I said, 'What do you mean, he is a businessman?' He's very successful because he knows who he deals with."

Sanderson was alive, and healthy, in large part because of Orr.

The guy who used to skate circles around opponents despite his ailing knees, flew like Superman after scoring a Stanley Cup-clinching goal, and was beloved and besieged by fans, never left Sanderson's side as he battled alcoholism, rehabbing, relapsing, rehabbing, relapsing and rehabbing again.

Naturally, Sanderson would be protective when it came to Orr.

"The questions were telling after three or four," Sanderson said. "Then I said, 'I don't like the direction of this. If you're going to be vicious, you're going to be vicious, but not with my help.' But there was nobody that could be vicious, not unless [they] lied."

Nobody dared.

"That article never came out," Sanderson said. "The reporter couldn't find anybody to run Bobby down."

Nobody can.

Though some athletes today have entourages befitting rock stars and attitudes suggesting they're bigger than the game, Orr has never basked in being Bobby Orr. Instead, he's been hockey's version of John Lennon, brilliant but purposefully in the shadows, a thoughtful yet unassuming icon.

Orr loathes putting himself above anybody. He's stood alone only because that is what his talent has demanded. He has never found a comfort level, though, with being separated from those who have contributed to his accomplishments.

One of Boston's greatest sporting icons, Orr felt unworthy to approach Ted Williams, another of the city's sporting heroes, at a charity. Pushed to do so, Orr found a fishing buddy instead of a deity.

He played with the same humbleness, say his fans.

Orr may have scored highlight-reel goals off brilliant rushes only he could execute, but he took little joy in being abnormally better than his competition.

"He would get up and he was like embarrassed," Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told NHL.com.

Lombardi was a hockey-loving teenager in Ludlow, Mass., during Orr's heyday.

"He was everything you could possibly want in terms of the athlete being a role model," Lombardi said. "You had a great player who clearly was a team player. He played to win. And then he was so humble."

In this way, he connected with those who watched him. Children throughout New England felt Orr was one of them, cut from the same working-class mold that shaped generations of their families. Now adults, those kids still feel Orr is one of them.

"You see the way things are today with guys craving attention, but he clearly could identify with the blue-collar, like so many of us kids back then who came from the mill towns," Lombardi said. "He walked the walk. As great a player as he was, that's the way you're supposed to conduct yourself -- play hard, play for the team and don't bring attention to yourself."

Bobby Orr's fame and status eventually grew to a level reached by sports legends Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. (Photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI)

It is that philosophy that has defined Orr's life, a humbleness passed from his parents, Doug and Arva. His fame and status eventually grew to a level reached by sports legends Williams and Mickey Mantle, but Orr's ego never swelled.

He was a Hall of Fame player who has since become a husband, father, grandfather and, yes, a businessman as the head of the Orr Hockey Group, and an author.

Outside of his current media blitz to promote his first memoir, "Orr: My Story," he attempts to live his life away from the spotlight, even though the bright lights rarely stray from a man who has won the Norris Trophy eight times, the Hart Trophy three times and the Conn Smythe Trophy twice in delivering two Stanley Cup titles to a championship-starved fan base.

Orr may not think of himself as a life-changing, hockey revolutionary, one who inspired countless awestruck kids to take up the sport at which he excelled. Those who know him best will tell you that's exactly what he has been since he arrived in Boston 47 years ago as a quiet hockey prodigy.

"I've gone to charity golf tournaments with him and you've got all the big shots sitting front and center getting all the pictures and then all of a sudden Bobby is gone and nobody knows where he is," Rick Curran, Orr's friend and business associate, told NHL.com. "I know where he is. He's in the back with all the people that are packing the boxes, or the caddies. All the people that don't get the recognition, all the people that do all the work; those are the people he likes to spend time with. That's him."

Actually, Bobby Orr is many things to many people.

He's still the conscience of his former teammates

Orr's impact on his teammates has not diminished despite the decades. It's not just because he was a key cog in breaking a Stanley Cup drought that lasted nearly 30 years. It's not just because of his kindness and loyalty, epitomized with helping Sanderson find sobriety by bringing him to rehab, giving him money and putting a roof over his head long after they were no longer teammates.

It is for the things he brought to the collection of men who grew up playing together for the Bruins.

"I think the best thing to sum him up is we knew how great he was as a player, but what was always important to me is he was a terrific teammate," Gerry Cheevers, the Bruins goalie at the time, told NHL.com. "To me, that's the bottom line, that's one of the reasons he was so great. When you can say, 'Boy, what a great teammate he was,' that's pretty good."

VIDEO OF BOBBY ORR IN NYC

The players on those teams loved Orr, but also lived in fear of him. He was their leader and conscience, but he counted on each of them in the same manner he was counted upon by them. Orr would let them know if they weren't playing well. Sometimes he would speak, but often he would just stare.

It was a look that could cut a hole through a cement wall.

"He was like a tiger in the dressing room," Don Cherry, who coached the Bruins in the mid-'70s, told NHL.com. "I think Eddie Westfall was the guy that told the story, if you weren't playing well and you weren't doing your best, in the middle of the Boston dressing room there was a big post and you kind of wanted to hide behind that because [Orr] had lasers at you. He just hated to lose, and when we lost, it wasn't like a normal person taking a loss, he always blamed himself. He felt that he let the team down."

Cherry experienced that at the end of his first season behind the bench, when the Bruins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1975 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We outshot Chicago in the playoffs, 56-18, and we happened to run into [Blackhawks goalie] Tony Esposito at his best, and we should have won," Cherry said. "[That season] Orr had 46 goals, 89 assists and he was plus-[80]. He was out of this world. He closes the door in my office after we got beat and he says, 'I never played good for you.' I didn't know what to say. That's the kind of guy he was. That's the kind of guy he was."

Orr insists he makes mistakes. Sanderson argues that assertion.

"You've gotta make a mistake, that's the human condition," Sanderson said. "Not him."

Sanderson said he can't remember a time when Orr turned over the puck.

"Yeah, that's true," Cheevers confirmed.

"I used to watch him circle the net. Nobody could do that," Sanderson said. "Watch how many guys try, they can't do that. He would wait, wait, wait, see a break up the middle, come up beside the net and throw a perfect pass."

Sanderson still questions why Orr never gained the reputation for being as defensively gifted as he was phenomenal offensively.

"Everybody said I was a great penalty-killer, Eddie Westfall and I, but Bobby Orr killed every penalty with us," Sanderson said. "Nobody wants to give him credit for being a sensational defensive player, but he never believed in backing up. He would skate beside you and the second you took your eye off the puck he would take it away from you. He read the play, watched it, waited and made his move."

Larry Robinson, Orr's defense partner during the 1976 Canada Cup, is still mesmerized by what he saw in that tournament, which was the only time Orr represented Canada on the ice.

Bobby Orr helped Canada win the 1976 Canada Cup championship and was named MVP. (Photo: Denis Brodeur/NHLI)

On bad knees that would eventually force him to retire early, Orr won MVP of the tournament and helped Canada win the championship.

"He practiced with us, but as soon as we started playing the games he never practiced again because his knees were so bad," Robinson told NHL.com. "He was maybe half or three-quarters of the true Bobby Orr, and yet he still was great to watch and great to play with. He was still the best player on the ice. It was his anticipation, his acceleration, the way he could pass the puck or even shoot the puck."

Kids took notice.

Lombardi said he and his buddies never used to lace their skates to the top because Orr didn't. They would put one strand of tape on their stick blade because that's what Orr did. They would want to have long hair so it could blow back in the wind, because that's what Orr had.

"That was cool," Lombardi said.

They were in awe of a guy who doesn't like people being in awe of him.

"I can still see the first time he did that pirouette at the point, where he faked a shot and did the spin-o-rama," Lombardi said. "I can still see the thing where he was killing a penalty and circled the net twice.

"When you look at his body, his edges, the way he could handle the puck and skate around a dime, and some of the things he did, I haven't seen some of that stuff since. Some of the things Orr did I have never seen again despite the fact that all our hockey players are bigger, stronger, faster, whatever. What couldn't he do?"

He's a humble friend

Again, Orr does not put himself above others, even when the rest of the world attempts to do so.

An 800-pound piece of carved bronze outside TD Garden depicts him flying through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970. It is a salute to the most famous goal in Bruins history and the most famous play in Orr's career.

There he is, immortalized alone, in full flight, his stick rising in triumph as he starts celebrating the overtime goal. Yet when Orr looks at that iconic moment, he sees all those who played a part in delivering him to the precipice of history.

"Look, I'm thrilled that the statue is there and thrilled that I scored the goal, but that statue is just a little snippet, a very brief moment of a goal," Orr told NHL.com. "When I look at it, I look at a lot more."

It brings him back to when he was a boy in Parry Sound, dreaming about playing for the Stanley Cup, being on a championship team in the NHL.

"He's a small-town kid that was playing in Boston," Cherry said. "He's like the kid that delivers pizza and he's almost like that today too."

Bobby Orr's 1970 Cup-clinching goal is immortalized outside TD Garden in Boston. (Photo: Getty Images)

Orr still recalls looking out in the crowd the day in 2010 on which his statute was unveiled and seeing Kathy Bailey, the widow of Garnet "Ace" Bailey, a Bruins teammate in 1970 who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"He was a big part of our team," Orr said of Bailey.

He remembers seeing Milt Schmidt -- "Uncle Milt," as Orr said -- in attendance. Schmidt pulled off the legendary lopsided trade with the Chicago Blackhawks that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to the Bruins for Pit Martin, Gilles Marrotte and Jack Norris.

"That's another piece and that's really what put the Bruins over the hump," Orr said.

Harry Sinden, the Bruins coach during those Cup years, was in attendance.

"One of the great coaches," Orr said.

Sanderson, Cheevers, Westfall, Hodge, Johnny McKenzie, Johnny Bucyk, Don Marcotte, Gary Doak and Eddie Johnston were at the dedication ceremony.

"So whether it's the goal or the statue, it was a whole bunch of things put together to get to that moment and I think that's as important as anything," Orr said. "We were the champions. I'm proud to have it there, but I think there's a lot more to it."

He's a trendsetter

Orr changed the way his position was perceived, even if he is too humble to say it or even believe it. His free-wheeling style, which led to him scoring 915 points in 657 games, influenced generations of defensemen, from Paul Coffey to Brian Leetch, Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom, and now Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.

"What Bobby did was make coaches think we don't have to stick a guy who can't skate back there and instead say, 'Let's put a guy who can skate and get him on the ice more,'" Leetch told NHL.com. "That's why I ended up on defense. I started out as a forward, but nobody wanted to play 'D'. My dad said, 'Why don't you play 'D', you get on the ice more, every other time?' My coaches weren't against it because they could see I could get up ice and still make plays. What Bobby did became accepted."

Leetch turned into a Hall of Fame defenseman. So did Coffey. Niedermayer is going into the Hall of Fame next month. Lidstrom is a lock for the Class of 2015. Keith is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist. Doughty has a Cup ring and a gold medal too.

There are many Orr disciples, but now they're being instead referred to as disciples of Niedermayer, Leetch and Lidstrom. Soon enough they will be modeled after Keith, Doughty, Ryan Suter, Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang and so many others.

"Any time you have your name mentioned with Bobby's it's always a little embarrassing, but you're certainly not disappointed," Leetch said. "You know the backlash is coming up right afterward, people saying, 'You can't mention his name with Bobby Orr's name.' Hey, I agree!"

He's a hero to millions

Sanderson got a second chance largely because of Orr. He doesn't take it for granted.

"The one constant, the one thing you could count on no matter how bad things got, no matter how much money I needed to get out of the hole, Bobby would be there," Sanderson said. "He raised all of us to that level. I guess superstars do that by their nature, but Bobby so far surpasses every other superstar. He's in a realm of his own."

Orr seems to do whatever he can whenever he can to put his fame to good use.

He'll visit children in hospitals and be enlightened by what he sees while others will be sad or sickened by the suffering.

"I remember he took me my rookie year and he says, 'Come on, we're going to go see why we play,'" Sanderson said. "I had no idea what he meant. He took me to a children's hospital. He was 19. I was 20. We went to the spina bifida ward and it totally, totally depressed me, but it gave him a reason to say, 'That's how lucky we are. You've got to play for these kids.'

"Bobby would get their names, send them stuff, remember them. Then he says to me, 'What do you think?' I say, 'Oh, I couldn't do that on a regular diet.' But that's him in a nutshell."

Orr, who still does things like that, never does them for accolades or attention. Cameras rarely document the visits.

"He doesn't want anybody to be in awe of him," Curran said.

That's why Leetch has never told Orr one of his family's favorite stories. Leetch, just 2, is in the basement with a hockey stick and a yo-yo that had no string and pretending he was legendary Bruins broadcaster Fred Cusick.

"I was just learning to talk and getting words and sentences out," Leetch said. "They say all they would hear is, 'Orr to Esposito, shot, score' over and over again."

Former NHL defenseman Brian Leetch would pretend he was legendary Bruins broadcaster Fred Cusick and keep saying 'Orr to Esposito, shot, score.' (Photo: Getty Images)

Leetch has been around Orr several times through the years, but he hasn't told that story because the timing never seems right.

"He disarms you with how nice he is so you want to just talk to him like a friend instead of talking to him like someone looking up to him and how happy you are to be conversing with him," Leetch said. "When he's hanging out with you and it's just good times, he really enjoys that and I think you probably get more out of him that way."

Orr disarmed Lombardi and his high-school buddies from Ludlow a few years ago.

Lombardi's gang was in town and at the Polish-American Citizens Club, a haunt where, as kids, they would see Orr, Hodge and Esposito. Lombardi's group was reminiscing about when the Bruins players would make the trek to western Massachusetts, arrive at the club, sign autographs and make everybody's day.

Lombardi decided he would call Orr. His friends couldn't believe it.

"[Orr] gets on the phone and all the guys are sitting there going, 'Wait a minute, you've got Bobby Orr on the phone?'" Lombardi said. "He takes the time and starts talking to them all. These are all blue-collar guys, and that made their entire year. It's phenomenal his impact on people."

That impact also resonates with New York Rangers center Brian Boyle, one of Orr's clients.

"He calls me on my birthday every year," Boyle told NHL.com. "It's amazing he remembers. He's got probably so much to do, so many things, the generosity he gives with his time, his philanthropy, and then he thinks of me. It means a lot to me. I'm turning 29 [in December] and I'm sure I'll get a phone call. He'll ask how I'm doing. Sometimes he'll call me randomly. It seems to be perfect timing whenever he calls me."

He's a guide to today's players

Occupationally, Orr is a player agent and has been for more than two decades. He does it to make a living, yes, but it's also Orr's way of helping current players become better people.

"Philosophically, he likes to feel he's the conscience of the company," Curran said.

He guides players, including several A-list clients, on and off the ice. He will not advise them on what to do with the money they make, however. He believes they need to learn that part of life for themselves. He didn't pay attention to his finances and got burned for it. Orr doesn't want that to happen to someone else.

"The reality is Bobby didn't know anything that was going on with his affairs and one of the things that he wants to [stress to] these young guys is it's one thing to have someone who guides you, one thing to have someone who advises you and looks after your affairs both on and off the ice, but you have to know what is going on," Curran said. "You have to ask questions."

Orr always knows what is going on with his clients. He's up at 5 a.m. every day checking box scores and stories from the previous night. He has a checklist of items that must be tackled that day by the time Curran calls him at 7:30 -- and Curran calls him at 7:30 every day, unless one of them is traveling and unavailable.

"People often say to me, 'Well, it's Bobby Orr, is he even around?'" Curran said. "I say, 'Are you freaking kidding me?'

"God bless him. He's a pain in the butt at 7:30 in the morning, but he's got a litany of things to be done and need to be looked at. That's Bobby. He's very conscientious about all of that."

He's as conscientious about the play of his clients as he is about their personal lives.

"He's someone that my mother continually tells me to strive to be like as a man," Boyle said. "I mean you watch him, everything he does is the right thing."

Curran said Orr is loyal to every client the way he was loyal to his teammates, which means his loyalty won't jaundice his opinion if a client is not doing his part to be the best he can be, to live by the values by which Orr lives.

"They clearly understand the game and will tell their players the truth," Lombardi said of the Orr Hockey Group. "That's the one thing I notice with that group, and like Ricky says, it starts with Bobby's philosophy of not getting into this business of telling kids what they want to hear. They're going to get it straight, and in the end they're going to have a better player and a better client. That clearly resonates throughout his firm."

He's an author

Orr has had offers to do a book for years. But he didn't want to write an autobiography about his career accomplishments.

The fact it took 35 years after Orr retired for him to feel comfortable knowing he had something important to say is symbolic of the type of person he is. The theme arises again. Orr wants to be seen as an equal, not one who did great things which have earned him a sense of reverence.

He rarely mentions his stats or personal accomplishments and awards in the book. They don't define him or his career, he said.

"If you want to go look at stats, you guys at the NHL have books," Orr said.

He wrote the book to let the readers know who guided him, shaped his values and influenced his career. He wrote the book to offer his opinion (and he said it's nothing more than an opinion) on how the game at the youth levels should be about fun and nothing more, and how the rules of the NHL game have made the game at the highest level too fast and dangerous.

Purchase Orr: My Story

"That's an opinion," Orr said. "That's not saying, 'Hey League, change the rules.' That's what I think."

As Curran said, Orr would never presume his opinion matters more than those of others.

"If there are 20 voices in the room, he wants to be one of 20," Sanderson said.

Orr knows his voice isn't of the many, though. He's aware of who he is, the stature he has earned. But it has not changed the way he looks at the game he loved as a child and mastered as a professional, or at life.

It's no surprise the reporter who approached Sanderson some 30 years ago couldn't find any dirt on Orr.

"He is above and beyond the mortal discussion of who is best, who played best. He is beyond that," Sanderson said. "He is an amazing individual. Get out the yardstick and measure, you'll find out just how far out of his league you really are."

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