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The Verdict: Chicago holds fond memories for Orr, Esposito

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Before coming to Chicago, defenseman Bobby Orr had a legendary career in Boston (Photo by Getty Images).

Bobby Orr is on the phone, having just learned he was long ago cited as an idol of Joel Quenneville, the most interesting coach in the world.

“Is that right?” Orr was saying Tuesday. “I’m thrilled. He’s done one heck of a job in Chicago.”

Orr will be in Boston for Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. The incomparable Hall of Fame defenseman played his first game for the Bruins and his last for the Blackhawks, forced to retire at age 30 with a ravaged knee. Besides the playoffs, Orr was a central figure in one chaotic regular-season game against the Blackhawks.


Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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On Jan. 24, 1974, with the Blackhawks leading 2-1 at Boston Garden, Orr gathered the puck for a last-minute rush in the third period. As he approached Chicago’s blue line, he was met by Bill White. Orr tumbled over White’s stick. Tripping penalty? Referee Wally Harris thought not. Orr became irate and was ejected from the game; he smashed his stick as he left the rink, and then all you-know-what broke loose.

As it sunk in that their hero had been dismissed, fans grabbed whatever they could get their hands on, including beer bottles, and bombarded the ice. With 50 seconds remaining on the clock, players from both teams and officials left for shelter. While garbage continued to accumulate, the building was eerily quiet. No announcements, no organ music, no nothing.

Eventually, fans departed, unsure whether the game would be suspended or resumed. After a protracted delay, conditions were deemed safe, the mess was cleaned up, and the final 50 seconds were played with maybe 3,000 people left from the usual sellout audience. Blackhawks win, 2-1.

“I don’t remember a lot of that,” Orr said. “But I do remember calling Wally at his hotel an hour or so after to make sure he was OK. Those fans, they could be pretty enthusiastic.”

On July 1, 1976, the Blackhawks shook the sports landscape. President Bill Wirtz, mindful that his team had struggled since the 1972 departure of Bobby Hull to the World Hockey Association, revealed that Orr would be coming to Chicago for $3 million over five years—huge money in that era. The Bruins allowed Orr to escape as a free agent because they determined his time was about up with that bone-on-bone knee. Sadly, for the National Hockey League and the Blackhawks, the diagnosis was correct.

Orr played just 26 games over two seasons, then retired. During his time in Chicago, he briefly became a co-coach along with Stan Mikita beside White, who replaced Billy Reay. Orr also served as assistant to General Manager Bob Pulford before leaving the organization in 1980.

“If I could have played for the Blackhawks, maybe it would have been different,” recalled Orr. “But I was done.”

Phil Esposito was just getting started when, after playing in their system, he made the Blackhawks roster in 1963. For a variety of reasons, however, he never quite endeared himself to management. For one, Esposito’s initial contract offer was below what he earned with their St. Louis Braves farm club.

“Then there was my weight,” Esposito recalled the other day. “They thought I was too heavy. Billy kept on me to get down to 190 pounds. I was more than that. He fined me 10 bucks for every pound I was over 190.”

Esposito scored 23 goals in his first full season, was edged out for the 1965 Calder Trophy by goalie Roger Crozier of the Detroit Red Wings, and continued onward. At one point, Esposito centered for Hull and Chico Maki.

“He had all the tools, but they just didn’t like him here,” Hull recalled. “He was just a fun-loving kid. Once, Billy put him out late in a game. We trailed by maybe four goals. Phil turned to Billy and said, ‘Billy, you want me to tie it or win it?’”

After Esposito failed to register a point in a 1967 playoff series against Toronto, he was gone. General Manager Tommy Ivan traded Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge to Boston, where they meshed with a young Orr to form a championship team. In 1969, brother Tony was claimed by Chicago from the Montreal Canadiens for $25,000. He evolved into a Hall of Fame goalie and got along famously with Ivan and Reay.

“What can I say?” Phil Esposito concluded. “I was determined to prove people wrong, and in Boston, the fat guy at 215 pounds did. Thing is, as a kid in Chicago, I’d go to the sauna to lose weight for Billy. But Moose Vasko is there with a case of beer. I was heavier when I left than when I went in. But it all worked out for Tony and me, didn’t it?”

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