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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Bobby Orr: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Bruins legend revolutionized defenseman position, won Stanley Cup twice, Norris Trophy eight times

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

We will never know what Bobby Orr could have done on a pair of good knees, had he not seen the knife more often than a dinner plate.

How good would Orr have been in the day of arthroscopic surgery, in a time of modern medicine and advanced methods of rehabilitation, and if he hadn't been forced to prematurely retire at age 30 when even walking on a flight of stairs left him in excruciating pain?

 

Video: Bobby Orr revolutionized defensive position

 

With Orr in the lineup, how different would the Canada national team have looked in the historic eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union in 1972, when he was unable to play because of injury?

Hypothetical questions, for which there will never be answers.
But what we do know about Orr is that he not only dominated the position of defenseman during his too-short career, he thoroughly revolutionized the way the game is played.

"Bobby Orr," said Toronto Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, an Orr teammate in the 1976 Canada Cup, "was better on one leg than anybody else was on two."

 

BOBBY ORR CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 657 | Goals: 270 | Assists: 645 | Points: 915

 

The debate over the greatest player in NHL history will always be subjective, but in any discussion about it, you are bound to hear a handful of names that virtually always includes Orr and forwards Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.

All were brilliant talents, trailblazers who statistically and with their artistry made the game their own with skills never before seen. With otherworldly abilities, each dominated not just a game, but his era. Their preparation and their styles of play would be studied for generations to come, templates for countless future players.

You're barely scratching the surface of Orr's impact on hockey between 1966 and 1978 if you study only his NHL trophy case; he won 18 individual awards to go with two Stanley Cup championships with the Boston Bruins, in 1970 and '72.

Orr, a 1979 Hall of Fame inductee, won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie in 1966-67; the Norris as the best defenseman eight times (still a record) in eight seasons, from 1967-68 through 1974-75; the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer in 1969-70 and 1974-75, the only defenseman ever to win it; the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player in 1969-70, 1970-71 and 1971-72; and the Conn Smythe in both Stanley Cup-winning seasons as the MVP of the playoffs.

He also won the Lester B. Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) Award in 1974-75 as the League MVP as voted by the players, and the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1979 for his contribution to hockey in the United States.

Add to those honors his MVP award at the 1976 Canada Cup, his nine points having led that tournament.

And then there was "The Goal," immediately a proper noun in Boston, that Orr scored 40 seconds into overtime of Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues.

Tripped by Blues defenseman Noel Picard, Orr took flight in front of St. Louis goalie Glenn Hall an instant after having scored the Cup winner, arms outstretched, howling with joy.

Video: 1970 Cup Final, Gm4: Orr scores airborne OT goal

He was frozen in midair in what would become one of hockey's most famous photographs, his flight immortalized in a statue outside Boston's TD Garden.

"I was already out of the shower and dried off before you hit the ice," Hall would kid Orr in the years to come, the Hall of Fame goalie having autographed that photo more than any other.

Beyond "The Goal" and awards, dig a little deeper and the superlatives keep flowing for Orr's staggering performance year after year.

In each of Orr's eight Norris-winning seasons, his rating was at least plus-30; he was a whopping plus-124 in 1970-71, an NHL record that seems likely to be his forever, and was plus-579 during that eight-year stretch.

Orr did this while playing a rugged brand of hockey that made him no stranger to the penalty box. In 1969-70 he became the first player in NHL history to surpass 100 points while being assessed 100 penalty minutes, and he would do it three times.

He is the only player to win the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe, Hart, Art Ross and Norris trophies in a single season (1969-70). He is the only NHL defenseman to have nine hat tricks in his career, and in 1970-71 set single-season records for assists (102), points by a defenseman (139) and rating (plus-124).

Orr was unlike any other player by the time he reached his teens, having started to play organized hockey at age 8 in Parry Sound, Ontario. He was a forward to start and would be moved back to the blue line by minor-hockey coaches Royce Tennant and Bucko McDonald to take advantage of his great speed and stick-handling.

By 1962-63, when Orr was a slight 14-year-old, he was playing with the junior-class Oshawa Generals, skating against some players who were six years his senior. He had practiced to get there from morning until well past dark, spending endless hours unsupervised on school rinks and in parking lots, firing pucks he'd hollowed out and filled with lead at sheets of plywood.

Orr shredded the junior league his next three years with seasons of 72, 93 and 94 points, respectively. By age 18, he had signed with the Bruins. He was about to arrive in the NHL not merely as the savior the franchise desperately needed, but the man who would change the face of the game.

Orr's best move, Gordie Howe would suggest years later, "was putting on his (expletive) skates."

The Bruins had missed the playoffs seven seasons running when Orr brought those blades to Boston. They missed them in his rookie season, too, but four years after his debut they were Stanley Cup champions for the first time since 1941.

"Bobby Orr was a star when they played the national anthem in his first game," Harry Sinden, the Bruins coach for Orr's first four NHL seasons, said of the 18-year-old phenom.

Orr came with ungodly talent and plenty of grit, earning 102 penalty minutes in 61 games as a rookie.

Orr's ability to control a game's pace was something unseen since defenseman Doug Harvey, who won the Norris Trophy seven times in eight seasons between 1955 and 1962. But where Harvey moved deliberately and chose his spots, Orr played at a staggering speed, darting and threading and spinning and pirouetting his way from behind his own net to the opponent's goal crease with great flair and improvisation.

"All that Bobby did was change the face of hockey all by himself," said forward Phil Esposito, who was traded to Boston by the Chicago Blackhawks when Orr was beginning his second season.

As complex as Orr's style might have looked, Sinden said that the defenseman "played a very simple, basic game. But he played it at a level so superior to anyone else's that sometimes he had to tone it down or he would have been on the ice by himself, with no one to perform even close to his level."

Esposito said he doubted whether anyone ever saw Orr at his maximum speed "because Bobby was as fast as he needed to be in a particular situation. No matter how fast an opponent was, Bobby could skate faster than him if he needed to in the framework of a play. If he was caught up the ice and the other team had an odd-man rush, that's when you saw his truly great speed. Very seldom did he not get back to have a hand in breaking up the play. To have seen his ultimate speed, you would have needed a play faster than any in hockey history."

Don Cherry coached Orr in 1974-75 and 1975-76, the defenseman's final two seasons in Boston, and to this day shakes his head when discussing No. 4.

"When I first saw him, it was like an old horse trainer who finally saw Secretariat," Cherry said. "He changed how defense should be played. He broke the mold because before that defensemen were big, slow guys. They just cleared the guys out and got the puck up. Bobby changed the whole face of the game and how it's played."

Orr missed the 1972 Summit Series with one of his myriad knee injuries but was superb in helping Canada win the 1976 Canada Cup. Playing on what some say was the greatest team ever assembled, Orr was voted the tournament's most valuable player.

From the high of that 1976 victory -- "There is nothing like winning for your country," he said -- Orr was limping into the twilight of his NHL career. And that would be with the Chicago Black Hawks, with whom he'd signed as a free agent on June 24, 1976, against his own Bruins-crested heart but on the advice of his agent, Alan Eagleson.

The relationship between the two men was forever fractured over contract dealings, with Orr contending Eagleson withheld information from him. Orr, who for years had put all of his financial interests in Eagleson's hands, said he was unaware he could have had an ownership stake in the Bruins had he re-signed with Boston.

In the end, Orr played 20 games with the Black Hawks in 1976-77 and six more in 1978-79, having sat out 1977-78 following knee surgery. 

By that lost season, scalpels had taken such a great toll that Orr knew his time was up.

"With today's scopes and the ways they do the surgery, the products out there, for any athlete back a few years (ago), it would be better for them today," Orr told The Hockey News in 2013. "When I was playing, you'd ice it, you'd heat -- there was a hot gel -- and that was it."

He finally had a total knee replacement in 2004, saying he should have done it much sooner.

In "Orr: My Story," his 2013 autobiography, he described the agony of his final months in the NHL.

"I would walk favoring my leg and going up and down stairs was difficult," Orr wrote. "I had undergone multiple surgeries on my left knee by that time. Cartilage does not grow back, it just keeps chipping off, leaving more and more of the bone surface exposed. Both menisci were gone, bone was rubbing against bone and chips were breaking off. Bone spurs and arthritis left the joint swollen and immobile. I couldn't cut, I couldn't accelerate, I couldn't play at the level that I expected of myself anymore. I had always said I would play until I couldn't skate anymore. Finally, I knew that day had come."

Orr would score his final goal on Oct. 28, 1978, against the Detroit Red Wings, before announcing his retirement through tears at a news conference 11 days later.

"There was no point trying to hide the fact that I was devastated," he said later. "Hockey had been my life. I was only 30 years old, an age when many defensemen are in their prime. Anyone who has dedicated their entire life to something only to have it taken away knows it isn't as simple as just saying goodbye."

The incomparable Howe and Jean Beliveau, and countless others, lavished praise on a superstar who was not leaving the game on his own terms. To this day, Orr is lauded not just for his unparalleled accomplishments, but that he achieved them on knees that were a shambles from his rookie season.

The Bruins icon will forever be part of the discussion when fans and academics discuss the best of the best who ever played hockey. Orr is merely happy with what he was able to accomplish during a career that was much too short, too many good years left in his heart when he was betrayed by his knees.

"The important things in life don't change when your luck turns against you, and those things are no different for celebrities than they are for anyone else," Orr wrote. "No one is going to succeed without taking their lumps. No one is going to succeed on their own, either -- what sometimes looks like an individual accomplishment is always the result of a team effort. And when you get knocked down, there's really is only one thing to do."

And there is no hockey player who got back up better than No. 4, Bobby Orr.

 

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