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NHL Centennial

Bobby Orr deceived in free agency departure to Blackhawks

Defenseman never told about contract offer by Bruins, which included ownership stake

by Stan Fischler / Special to

With the opening of free agency on July 1, it's worth noting that one player more than any other was the first to cause a storm of interest, and angst, as a free agent.

That would be Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr, who became a free agent 41 years ago and did what then had been considered either impossible, sacrilegious, or both.

Orr was regarded with reverence in the Boston sporting world much in the manner of baseball's Ted Williams with the Red Sox or basketball's Larry Bird with the Celtics.

As far as any Bruins fan was concerned, Orr was as much a fixture in Boston as Bunker Hill. Anyone who would suggest that Orr would play for any of the other 17 NHL teams at the time would be laughed off. 

Knee injuries had slowed Orr down and he played 10 games in 1975-76. But at the 1976 Canada Cup, he led Canada to the championship, tied for the team lead in scoring with nine points (two goals, seven assists) in seven games and was named the most valuable player at the tournament.

The one thing that nobody would have imagined is that Orr would become a free agent. Except Orr's agent Alan Eagleson.

A Toronto lawyer, Eagleson, managed to become not only the most powerful agent in the League, but also the Executive Director of the NHL Players' Association.

Eagleson also managed to control international hockey as the orchestrator of several tournaments involving NHL players skating against teams from the Soviet Union and other European countries.

Video: Bobby Orr revolutionized defensive position

He also had strong influence within the League. One of his closest friends was Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks and Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors.

Wirtz coveted a player like Orr, who controlled the game in the offensive and defensive zones. Although the Blackhawks finished first in the Smythe Division in 1975-76, they last won the Stanley Cup in 1961. Having Orr in the lineup could have ended that drought.

The Bruins, however, made a generous offer to retain Orr. But Orr had no idea how generous it was since he let Eagleson do the negotiating.

The talks between Eagleson and the Bruins began late in 1975. Because of his previous litany of injuries, Orr knew that his next contract with the Bruins could be his last.

No one detailed the events that followed more diligently than Russ Conway, a sports reporter for the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Eagle-Tribune. In his book "Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey," Conway wrote that Orr had no intention of leaving the Bruins.

"He wanted security and he wanted to finish out his career in Boston," Conway wrote. "As always, he left the negotiating to Eagleson."

There soon were rumblings about contract problems involving Eagleson and the Bruins. They made what was described as a "great offer," but Eagleson rejected it.

Meanwhile, Orr had been led to believe the Bruins had no intention of keeping him. As was his norm, Orr never personally entered the contract talks.

"That's why players have agents," he said. "To stay out of that crap." 

Discouraged, Orr began considering free agent options. One of them was from the Blackhawks, where Eagleson said he would get a guaranteed multi-million dollar contract. It would, in fact, be the biggest in NHL history.

Word of the contract offer got to the Bruins, and general manager Harry Sinden adamantly asserted that negotiations were going smoothly and he was certain Orr would remain in Boston.

Conway talked to Sinden about the Bruins reportedly low-balling Orr.

"Sinden said that the Bruins had made Orr probably the best offer in hockey history, maybe in Boston pro sports history," Conway wrote. "But Eagleson had thumbed his nose at it."

At no time did Orr doubt that Eagleson had his best interests at heart. In fact, he accused the Bruins of trying to drive a wedge between himself and his agent. Much later, Orr realized that he had fingered the wrong culprit.

Without knowing all the facts, especially the huge contract the Bruins had in store for him, Orr took Eagleson's word that the Blackhawks' offer was the best.

 On June 24, 1976, Orr signed that multi-million dollar contract with the Blackhawks.

"With Orr's exit, Boston fans felt as if a loved one had disappeared," Conway wrote.

But Orr's free agent move from the Bruins to the Blackhawks wasn't as simple as it was made to appear.

It was later disclosed that Eagleson convinced Orr to sign with the Blackhawks without informing Orr of the Bruins' lucrative offer. In retrospect that was the most appealing offer since he wanted to remain with what had been his one and only NHL team.

In "Game Misconduct," Conway wrote that Orr felt betrayed after hearing all the facts.

Said Orr: "I believed Al. I trusted him. I kept telling him I wanted to stay with the Bruins and he kept saying, 'Bobby, Chicago is the one that's guaranteeing you $3 million. Boston hasn't made anywhere near that kind of offer.'"

As Conway later discovered, the Bruins had, in effect, offered a much better contract than Eagleson ever had indicated.

Not only were the Bruins offering Orr a five-year contract, but also an 18.5-percent ownership stake.

As Orr told Conway: "I never knew. There's no way I was given the details of that kind of offer. I think anyone would remember if he was offered a piece of a National Hockey League club."

Orr's tenure in Chicago did not go well.

"The move was also something that Orr and his wife, Peggy, soon regretted," Conway wrote. "They realized they'd made a mistake moving to Chicago, where Orr never really felt at home."

Orr's knee issues kept him to 20 games in his first season. He sat out 1977-78 with the hope that the time off would help his knee heal. It didn't and he retired after playing six games in 1978-79 at age 30.

Once Orr learned about the Bruins' enormous contract offer in 1976, he never spoke to Eagleson again.

One could say that the most stunning free agency signing in NHL annals failed everyone involved, especially Orr.

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