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Skate shop owner Orr has had lasting impact

by Kevin Woodley

VICTORIA, British Columbia -- The NHL is bringing the Stanley Cup to the Panorama Recreation Center on Sunday to help celebrate North Saanich winning Kraft Hockeyville in Canada 2015.

Without knowing it, the NHL has already been to Larry Orr's garage around the corner, a place where the spirit of hockey and community thrives every day in a never-locked garage at the top of a driveway that starts with a skate perched on small sign that reads, "skate sharpening."

The NHL and every small town dream of playing in it have a permanent spot in Orr's shop, with a row of hats hanging from pegs along the top edge of one wall, each autographed with a message of thanks from a local player that has moved on to play professionally.

The NHL returns every summer too, with players like Jamie Benn and Jordie Benn dropping in on Orr and his wife Sandy to hang out in the shop, talk about hockey and life, and grab a handful of the Double Bubble gum that seems to be omnipresent in any story about the 73-year-old.

"I still remember going to his skate shop, grabbing a bunch of bubble gum and being so excited to see him every time," Benn told from Dallas Stars training camp. "All the players I grew up with and played with and all the players that are still playing, we always make sure we go and see Larry every summer, just to drop in and say 'Hi'. He was such a big part of helping us when we were little and it's just kind of a big 'thank you' every time we see him."

Orr has been a fixture at the arena around the corner for close to 30 years, first helping out as a manager for with his son's teams, and later as the equipment manager for the Junior B team, the Peninsula Panthers. He bought the skate sharpening machine from the local sporting goods store when it was going out of business in the mid-1980s and taught himself how to use it, in large part to make sure there was an easy place for players to get a fresh edge in this small town on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. He figures there isn't a job he hasn't done, or much he hasn't helped fix, over the years at the Panorama Recreation Center, including a couple late night turns driving the Zamboni no one is supposed to know about. But Orr's impact on the community can't be measured in the countless number of skates he has sharpened for free, or even the free used equipment exchange he started to make sure every kid could play.

"It's almost like [Orr is] Hans from the Mighty Ducks movie to everybody," Benn said. "He's a father figure to everyone, friendly to everyone and he's just a big part of my life still for sure."

Jordie Benn has similar memories.

"He was the father figure of the peninsula," he said. "Whenever you drove up to the rink and saw his minivan in the parking lot it put a smile on your face to know Larry was at the rink and you could talk to him. Every time me and Jamie are back we go see Larry quite a bit, just go sit in his house and hang out and just talk. Larry and his wife Sandy are really special people."

Jason Fletcher, whose volunteer work embodies the community spirit that helped North Saanich win Kraft Hockeyville, made sure to feature Orr in his original nomination.

"A kid comes in with an old ratty pair of skates that were the only ones they could afford as a family and Larry makes sure the kids gets something better. If you can't afford to get your skates sharpened, he says 'don't worry about it, just be kind and nice to others,'" Fletcher said. "For the kids around the arena he is a sounding board. He listens, he jokes with them, he calls them a bonehead when they are being a bonehead and pats them on the back when they do good."

Orr, who normally wants nothing to do with the spotlight, is excited to drop the puck for a ceremonial faceoff before the Vancouver Canucks play the San Jose Sharks on Monday as part of the Kraft Hockeyville celebrations, but even that honor might not be enough to capture everything he has meant to the Saanich peninsula community, on and off the ice.

"He should be the unofficial major of Kraft Hockeyville," said Paul Warmhoven, president of Peninsula Minor Hockey. "You go to the rink and Larry would be there with his van parked in the same spot, unloading stuff, putting the tables out, getting the jerseys ready, and kids would be running around and he's got a pocketful of gum he's handing out to the kids. When you look up 'hockey beauty' in the dictionary, there's a picture of Larry Orr right beside it."

There are dozens of similar pictures hanging in the skate shop; autographed photos from all the players who moved up and on from playing on the peninsula, including the Benn brothers; Greg Scott, who played for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League; one-time NHL defenseman Ryan O'Byrne; Canucks draft pick Taylor Ellington; Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Irwin; and forward Kyle Greentree, who played for the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers, and like O'Bryne and Scott still plays professionally in Europe. Mixed among the old jerseys and photos, including one of Orr hoisting a provincial championship trophy with the Panthers, is a lineup of skates either waiting to be sharpened or picked up, and a wall of quality used skates and equipment for anyone who needs it.

The door to the shop never is locked. Orr typically turns off the garage lights off at 10 p.m., but local parents and players know to help themselves with pickups before early practices.

"We have quite an honor system," Orr said. "That shop door has never been closed, never been locked. If someone has to pick up at 5:30 a.m., just go in and turn the light on."

Occasionally a parent would grab the wrong pair of skates for their kid, leaving someone else without theirs until the mistake was caught. But Orr always had enough extras to provide a loaner set.

Orr would tuck some of his famous bubble gum in the toe of the skates of the smaller kids, and often left them a little note as well: "I put three goals in those skates."

"One kid came back and he must have got the goals," Orr said with a big laugh, "He said, 'I got three goals, how did you know that? How did you do that?' That was priceless."

There have been a lot of those moments during the past 20 years in Orr's skate shop, which has doubled as a place for Panthers players to cut or bleach their hair before a playoff run.

Orr joined them in the bleaching one season.

Larry Orr has been a fixture in the North Saanich, B.C. hockey community for nearly three decades. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Looked [terrible]," he said with a laugh.

Those laughs are what Jordie Benn remembers most.

"He's always got a smile on his face," he said. "He's a pretty funny guy and the kids now and when I was growing up we loved going to Larry's little shop at his house. You would just sit and [talk] with him. It was awesome being a kid there, and maybe you never fully realize it as a kid just how special he is, but now that we're older our relationship has really excelled."

Ellington played one season for the Panthers, but his relationship with Orr continues. For him, the friendship and laughs are matched only by memories of the bubble gum.

"Oh my God, the amount of bubble gum we ate. And it's funny, that's like the best five seconds of your life with that bubble gum and then you lose the taste," said Ellington, who was drafted by the Canucks in 2007 but has since retired from hockey. "When you think of hockey on the peninsula, Larry is the guy. He is so unbelievable. He gives and he gives and he gives."

Orr stopped working with the Panthers a couple of seasons ago so he could spend more time at home with Sandy, 67, who is in a wheelchair and in a battle with multiple sclerosis. The skate sharpening continued, but a recent cancer diagnosis has left Orr relying on help from a friend to keep that going for now. The shop remains open, though, and the visits will continue as long as Orr is well enough to sit and talk and share memories, on the ice and in the garage.

That includes a surprise knock at the door from the Benn brothers two weeks ago.

"When we heard he wasn't feeling good the first thing we did is look at each other and say, 'We need to go home, we got to go see Larry,'" Jordie said. "Larry and Sandy say they are huge fans of ours but when we come back there we are family and we care about them a lot. We're just two Island boys that started a relationship with a skate sharpener and I know he's got a lot of people who care about him and a lot of kids who just love having him around."

Orr is a big part of the community spirit that led to North Saanich winning Kraft Hockeyville this year, and his impact will be felt long after the NHL, and Orr himself, have moved on.

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