The five-time Grammy winner looks back on his career, ahead of receiving the country's highest civilian honor.
Bad knees forced Bobby Orr out of the NHL in 1978 after only 12 years, but he’s arguably the best who ever played: a defenseman who stayed by the net, but also soared down the ice to score.
He led the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cups including 1970 with his game-winning goal in overtime — a play immortalized in a statue outside the TD Garden based on the iconic photo of Orr flying through the air (above).
Orr’s new memoir, “Orr: My Story,” tells of his career, his work with kids as an agent and as head of The Grr group.
by Bobby Orr
My hockey story is not unlike that of many kids who dream of playing in the National Hockey League, though I suppose my journey started a little bit earlier than most.
One of the hardest parts of becoming a hockey player is leaving home. Think of yourself as a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old packing a suitcase and heading off to a strange city. You end up billeted in the home of a complete stranger, attending a school you’ve never heard of. The group of friends, the pack of wolves, you’ve grown up with suddenly vanishes. The safety net of friends you’ve come to depend on is replaced by strange faces in the hallways of your new high school.
You’re playing for a new hockey team, in a huge, unfamiliar rink, being cheered or booed by people you don’t know. You’re traveling from town to town. You’ve got bigger, older guys needling you night after night, trying to get you to drop your gloves, trying to see what you’re made of. Being plucked from one place and dropped somewhere else is going to be difficult for anyone, let alone a young teenager.
Or, if you have children of your own, think of it from a parent’s perspective. Think of giving up a son at such a young age in order for him to pursue his goals somewhere else. That boy of yours, still just a baby in your eyes, is snatched from you and taken in by someone else. That is exactly the scenario my parents had to face, and countless other parents are confronted with the same situation at the end of every summer. I know very well just how difficult it can be for parents to see their kids go, because I was in the room when my mother wrestled with the decision over whether to let me go off to play junior hockey.
In a sense, the most remarkable thing about my rookie season in Oshawa was that it happened at all that year. I was only fourteen and hadn’t yet left elementary school, but that was a minor speed bump compared to the fact that my mother was against it. I wanted nothing more than her permission right then, and I knew from experience that cajoling and negotiating were all but useless once she’d made up her mind. So, while she was deliberating, the question of where I would play hockey in the fall of 1962 was entirely in her hands.
I hardly dared speak while my future was being discussed. But my father made my case with his usual persuasiveness, as did another gentleman who played a very important role in my career: Wren Blair.
Back when I was playing minor hockey, there was no such thing as the NHL Entry Draft. Until 1963, NHL teams could control players’ rights, even at a very young age. (In fact, the first draft was for sixteen-year-old players, and two of the six teams in the league, Detroit and Chicago, didn’t bother picking in the fourth and final round, as most sixteen-year-olds’ rights were already wrapped up.) Teams wanted to lock up the playing rights to any player who might
possibly cut it five or six years down the road, and the terms needed to retain those rights were definitely in the team’s favor. Teams could ask players to sign what was called an A Form, which committed the kid to trying out with the club; a B Form, which gave the team the right to sign the player without actually committing to him; or a C Form, which completely assigned the player’s rights to the team. Once you had signed one of these, you lost any negotiating leverage you might have had with the team. But then, players didn’t really negotiate in those days anyway. After all, there were a whole bunch of prospective players but only six teams in the league, so supply exceeded demand. Kids who dreamed of suiting up in the NHL were often all too happy to commit to a team that showed interest in them.
All the teams had “bird dogs” in minor hockey rinks across the country, appraising young talent and guaranteeing a steady supply of it. And without a draft to ensure that talent was distributed evenly across the league, there was a real advantage to getting to young players first. That’s one of the reasons the Canadiens were so consistently represented by the very best French-Canadian players. They had the best scouts in the rinks of Quebec—and they had a steady stream of young Québécois players who would give just about anything to sign a C Form with the team they grew up worshipping.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had all the glamorous appeal of the Canadiens back then. Every kid in Ontario grew up idolizing the Leafs (as I did), so the Leafs could count on a reliable supply of starryeyed young men, and an equally steady supply of tips from minor hockey rinks in far-flung towns. Parry Sound was no different.
Adapted from ORR: MY STORY by Bobby Orr, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Robert Orr.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Robin Young is off today, but she left us her conversation with hockey great Bobby Orr, whose memoir is out today. Our studio team's first challenge was getting Bobby Orr to sit down.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, I'm finished.
YOUNG: No, no, no.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I know you're equipping your feet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not anymore.
YOUNG: Bad knees forced now 65-year-old Bobby Orr out of the NHL in 1978 after only 12 years. But he's arguably the best who ever played, a defenseman who stayed by the net but then also soared down the ice to score. Sportswriter Ray Fitzgerald called him Nureyev on ice.
He led the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cups, including the game-winning goal in overtime in 1970, a play immortalized in a statue outside the TD Garden that's based on the iconic photo of Bobby flying through the air after the goal. Kids imitated, an astronaut recreated it in space. And when we played it for him in our studios, he moved as if he was still skating it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Orr fights to keep it in, does, has it in the corner to Sanderson, back in front, Orr's shot, scores! Bobby Orr from Sanderson. And what could be better than that?
YOUNG: So what's happening for you when you hear that? Have you heard it too many times? Can you not hear it enough? What...
BOBBY ORR: I don't think you can hear enough. It always, you know, growing up in Canada, I mean, my dream was to play in NHL.
YOUNG: Are you feeling it again? Because you were sort of physically...
ORR: Oh, yeah. You know, it's still a great feeling, you know, to have the statue by the Garden. But when I look at that statue, I often think of Ace Bailey, my teammate who was killed in 9/11. He was on our team.
YOUNG: His plane flew into one of the towers.
ORR: There's a lot more to it than that one goal, one game.
YOUNG: His new memoir tells of his career, his work with kids now as an agent, head of the Orr Group. He also talks about his own agent who infamously swindled Bobby out of most of his earnings. Now he's quietly built his life back up since then through good deeds. That's unleashed a flood of testimony about the children with cancer quietly visited, the colleagues saved from alcohol, the water turned to wine, all of which, we guessed, made the notoriously private Bobby Orr miserable.
Is this hard for you to hear all of these stories?
ORR: Nice being with you, Robin.
YOUNG: You too. Is it tough for you to hear? Because the stories are pouring out.
ORR: It's not the way I am. I don't do things to receive recognition for it. I feel it's a responsibility. Years ago there was an athlete that said, you know, we're not - I'm not a role model. Well, once you sign that big contract and once mom and dad are paying for your high-priced tickets and sneakers and the sticks and the gloves and - you join that club.
YOUNG: Well, I remember also a story I heard years ago from you about how after you left the game, you have these two little kids who never saw you play, you went to a baseball game. You went into the locker room and a very famous player kind of ignored your kids. Was this a part of thinking, I'm not going to be like that?
ORR: Again, I just think it's a responsibility that we have. And you're talking about my kids not seeing me play. We had an exhibition game in the Garden, and I was playing against Hollywood stars. And, you know, Michael J. Fox and many others were playing, and I was really flying, as you know, Robin.
ORR: You know, I was (unintelligible). So after the game, I thought I played pretty well, I said, well, what do you think? Oh, it's great, Daddy. They said, we were sitting beside Pete Peeters. At that time, Pete Peeters was the Bruin goalie. They thought that was great.
YOUNG: They thought that was cool.
ORR: They didn't relate and what Dad played.
YOUNG: You told another story about how - I think it was 1980, again, you've left the game and some kids come to your house for Halloween...
YOUNG: ...and the father says, do you know who lives here? What did they say?
ORR: They said, yes, Scout, which is our dog.
YOUNG: This is around the time that you really receded. At this time I was privileged to go with you and the Reverend Bob Bryan, who has a ministry up in the Quebec-Labrador region, where seal fishermen were living in poverty because seal fishing was banned. And when he landed, on his sea plane, on that ice, and those little kids ran out, it was like God had really - it had come from the sky, so it must be God. And there you were...
ORR: Well, first of all, I was going through - you know, all of a sudden they take my skates from me, so, you know, mentally I was not knowing what I was going to do. And luckily I had so many friends - of course Peggy, my wife Peggy - rock. So I was going through a difficult period. But I took off to the North Shore, and, I mean, we, you know, the kids don't see a lot of strangers, especially in the wintertime. It was, as you can remember...
YOUNG: This was - but this was Bobby Orr. And I'm just wondering if there was a part of you that felt somewhat fraudulent, you know, like I don't deserve this, and you felt maybe I have to creates something that deserves this.
ORR: I honestly don't think about anywhere I go, anything I do. I knew I was going to give them equipment. As you know, we took tons of equipment up there to give to the kids. And as long as I can see smiles, that's all that matters.
YOUNG: OK. You're deflecting (unintelligible) you know, just like a shot on net, you are not going to accept these compliments. Let's talk about the play. What do you think it was about your play?
ORR: I played a style that not many defensemen played. And coaches didn't like that style, the offensive defensemen. You know, they like you to stay back. I couldn't imagine playing any other way.
YOUNG: Now they're not letting defensemen go down and score.
ORR: No. I mean you go see a kid's game and you got a good young hockey player, he can skate like heck and the coaches, you know, making them trap, shoot the puck up the glass, don't skate over center ice. This is how we developed our skills. When we were kids playing, drop the puck and we try things. And I would like to see more of that with our kids. I mean what's happening in our minor sports? The kids are just not having fun.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
You want them to have fun, but you have a letter you sent to older kids you work with outlining a moral code. I mean, this is why people call you the golden boy of the sport.
ORR: Oh, I wasn't perfect.
YOUNG: Yes. But - and who could be on the Boston Bruins? But nobody should interpret it as meaning that you don't want a real good, rough game. One of the things you are calling for is keep the enforcer.
ORR: They got to let the players police the ice a little bit themselves. Jean Beliveau, when I would play - Jean Beliveau was a gentleman. Jean Beliveau, you would bump him, you would grind him, you would get in his way, but you didn't try to be silly with Jean Beliveau. If you did, John Ferguson would say to you, no, no, no, no, no.
YOUNG: John Ferguson was the enforcer.
ORR: He was the enforcer. Don't do that to Jean Beliveau.
YOUNG: Well, but John...
ORR: Now, look, I got hit all the time, but I hit. I was a pain, and I expected that. If a player doesn't play that way, darn it...
YOUNG: You're saying without a Ferguson, you get more people beating up on Beliveau.
ORR: Oh, absolutely.
YOUNG: Yeah. But again, at what age did the bad knees force you out of the game?
ORR: It was '77, '78, I think.
YOUNG: Thirty-one - 30, 31.
ORR: Yeah. I was...
YOUNG: Way too young. An agent robs you of any of the money that you might have made. What would you tell young people now? What do you tell them about you might have the most glorious career ever and it will be cut short and then what?
ORR: Get ready. Prepare. Just prepare. I mean, be a good person. You know, I haven't played in a long time. And, you know, I still have some nice opportunities out there. So just get ready and be a good person.
YOUNG: Well, one last story. In the mid-'80s there was a plane taking you at about 87 other sports legends to this huge charity fishing event. Every living great athlete was on that plane.
ORR: Hondo still has that.
YOUNG: John Havlicek.
YOUNG: It's his fishing tournament.
ORR: His fishing...
YOUNG: Exactly. This was the first one. And Arnold Palmer, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, Ted Williams, John Havlicek - everybody's on this plane. And suddenly the plane runs into trouble. It starts dropping. The plane rights itself. There's a long pause. And wonderful local sportscaster Bob Lovell yells out: What would the headline have been? Bobby Orr and 87 others...
YOUNG: Where do you think you are in that pantheon?
ORR: Look, I never even think about it. Honestly, Robin, I - all I know is I've - things are going great. Our grandchildren. I have a little boy and a little girl now. It's just - I mean you can't even - you can't explain it. I mean things are going - I don't ever think of where I stand.
YOUNG: You've traded the Stanley Cup for a sippy cup.
ORR: Yes. Oh, very good.
YOUNG: Thank you.
ORR: Very good.
YOUNG: Bobby Orr. His new long-awaited memoir is "Orr: My Story." Thanks so much.
ORR: Thanks, Robin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: And we have about Robin's interview with Bobby Orr, including Bobby Orr's thoughts on new hockey rules and his old agent at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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