Bobby Orr (Bruins defenseman: 1966-1976)
Bobby Orr is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest hockey players of all time. A defenseman, he used his skating speed as well as his scoring and play-making abilities to revolutionize the position. As of 2011, Orr remains the only defenseman to have won the league scoring title with two Art Ross Trophies and holds the record for most points (139) and assists (102) in a single season by a defenseman. He also has the highest plus/minus rating in one season (+124) and is tied for the most assists in one NHL game by a defenseman (6). He won a record eight consecutive Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman and three consecutive Hart Trophies as the league’s most valuable player (MVP). In addition to the Norris and the Art Ross Trophies, in the 1969-70 season, he captured the first of three consecutive Hart Trophies as regular-season MVP and later won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff performance, becoming the only player in history to win four major NHL awards in one season. When he won another Conn Smythe Trophy in 1972, he became the first two-time winner of the award. Orr was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979 at age 31, the youngest to that day to be inducted into the Hall. His first professional contract was one of the first in professional ice hockey to be negotiated by an agent. It made him the highest-paid player in NHL history as a rookie. His second contract was the first million-dollar contract in the NHL.
Orr played the first decade of his twelve year NHL career with the Bruins, leading them to Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972. The latter win was a four game sweep, too. He had the game winning goal in both. Orr helped the Bruins to the Finals again in 1974 too, but lost.
In his rookie season, Orr scored 13 goals and 28 assists, one of the best rookie seasons in NHL history to that point and unprecedented by a defenseman. He won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie and was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star team. New York Rangers’ defenseman Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman that year. In accepting the award, Howell said he was glad to win when he did, predicting “Orr will own this trophy from now on” (and he was right). Orr was runner-up in voting.
In his second season, he played only 46 games due to injuries. He fractured a collarbone, separated a shoulder, had the first of many knee operations to repair ligament and remove cartilage, and had a bone chip in his knee that was removed in the following off-season. Despite all of that, he won the first of a record eight consecutive Norris trophies and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star team.
In the 1968-69 season, Orr’s third, the injury struggles continued. Still, he played through the pain and was outstanding, scoring his first career NHL hat-trick on December 14 against Chicago, adding two assists for a five-point night. He scored 21 goals on the season, breaking the goal scoring record for a defenseman, and totalled 64 points to set a new point scoring record for one season for a defenseman.
In Orr’s fourth season, he doubled his scoring total from the previous season, to 120 points, just six shy of the league record and led the league in scoring. He also became the only player in history to win four major NHL awards in one season. Orr went on to lead the Bruins in a march through the 1970 playoffs that culminated on May 10, 1970, when he scored one of the most famous goals in hockey history (known as “the goal”) and one that gave Boston its first Stanley Cup since 1941. The goal came off a give-and-go pass with teammate Derek Sanderson at the 40-second mark of the first overtime period in the fourth game, helping to complete a sweep of the St. Louis Blues. As he made the shot, he had been tripped by Blues’ defenseman Noel Picard while watching the puck pass by goaltender Glenn Hall and flew through the air (though he said he jumped in celebration). The subsequent photograph by Ray Lussier of a horizontal Orr flying through the air, his arms raised in victory, has become one of the most famous and recognized hockey images of all time. It is known as “the flight.”
The Bruins were now known as a powerhouse and in the following season, they shattered dozens of league offensive records. Orr himself finished second in league scoring while setting records that still stand for points in a season by a defenseman and for plus-minus (+124) by any position player. Orr’s Bruins were heavy favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but were upset by the Montreal Canadiens and their rookie goaltender Ken Dryden, who was Bruins’ property until after the first round of the 1971 playoffs. For the season, the Bruins gave Orr a solid gold puck, one of four they gave out to Bruins players – to each of the four Bruins who scored over 100 points that season – Phil Esposito, Orr, Johnny Bucyk and Ken Hodge. Orr later gave his puck to his crooked (and criminal) agent Alan Eagleson. In 2007, Eagleson sold the puck in an auction of memorabilia for C$16,500. On August 26, 1971, Orr signed a new five-year contract on for $200,000 ($1,147,740 in 2012 dollars) per season – the first million dollar contract in the NHL.
In the following 1971–72 season, Orr placed second in the scoring race to team-mate Phil Esposito, and won the Hart and Norris trophies, helping the Bruins to a first-place finish in the East. In the 1972 playoffs, Orr led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup once again, leading the scoring in the playoffs and scoring the championship-winning goal (again). For his performance in the playoffs, he was awarded his second Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, making him the first two-time winner of this award. Final opponent New York Rangers forward Vic Hadfield commented “We played them pretty even, but they had Bobby Orr and we didn’t.” Orr also won the MVP award at the 1972 NHL All-Star Game to win three MVP awards in one season.
By this time, Orr already knew that his left knee was deteriorating and he would not have many seasons left. At the same time, the 1972-73 season saw the upheaval of the Bruins as the long-time owners sold the team and there were changes to management and coaching. They lost in the first round of the playoffs that year.
In the 1973–74 season, Orr led the Bruins to another first-place finish in the regular season. They made it to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost this time to the Philadelphia Flyers. That season, Orr set the record (since surpassed) for the most points in a game by a defenseman, scoring 3 goals and 4 assists in a November 15, 1973 game against the New York Rangers, One goal, a shot from the blue line, broke Rangers’ defenseman Rod Seiling’s stick.
In following season, Orr broke his own previous record for goals by a defenseman, scoring 46 goals to go with 89 assists for his sixth straight 100-point season. He won the league scoring title and the Art Ross Trophy for the second time. This would be his last full season and his last one playing with Phil Esposito. The Bruins placed second in the Adams Division, and lost to the Chicago Black Hawks in the first round of the 1975 playoffs, losing a best-of-three series, two games to one.
The 1975–76 season was Orr’s final season with the Bruins and it was a tumultuous one. His contract was ending, and due to injury, he was only able to play 10 games. Despite speculation that his impending free agency would lead the Bruins to trade him, they were negotiating to keep him until the end. He ended up playing two more years for the Chicago Black Hawks before retiring.
During his Bruins career, Orr was often the player the press wanted for a post-game interview. Instead, he would hide in the trainer’s room. Teammate Terry O’Reilly described him as a “very private, very shy guy, who just happened to be the best hockey player in the world.” According to the Bruins public relations director Nate Greenberg “one of my toughest jobs in the day was trying to get Orr to come out of the trainer’s room to talk to the press. The reason he wouldn’t or didn’t all the time was that he really wanted his teammates to get proper accolades, while everybody, all the time wanted him.” As of 2010, Orr has not authorized a biography of himself, being very humble and preferring to not be the center of attention.
There were two main features to Orr’s style of hockey. The first – the mean streak he was known for – helped bring about the “Big Bad Bruins” that we know and love today. Former coach Don Cherry recounts an incident one night in Los Angeles during a game that the Bruins were losing. With a minute to go, Orr pulled one of the Bruins off the ice, left the bench and attacked a Los Angeles Kings player. When asked why, Orr said to Cherry “He was laughing at us.” According to Cherry, he fought a lot. On another occasion in November 1967, Orr was clipped in the face by a stick from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Conacher. Boston teammate Johnny McKenzie flattened Conacher from behind and started punching Conacher. Orr, cut and bleeding, got up from the ice, pulled MacKenzie off Conacher and started punching Conacher. Conacher, who was not fighting back, was also sucker-punched by the Bruins’ Ken Hodge. Orr would be booed in Toronto from that date onwards.
While he revolutionized the Bruins with his physical play, Orr did the same for the defenseman position. He inspired the game of hockey with his command of the two-way game. While a few Hall of Fame defensemen, such as Red Kelly, were known for having offensive ability, they were the exception rather than the norm in the NHL before Orr’s arrival. Orr’s offensive style has influenced countless defensemen who followed him. His speed – most notably a rapid acceleration – and his open-ice artistry electrified fans as he set almost every conceivable record for a defenseman. When Orr and the Bruins visited cities, attendance was usually a sell-out. According to the Bruins’ Phil Esposito, “No matter how fast an opponent was, Bobby could skate faster than him if he needed to do it in the framework of a play. If he was caught up-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.”
On May 10, 2010, the 40th anniversary of Orr scoring the game-winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in overtime to clinch the 1970 Stanley Cup, the Bruins commemorated the event with a bronze statue of Orr outside the TD Garden, the Bruins’ home rink. The statue depicts Orr sprawled in mid-flight after scoring the goal. The unveiling was attended by many of Orr’s past teammates. He spoke at the unveiling: “This specific moment and time we celebrate with this statue is something we can all now nostalgically remember with fondness, together, each time we enter Boston Garden. To all of you, thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I’m honored. Guys, thank you.”
Bobby Orr will always be one of the greatest hockey players and Boston sports legends of all time. May his statue, retired Bruins number, name on the Stanley Cup, all of his records and this tribute ensure his remembrance, inspiration and immortalization.
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