By Steve Silverman
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I got into hockey in a strange way during childhood. I simply had no concept of the sport when I was in second grade – no idea of its existence.
That’s when my neighbor David Schurer walked into school holding this black cylindrical piece of hard rubber, exclaiming, “Look what I got at the Rangers game last night!”
He could have been speaking a foreign language. I had no idea what the hard piece of rubber was or any idea of who the Rangers were. It was the fall of 1963, and other events would soon occur that would burn their way into my 7-year-old brain in November. But as he explained the concepts of hockey, the Rangers, the puck and Madison Square Garden, it was all completely foreign.
I would get into the game, but it would take a few years, and as I started to follow it, my attention centered on Rod Gilbert, Eddie Giacomin, Emile Francis and the New York Rangers. Once I started to feel the game, I couldn’t get enough of it, and I wanted to know as much as possible.
My first source, quite naturally, was my own father. He was a bull of a man who had his moments in baseball – a first-rate hitter – and football – as a blocking back. Immensely powerful and strong, he also could box like nobody I knew. You didn’t mess with Stanley Silverman.
I asked him who the best hockey players were. As usual, he was quick to respond back in 1967. Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe were his answers, and I would quickly learn that he had given me two great players. “They say this Bobby Orr is pretty good in Boston, but there’s no way he could be as good as those two,” he said with a high degree of authority.
The mood was one of rapt anticipation that night as the Rangers were getting ready to play the Bruins on TV (WOR, Channel 9, if memory serves). The Bruins and Rangers were both on the rise after years in the basement, as both had an array of strong, young players.
The best was supposed to be “this Bobby Orr,” as my father skeptically referred to him, but we had to see him play. The game was from the old Boston Garden, a tiny and cramped building that had put the fans seemingly right on top of the ice. The fans welcomed their Bruins with a full, throaty roar that was similar to blood lust.
They wanted to see their heroes crush the Rangers, and as the game began, the Bruins dominated. At least Orr did. He seemingly had the puck every time he was on the ice, and he was skating through the Rangers and creating great chances. He scored two goals early and set up two more as he moved with ease and his blond hair flew.
After the first period, my dad looked at me. “I was wrong,” he declared. “Bobby Orr is the best player I have ever seen. Nobody can do the things he does. He’s better than Hull or Howe.”
I was 11, and I had never heard my father say the words “I was wrong.” It was a shock. I knew my father had been wrong, but I never heard him admit it.
If ever he said those words again, it was in a sarcastic or belabored manner. Like many men of the “Mad Men” generation, admitting fault was not one of his habits.
But he did that day, and time would prove that he was right to change his opinion. Orr made his debut in the NHL 50 years ago, and he turned the Bruins from powder puffs to powerhouses.
His ability to carry the puck up ice and create offensively transformed the game of hockey like no other player. He would start a play from behind his own net and skate with speed and power through his own zone to the point that nobody could slow him down. He would either create his own scoring chance or pass to a teammate like Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Johnny “Pie” McKenzie or the dastardly Derek Sanderson for yet another Bruins goal.
The arrival of Orr coincided with the last year of the NHL as a six-team league, as the great expansion followed in the 1967-68 season. Orr became the sport’s symbol, and everyone wanted a ticket when he came to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Oakland or Los Angeles. He helped turn the sport from a regional one in the U.S. into a national one.
Orr would go on to win the Calder Trophy, awarded to the rookie of the year, in 1966-67 by a wide margin, and Rangers defenseman Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy that year as the league’s best blueliner. His acceptance speech was prophetic. “I might as well enjoy it (Norris Trophy) now, because I expect it’s going to belong to Bobby Orr from now on.”
Orr won the Norris Trophy the following eight seasons with numbers that no other defenseman could dream of, let alone reach.
He scored 33 goals and 87 assists in 1969-70, and he followed that with 37 goals and a mind-boggling 102 assists the following year. He also finished that year with an unconscious plus-124 rating. He also scored 37 goals and 80 assists in 1971-72.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and ’72, with Orr’s famous flying goal against St. Louis serving as the first clincher.
The ’72 triumph was far more painful around these parts because it came against the Rangers. The two teams were basically equal in those days, except the Bruins had Orr and the Rangers didn’t.
New York fought with great heart after trailing 3-1 in that series and remained alive with a rare win at Boston Garden in Game 5. But Orr simply controlled the following game at Madison Square Garden, and the Bruins raised the Cup after a 3-0 victory.
Orr also scored the Stanley Cup winner in that game. While it is far less famous than the ’70 winner, it was no less artful. He had the puck at the right point on the power play, and as Rangers penalty killer Bruce MacGregor tried to defend him, Orr did a 360-degree spin and brought the puck into a shooting position in the same motion. He quietly unfurled his wrists and fired the puck by Rangers goalie Gilles Villemure.
New York never recovered.
Many of Orr’s records still stand, and his legacy as a player and a human being are intact. He has deflected praise throughout his life, but he has done tremendous work on behalf of former hockey players and teammates, as well as those outside the game.
There have been many brilliant superstars who have followed, including Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and they have their superb achievements.
But I’ll stick with the old man’s assessment. Orr was the best player ever, and nobody will ever top him.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy