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Bobby Orr: How we’re killing hockey

The hockey legend in conversation about pushy rinkside parents — and the future of the game
Dana Smith / Novus Select

Updated Feb. 2, 2018

It is known simply as “the Goal.” May 10, 1970, Boston Garden, Stanley Cup final. Overtime. Defenceman Bobby Orr, pressing into St. Louis Blues territory, blocks a clearing attempt, passes to Bruins teammate Derek Sanderson, charges the goal, takes Sanderson’s return feed and beats goalie Glenn Hall. A microsecond too late, he is tripped by a defenceman and launched into the air. Click. Photographer Ray Lussier freezes Orr, flying, arms outstretched in celebration—hockey’s Superman slipping the bonds of Earth. Goal. Game. Cup. In one exposure Lussier captured the dreams of every kid who has chased a puck. Yet, the photo troubles Orr, for a boy from Parry Sound, Ont., does not make it to the NHL alone, and no one wins a championship single-handedly. He did not fly, he was carried—that’s the underlying theme of Orr: My Story, the autobiography of arguably hockey’s greatest player, and among its most enigmatic. In 2013, he broke his silence to discuss the pain of his retirement at 30, forced by knee injuries, and the betrayal by his agent, Alan Eagleson, that left him near broke.

Q: There are are a lot of fond memories in the book but some old wounds, too. What did you learn from the experience of putting it on paper?

A: It took me a long time to decide I wanted to do a book. I finally got it through my thick skull that maybe I can put some things on paper that people will benefit from. Whether you’re a young hockey player up and coming, or whether you’re a pro today or a parent with a hot kid, I’m hoping whoever reads it takes something from it. I tell a little bit about my story, the sacrifices my family made, my brothers and sisters, and the homesickness. I don’t think we realize the number of people that helped you along the way.

Q: Forty years after that cup-winning goal, the Bruins cast a bronze statue based on that famous photo. I get the sense from the book you were more nervous speaking at the statue unveiling than you ever were during the game.

A: If you talk to most athletes, the place you’re most comfortable is your playing field. I’m not so comfortable at a podium or talking about events. I was fortunate enough to score the goal but it was a team involved. That’s one game, one goal. We played a hundred games that year. Guys are beat up, bruised. All that contributed to that championship team yet we look at that [goal] and think that’s it. That’s not it. There’s a lot more to it than that.

When you’re young you don’t realize the sacrifices that people are making for you. Your parents. We weren’t well off, and I had two brothers and two sisters. Sometimes, we put these [hockey] kids on a pedestal so early they begin to think they’re entitled. That’s bad. That’s where we as adults have to step up and say, “Settle down.”

Q: Were memories of Alan Eagleson one reason you waited so long to write your autobiography?

A: No, I didn’t want to do a book just to do a book. I wanted whoever might read it to learn something.

Q: It’s a positive book but you relive the Eagleson betrayal [leaving Orr’s finances in shambles and steering him from a final contract that would have given him an ownership stake in the Bruins]. What was your thinking as you went into that dark place?

A: I didn’t want that to be a major part of the book. If it had been up to me I wouldn’t have done it at all but I had a fight on that one.

Q: Damn editors. I know, they’re a trial.

A: [Laughs] It’s all out there. The man who was my friend, like a brother, he handled everything over the years. People tried to [warn] me but I was a stubborn son of a gun. When it came to a point where I just had to get away from him, I did it. When I did it, I felt a lot better.

Q: Eventually.

A: Well, it was difficult in the beginning. I didn’t have a whole lot left. I never looked at hockey as work. Now that I’d finished playing, I had to go to work. But going back to many great friends and supporters who helped me along the way, today things are wonderful. I don’t get angry talking about him. I would think my life is a lot better than his. [Eagleson pleaded guilty in 1996 to fraud-related charges in the U.S. and Canada for fleecing player-clients and skimming money from international tournaments he organized and from the NHL Players’ Association, where he was executive director. He was sentenced to 18 months, was stripped of the Order of Canada, and resigned under pressure from the Hockey Hall of Fame.]

Q: Was age 30 the great divide in your life? You went from living your earlier years with a sense of destiny, all that hard work and skill was rewarded. Then with your knees shot, retirement. Suddenly, you were left broke, betrayed and, as you put it, “completely unprepared for the real world.” How did you set about changing the course of your life?

A: It was a difficult time. I’ll go back to much of what we learned as kids about being a good team person, being disciplined, making sacrifices. I applied the same values to my work that I did when I played. Was it easy? No. But with the help of many, many, many, my family and of course my wife, Peggy, we got through it and things have turned around a whole lot. Things are very good today: two little grandchildren, that’s the greatest thing. It’s a special time. And you can send them home!

Q: The irony is that you became an agent in what is now Orr Hockey Group after being taken to the cleaners by the guy who practically invented hockey agency. Good heavens, why?

A: I think with some of the things I’ve been through I can contribute to helping a young player.

Q: How do you do things differently based on the lessons you learned, good and bad?

A: It’s more about education—for kids and their parents. It’s their money; follow it, ask questions. We don’t manage money in the company. They have financial people. Be aware of what’s going on. Ask questions, learn how to read a financial statement. It’s your [money], not anybody else’s. You’ve worked your tail off for it.

Q: And on the ice?

A: On the hockey side people ask me, “What was the reason for any success you had?” The love and passion I had for the game was it for me. So often for players, whether it be a parent or a coach, they suck that love and passion out of the kid by being unrealistic, by humiliating the kids and so on. I couldn’t wait to get on the ice. I couldn’t wait to get to practice. As a kid I couldn’t wait to shoot pucks or play in parking lots, or play on the river or play on the bay. People would come to my father and say, “Your kid’s gonna play pro hockey.” And my dad would come to me and say, “Look, just go and have fun, we’ll see what happens.” Parents have to understand: 0.0057 per cent of all kids playing hockey, that’s the number of players who play one game in the NHL. So why is your kid playing? Why are you coaching? Why are you refereeing? To help make better people. And in helping make better people, you’re going to make better players. If your kid has got it, I guarantee your kid is going to get a chance.

Q: You were spotted at a very early age. When do you as an agent find them? When is it appropriate?

A: Well, our guys are looking. There’s a lot of agents now, it’s getting earlier and earlier. We would prefer to wait until they’re 15, 16, but it’s getting earlier and earlier now because for some reason parents think it’s wonderful that their son has an adviser agent at an early age. It really isn’t necessary. There’s many very young players that have advisers, but we have some young kids, too—not 10-year-olds. We’ll sit and wait as long as we can. The kids develop at different speeds. This year they could be very small, next year they’re giants. You never know. And once we take a kid, you’ve got to look after him, whether he makes it or not. That’s part of the deal.

Q: You aren’t keen on summer hockey. Your summers were fishing, baseball and jobs. What advice do you give parents who are hungry for the NHL?

A: Kids play far too much. I mean, kids are playing 12 months a year—little ones. They don’t need it. Play other sports. Have other coaches. Hang around other kids, other parents. I think that’s all healthy. I never went to a hockey school until I turned pro and I went as an instructor. Kids don’t need to play all year, they can have a program of light exercise and play other sports. If you look at the best players in all sports, they’re athletes— they play other sports. It’s expensive for the parents; I don’t think it’s necessary. The only people who are making out are the organizers of these [summer] tournaments. The parents think their kids have to play for people to see them. Look, if your kid can play, they can find you.

Q: Do you worry that as an agent you’re feeding this professionalism at an age when kids don’t need it?

A: No.

Q: You make sure that doesn’t happen?

A: You know, maybe we are. I know parents think it’s great that their child has an agent early. It’s not necessary. We stay away as long as we can, but maybe we are. Maybe you make a good point, I’ve not thought of that. But if we’re in the business, what do we do? There’s a lot of things I’d like to see but it’s not going to happen. What do we do? I don’t know, you might make a very good point. You do make a very good point.

Q: But it’s one of those ones with no answer?

A: I don’t have an answer. “You could be right” is the answer.

Q: Do you ever wave your old contracts under the nose of these hot young prospects to put things in perspective? [His junior contract with the Oshawa Generals included a used car for his father, stuccoing the family home and a new suit for Orr. His first Bruins contract at 18: $25,000 a year, plus a $5,000 playing bonus.]

A: We talk about it sometimes. Back then, that was pretty good. But now they have rookie parties where the rookies have to buy. I think they spend that much on rookie nights.

Q: Your sons, Darren and Brent, never played hockey. Why was that?

A: They didn’t show any interest. I’d retired when they were still very young so they weren’t brought up in that hockey world. I mean, my son Darren loves the game, he’s in the business with us now and he’s doing a great job. Brent was a very good baseball player but they just never showed any interest in the game. That’s fine. I would have been upset if they hadn’t played any sport because I think it’s very healthy for the kids. So they played football, baseball, lacrosse.

Q: I remember your skating, scoring and defence, but you were a fighter, too, when you had to. From your book I see mixed messages: you think fighting is wrong at the early stages but a necessary evil at higher levels.

A: I don’t think there’s any place in the [minor hockey] game. When you get to the pro level I think it changes a little bit. It’s like in the old days of [Montreal Canadiens captain Jean] Béliveau. If you took liberties with him it was understood Fergie [Canadiens enforcer John Ferguson] was going to be there. That fear of getting beat up is a great deterrent.

We don’t need fighting in the game to survive. But we do need that fear of getting beat up if you don’t behave yourself, or if you’re trying to take liberties with a player who doesn’t play like that. Do you want to see Sidney Crosby sitting, fighting, hurt in the penalty box, or do you want to see him playing? And Sid has to help, too, he can’t be poking guys and can’t be chatting guys. I was a pain in the butt; I hit guys and I expected it. But on the fighting, there’s no place for it in minor hockey.

Q: There are goons in the game but you also talk about “pests with face shields” who stir things up.

A: Those players are protected with the rules. If you go after them you might get put in jail. I just think you’ve got to let the players police it a little bit on the ice and the referees can use some discretion, like, why did that happen? I don’t think it can just be black and white, I just don’t think it can be or should be.

Q: You talk about boring hockey today, the trap and so forth. It certainly wasn’t the way your team played. How do we get more creativity back in the game?

A: Put the centre line back in. Make them use their skills. [To open up the game the centre line is now ignored, allowing two-line passes.] I’m probably going to get a lot of heat over this. Our players are so big, so strong, so fast, I don’t think we can play this game without borders. Look at the injuries.

We’ve got no centre line and speed guys who tip it in and just keep going. Our goaltenders can’t help, [defencemen] can’t hold you up. They added four feet in the offensive zone. And the coaches are saying “block the shots.” Sidney [Crosby] gets hit in the jaw with a deflected puck. We’re worried about the health of our players, but what we’ve done, we’ve opened it up so much, we’re so big and strong. A player ices the puck, he can’t change. Well, tired players get hurt. I think in our game right now we’ve got as many young skilled players as we’ve had in a long time but do we have to use our skills.

Q: You talk about things that stifle the game. One that surprised me was the size of contracts that players are getting. You’re not suggesting as an agent that they shouldn’t make the money, but they have to earn it?

A: I’d like to see them keep earning it. Whatever they can, or we can, negotiate for a player, fine. But earn your money every night. We see sometimes players, they have a great last year leading up to the end of their contract, then they get the big deal. I think we could question that player some nights.

Q: Are you worried that a working-class family is getting shut out of hockey and the NHL experience?

A: [Hockey Canada and Bauer Inc.] did a survey about the reason kids aren’t playing hockey in Canada now. With our Safe and Fun program we’ve been saying this forever. The four reasons are: 1) the kids aren’t having fun; 2) it’s time consuming; 3) parents are afraid, safety concerns; and 4) affordability. Kids having fun and safety concerns—we should be able to handle that by having good people work with our kids. That parent, that coach, that official, that president of the league must work to make sure it’s a good experience for every kid.

Time consuming—I don’t know what we can do about that, it is what it is.

Affordability? I never had a new pair of skates for a long time [until a family friend bought him a new pair at 11 or 12]. Manufacturers won’t like me for this, but there’s equipment out there that’s more reasonably priced and protects the kids just fine. And organizations should all be into equipment exchanges.

Q: You played your first season in a six-team league and lived through the expansion. Is the modern player different?

A: I don’t think there’s any question they’re bigger and faster today, that’s why it comes back to the [need for] rule changes. We’ve got to slow them down, we’ve got to make them use their skill. That four feet [added] inside the blue line: Do you know how much room that is in hockey? They’re loading the one side and one-timing. Wow, and the coach is saying “block the shot.” Ouch. We have more penalties, more powerplays, more boom-booms from the blue line. What we’ve got to do in our game: stop the high blind-side hits, hitting from behind, and [have] automatic icing. They probably won’t listen to me.

Q: Maybe they’ll listen to Don Cherry. You call him your friend, your mentor, a second father. But he’s kind of your polar opposite. You’re reserved, he’s outspoken. Do you ever cringe at his Hockey Night in Canada comments?

A: Sometimes I listen to him and say I wish I had the nerve to say that. He’s right.

Q: You believe there’s a place for him in the Hockey Hall of Fame?

A: He’s as big in the game as any player and he loves the game. He’s as honest as the day is long and if he has an opinion he’ll speak it. He’s a good man and a good friend. Do I think he belongs in the hall of fame? Absolutely. In the builder category. He played one game in the NHL; he says it was a good one.

Q: How is your mobility today?

A: The [knee replacement] surgery is great. I’m having problems with my hands and my back a little bit, but the knees are the only things that don’t hurt.

Q: Was it all worth it?

A: Absolutely. I’d do it all over again. We’re a tough game. We get these big bodies flying—sticks and blades and pucks—we’re going to have injuries. I don’t mind the physical part of the game; it’s the stupidity, that’s what hurts it. People love a good clean hit. We’re a tough game at the NHL level, the pro level, and we should play like that.

Q: Looking back six decades, what’s your most precious hockey memory?

A: My dream growing up, like every kid in Canada playing hockey, is to be on a Stanley Cup team. So being on the two Stanley Cup teams; 1976, that was the only time I played for Canada in an international series, that’s there as one of my highlights. And being part of the Opening Ceremonies of the [Vancouver] Olympics. That was special. That was something. They did a great job. The girls were great, the guys were great in hockey.

Q: So, who do you cheer for? You’ve played on American teams, you live in the U.S.

A: I’ve got to go with Canada, come on!

Q: In the book, you refer to Mr. This and Coach That, very respectful. You say athletes have a greater responsibility than the average Joe to be nice, or at least respectful.

A: Years ago there was as athlete [Charles Barkley] who did a commercial for a product and he says, “I’m not a role model.” I don’t believe that, I don’t agree with that. Once you sign that pro contract, once you make that big money, once you have the kids buying your products, once you have the parents paying the high prices for tickets to see you play—you belong to that club whether you like it or not. We’ve got a lot of great pros out there who do good work in the community with the kids and set good examples, but we’ve got some guys who don’t. We didn’t have a lot in our house when I was growing up, but there was love. We didn’t sit at the table with hats on or we’d get a swat in the head. We always worked. That’s what our parents taught us. My parents worked very hard at more than one job usually. They had five kids. My brothers, my sisters, my parents sacrificed a lot so I could realize my dreams.

Q: But an athlete’s responsibility doesn’t necessarily extend to sharing your personal life or opinions, like a lot of tweeters out there.

A: I’m not a tweeter. In our business we try to follow our kids’ tweets because a lot of people get in a lot of trouble with tweeting. When you talk about privacy, it’s my direct family, that’s where the privacy ends—with my family. I’m a public figure, things are going to happen, people are going to say things, people are going to do things. You have responsibilities beyond the playing field. I’m ready for that but I don’t expect everybody to agree with everything I say. There’s going to be criticism, I understand that. but when it comes to my family, they’re kind of out of bounds.

Q: Boston vs. Vancouver. Game 7. Bruins win, Canucks lose and in Canada’s Olympic city I walk out of the arena and into a riot. What where your thoughts watching that?

A: Not a good thing. I’ve played in Vancouver. I couldn’t believe it. I said these people aren’t from Vancouver. No way. I was so happy I saw reports some parents saw their kids on TV and reported them. It didn’t look great for the city. I think the city did a great job in rounding [them up] and addressing the issue. That was a shame, because that was all the networks showed down here.

Q: You say in the book you’re not sure a young Bobby Orr [as a rushing defenceman] would shine in today’s environment.

A: I think it would have been fine. Don’t forget, I was owned by the Bruins from the time I was 14. If they were going to change me, they would have changed me. Would a coach today change me, I don’t know. It seems at the early ages it’s very important to these coaches, it’s almost like the mortgage is at stake if they don’t win the friggin’ peewee game. Are they going to change me by making me trap and all the rest? My game was skating, the Bruins never tried to change me.