Somewhere in your knowledge of hockey, there is a line. This line sits on a particular date, although chances are you couldn’t say exactly which date it was; it was too long ago to remember, and back then you weren’t counting anyway. On one side of this line are the things you know personally: the games, players, editions of teams and incarnations of the League you yourself have followed through the course of your life. On the other side are all the things you’ve only heard about in stories and montages, things that were over and done before your time. One side of the line is memory. The other is myth.
Memory and myth engender two fundamentally distinct types of response. Players we remember ourselves are familiar creatures, we love them like friends or hate them like rivals. No old legend can ever arouse half the same tender affection we feel towards the men who inspired us as kids, even if those men were, objectively speaking, average practitioners of the game. But similarly we feel entitled to dissect and critique the players of our own time, no matter how great they were. Fans of my generation are fully capable of abjectly venerating Wendel Clark and snarkily deflating Wayne Gretzky, despite the obvious skill deferential and the certain verdict of history. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s one of the privileges of “being there”, in the game, at a particular moment- the right to reimagine the grand narratives of hockey through your own idiosyncratic experience.
But back on the other side of that line, things are different. Nobody snarks about Rocket Richard or Howie Morenz anymore. Nobody really challenges their legacy or reinterprets their achievements or even bothers to accuse them of diving. The players who came before us we take as they are given, as a set of songs and stories, hockey cards and highlight reels. Most of the time, we don’t even think of them, but when we do, we think of them as archetypes rather than people. They’ve been drained of their blood and pumped full of formaldehyde and reverence, not very much more human than their statues.
Bobby Orr is right on the cusp of this transition. He’s ossifying before our very eyes. There are still several generations of fans who watched him play personally, but there are also several generations of fans who have no such experience. For half of us, he is a piece of living memory and for the other half he is already a legend. He is, at this exact moment, passing into myth. To most hockey fans now, his hovering statue outside TD Garden is more him than his own 64-year-old body is.
But of course Bobby Orr is one of those players who seems like he might have been a myth right from the beginning. The story is just too right, like a Canadian fairy tale that hockey moms told their sons back in the 40s when no one had so much as heard of an Orr and players named Robert would go by Bob. What sort of NHLer actually comes up poor in a small town, playing on frozen sloughs with newspaper stuffed in the toes of his skates and Sears catalogs strapped to his shins? Is that even a real thing? Are we sure that Parry Sound isn’t some elaborate, Truman Show-like bubble created by HNIC in order to create good documentary footage? Because, Occam’s razor, that really does sound like a more plausible explanation than “coincidentally one day hockey Jesus was born in hockey Bethlehem and grew up to save the Bruins from eternal damnation.”
Even if you leave aside the eerily perfect creation story, Bobby Orr has a way of accreting weird, quasi-legendary tales. They say that he never tightened his laces, that he’d be sitting on the bench with his foot out of the boot and the whole skate dangling from his toes until Sinden tapped his shoulder, and then he’d just punch his foot down and jump the boards. He only used one line of tape on his stick because more would make it feel ‘too heavy’. These stories aren’t about accomplishments; they’re about superpowers. No mortal man plays hockey with loose skates and no tape.
Even beyond that, though, there’s yet another layer to the legend, for in addition to being a prototypical Good Canadian Boy and a prototypical genetic mutant freak, Orr represents a prototypical Way of Hockey. Some players are famous because of the numbers they racked up, and certainly the digits are a part of the Orr mystique, but Bobby is one of the few, rare players who is probably more famous for his style than for his records. His highlights all showcase a particular exotic talent: speed without rushing, vision without looking, a kinaesthetic sense that stretched across the entire expanse of the ice and allowed the man to cover the whole crowded distance from one end to the other as if it were no more than 200 feet of frozen river. To compare a player to Bobby Orr is to invoke the rarest, loveliest, wildest heights of hockey art. It is to compare him to Superman.
Really, everything you need to know about the myth of Bobby Orr is this: he was a hockey player who, even only once, could fly.
I don’t have any of Bobby Orr’s famous games. I don’t have the Stanley Cup Finals in 1970 or 1972. I don’t have the game where he flew. It’s easy to find the highlights, but tough to find the old games in their entirety. I take what I can get, and in the case of Orr, what I can get are a few ordinary regular season matches. The hockey of October and January, not of April and June.
In 1968, Hockey Night in Canada was a much smaller production. A quick intro of intercut stills to the familiar theme, a couple of minutes of talking by an uncomfortable-looking gentleman with a head like uncooked bread dough, and then we’re on to the anthems. The players stand strictly at attention and perfectly still, no amphetamine fidgets, no bouncing in their skates. Everyone has hair buzzed close the scalp or shellacked down with a half-pound of grease. No one is wearing a helmet except for Paul Henderson, who is still four years away from the moment that will make him a legend. Even Phil Esposito looks like he’d call you “ma’am” and offer to carry your groceries for you. Simpler times.
Even in black and white, even with the fuzzy resolution and the motion blur, it’s easy to pick out Bobby Orr. If you couldn’t recognize the hair, you’d notice the skating, and if you didn’t notice the skating, you’d see the deference. It’s the beginning of his third year in the NHL, he’s only twenty and still looks a little slight for a defenseman, but his teammates treat him like an anointed king. When Bobby wants the puck, Bobby gets the puck. When Bobby wants to go deep, he goes deep. The other Bruins circle around, adjusting as needed, giving him the space to follow whatever odd impulses come to him. It’s not so much that he’s doing anything especially remarkable as that everyone on the ice appears to be waiting, hoping, for him to do something remarkable. There might be a miracle. Any second now.
Middle of the first he gets the puck behind his net and starts to skate it up, and I think, maybe this is it. Maybe this is where the awesome shit starts to happen. I’m on the edge of the couch, bouncing a little, excited for some Bobby-fucking-Orr hockey. This is going to be great.
He skates across the defensive blue line, goes around a Leafs forward every bit as easily as the stories say, crosses the red line and… dumps it.
I am still in shock at the very notion of Bobby Orr making a dump in, when, less than a minute later, he does it again. Carries it just slightly more than half the distance, just far enough to evade an icing call, and slaps it the rest of the way in. A few minutes later, there’s another one. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen, because dude can obviously get around people. In between his own blue line and the red, he does it every time. And yet, come that half of the neutral zone on the Leafs’ side of the ice, even with no pressure and all the time in the world, Bobby Orr is perfectly content to just bang that puck off the back boards and let his forwards scramble for it. This isn’t just a once or twice thing, it’s not just a PK thing. He does it again and again and again. He does it on the power play. He does it for no goddamn apparent reason.
By the third period, frankly, I am pretty fucking pissed at Bobby Orr. I am shouting at the TV, shouting back in time as if the force of my annoyance could somehow transcend the laws of physics and echo through the 60s: you are Bobby Orr. You are literally, actually, no-joke no-metaphor the 100% real Bobby-fucking-Orr. You are the archetypal model for puck-moving, rushing, scoring defensepersons. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DUMP IT IN. That’s WRONG. WHAT?! NO, NOT AGAIN. STOP IT BOBBY STOP IT.
And then I give up, and revise everything I thought I knew about Bobby Orr. Or, as am now thinking of him, Bobby Dump-In.
Sure, there are excuses. You want me to make excuses for Bobby Orr? I can do that. I can say, look, it was a dump-and-chase game back then. Even sans Bobby, the Bruins are dumping the puck constantly and from every position; obviously there’s a coaching influence at work. Maybe it’s because the Leafs were a good team- certainly they hold their blue line hard- and Boston is trying to keep things simple. Maybe it’s because they were so used to being bad they hadn’t figured out how to be good yet. Or maybe it’s because Orr was just back from his first off-season knee surgery, and we all know rehabilitation wasn’t sophisticated back then as it is now. Maybe he’s taking it easy on purpose, or maybe he’s still working on getting his stamina back.
But whatever the reason, the fact remains: here is Bobby Orr not playing at all like a Bobby-Orr-type player. Stephen Brunt, in his excellent biography Searching for Bobby Orr, tells me that coaches never tried to reign in his natural creativity, yet here he is playing dump-and-chase just like everyone else on his team, presumably at someone’s direction. Brunt tells me that, sure, Bobby left his position in the offensive zone, but he’d always manage to get back in time to cover his defensive responsibilities- yet here he is, letting his man go and losing the footrace back to his own net, crashing ineffectually into the back boards just after the Leafs score. Here is Bobby Orr, still a good player, still obviously gifted, playing basic, uncreative, and occasionally dysfunctional standard-issue 1960s Canadian hockey. Here is Bobby Orr, being kind of boring.
Myths are formed of highlights, hyperbole, and forgetting. Bobby Orr got 270 goals and 645 assists in his career, but we haven’t seen most them. What we’ve seen is the same two dozen rushes replayed two hundred times, held up to us as characteristic. The big numbers combine with the flashy replays to make us imagine a force that never quite was, a type of player who existed not for years on end but only for a few select moments in a few select seasons, a few very very special games.
What we forget is that in between those rushes were several hundred ordinary games, where Bobby Orr was subject to all the things that all the lesser players of the world are subject to, not just the apocalyptic injuries but the slow recoveries in between, the off games, the coaching demands, the bad decisions. We forget that sometimes he was outplayed, and sometimes he was outraced, and every now and again he lost, poor kitten.
Last year, when Erik Karlsson started racking up the pile of points that would lead him to become the second-youngest Norris winner in history, people obviously began making comparisons to the first-youngest: Bobby Orr in 1968. This very season, that began with this dump-in-fest, would end with him deemed the best defenseman in the League. Eugene Melnyk (indirectly) and a some Ottawa sportswriters (directly) invoked Orr in talking about Karlsson’s potential, but more impressive is this:
“This kid has wonderful speed. Great, great hockey sense. He’s not big at all. Two games ago I looked at him and I thought, ‘Holy crap, he looks like a teenager,’ or maybe it’s me getting old. He’s not a huge kid, but he’s very intelligent and very smart on the ice.”
Other than the use of the word “crap”, which no proper hockey person would ever have said aloud to the media in 1968, that could easily be a quote from an old-time scout talking about Bobby Orr in his early days. But it’s not. That’s Bobby Orr, talking about Erik Karlsson.
Provoked by all this hyperbole, the always-fascinating Tyler Dellow decided to do a little experiment. In a post entitled Erik Karlsson, Bobby Orr, and Stats, I, Dellow went through every single one of Karlsson’s assists of the year to date and broke down how they happened. We’ll never know what his ultimate conclusion would have been, since Dellow never posted part II of the analysis, but the closest we have is this statement: “The key takeaway from this should be that, of his 27 ES assists this year, about ten of them actually involved Karlsson making a play with deliberate intent to create a scoring chance, as opposed to a play like a pass across the blue line, clearing his own zone or throwing it into the mixer in front of the net”.
The implication is clear: Karlsson’s assists aren’t really ‘good’ assists. They’re not playmaking assists. They’re not the sort of assists that merit comparison to Bobby Orr. The presumption, on the part of both Dellow and the Karlsson boosters who made the initial comparisons, is that being a Bobby-Orr-type player means making gorgeous play after gorgeous play, brilliant pass after brilliant pass, rush after rush. But, based on the look of this one game, anyway, I’d guess plenty of Bobby Orr’s Norris-earning assists were accumulated off passes across the blue line, long shots in the general direction of the net, and flat-out dumps, from ordinary, non-mythic plays. It could be that Karlsson is far closer to playing like the ordinary, non-mythic Bobby Orr than either his supporters or his detractors suspect.
Now all he has to do is keep it up for another six seasons.
And learn how to fly.