Sunday, February 10, 2008

More hockey talk. Old-time hockey. Like Eddie Shore.

I have just finished reading a fabulous slice of Canadiana, Stephen Brunt's excellent book Searching For Bobby Orr. Orr is a famously private individual, and would not agree to be interviewed for the book, and Brunt had to agree also to not approach his immediate family for his biography either. Although it seems a fortuitous encounter with Bobby's father Doug, in their hometown of Parry Sound, managed to get into the book and certainly enriched it with detail and character. Now, I know a lot about Bobby Orr already, as does every Canadian with even a passing interest in hockey. I know he led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups, I know he won three straight Hart trophies and eight straight Norris trophies, and that he was the only defenseman to lead the league in scoring, and he did that twice. I also know that every discussion of the Greatest Hockey Player Who Ever Lived almost inevitably comes down to Gretzky, Howe, and Bobby Orr. And I know that he spent his last two seasons with Chicago, barely playing until his career was tragically cut way too short. And THEN I know that Alan Eagleson screwed him.

But that kind of knowledge, that just about every hockey fan has, just scratches the surface of this excellent biography. Events that are a part of our national consciousness, even if we were not alive at the time, are given a different, Orr-centric spin in Brunt's book. For example - I was not aware that Orr was even IN Russia during the '72 Summit Series. I remember wondering why he wasn't playing when I saw the endless documentaries and remembrances of that event, but I forgot about it rather quickly, and all I know now about that event is Espo, Henderson, Eagleson and Cournoyer, and Bobby Clarke's hatchet job on a Russian ankle. The famous photo of Orr flying through the air after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime - I always thought it was a Game Six, after a long and bitterly fought series. It turns out it was in Game 4 to complete a fairly easy sweep of St. Louis. In the old days, the Stanley Cup was contested between the best of the original six and the best of the six expansion teams. Which meant it wasn't even close to a contest until the emergence of the Broad Street Bullies in the 70s.

The Flyers of course took a lot of their style from Orr's Bruins. I can remember reading a couple of books by Hall of Fame Leafs' coach Punch Imlach when I was a kid - two great books I revisit every now and then. Hockey Is a Battle and Heaven and Hell in the NHL. I highly recommend both of them, for Leaf fans and hockey fans alike. One of the incidents Imlach mentions in his books is a time when one of his players, a guy with a long and impressive hockey lineage named Brian Conacher, accidentally clipped Orr in the face with his stick. Orr charged down the ice after him and wailed on him, blood still pouring down his face. In Brunt's book the memories are such that this brawl, this game, and this incident defined Orr and the Bruins for a lot of people. Orr would back down against nobody, was as tough as anyone in the game, and his team were a gang that stuck together and fought together. To some that was a great example of team unity and toughness, to others it was a brutal display of goon hockey. In Imlach's book, he says that was the incident that convinced him that his Leafs team of that year were a bunch of pansies and sissies - they kind of stood around while the entire Bruins team pummeled Conacher.

Interesting sidebar - the Leafs decided to add some toughness by inserting a big fighter with little hockey talent into their lineup - a player who would later run Orr into the ice in a collision that is still disputed. Was it an elbow, was it a clean check? Orr had his head down, and ended up out cold on the ice. That Leaf player - Pat Quinn. See, these things I just did not know. And Brunt peppers his book with little anecdotes about just about everyone he mentions, in many cases these anecdotes are even more interesting than the stories themselves. The Red Army team from Russia walking off the ice...or skating off, I suppose, in the middle of an exhibition game against then-Cup-champions Philadelphia, as the Broad Street Bullies seemingly could not tone their game down for an exhibition. Imagine Colton Orr being selected to the All-Star team this year (I know I know - just imagine for a second) and then getting into a fight with Sidney Crosby on the first shift. The tragic on-ice death of Bill Masterton, old-timers fond memories of Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey, and dozens of other stories permeate the book, adding an incredible amount of hockey history. Searching For Bobby Orr is about so much more than just the Bruins' defenseman, and it's just enough to make me very nostalgic for a time during which I was not even alive.

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