Monday, February 19, 2007

Searching for Bobby Orr
The origin story

"He's very quiet in the dressing room. I really haven't got to know him even though I've played with him for three years and sat beside him that amount of time. He's very, very quiet. When he really gets up for a game he doesn't say too much to, really, anybody. I don't think there's one fellow on the hockey team that really, really does know Bobby."
— Bobby Orr's former teammate Don Awrey
from Searching for Bobby Orr

It's mid-February, and I'm way past due on a review of Stephen Brunt's latest book, Searching for Bobby Orr, an ode to the legendary Hall of Famer. I've been holding off, hoping for a free half hour to sit down and put together a real opus on the book, but what follows will have to do.

(First, a quick disclaimer: Brunt and I are colleagues, but sort of in the same fashion that city hall's janitor is a 'colleague' of the mayor. I've only met him once, at a company Christmas function in my first year, and he came across as a pretty swell guy. So, that's my bias.)

That said, Searching for Bobby Orr is one of the best hockey books I've read. It's indepth, interesting and informative, and Brunt has a colourful writing style that keeps the narrative moving along nicely.

But I think the most important factor in how you approach the book is what, exactly, your relationship with Orr is. Brunt, for his part, is a Southern Ontario guy who is a handful of years younger than Orr, a sportswriter who grew up a few hours removed from the hockey phenom's hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario.

He knows the Orr mystique because he lived through it, saw him play in small-town junior games and followed him (as a fan) throughout his NHL career.

But who is Bobby Orr to me?

He's a retired legend with a ridiculous list of credentials next to his hockeydb entry, a player who's hockey career ended before I was born. To me, Orr's always been the silent, middle-aged face in television commercials — "that's right, Bobby" — an old man with a kid's name who made his fortune and faded from view in a way that Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito and Bobby Hull never seemed to.

I know those former stars' personalities well, but Orr's never someone anyone in my generation would be able to get a handle on.

How could we? When he left hockey nearly 30 years ago, he was gone for good — or at least gone in the way that he became a secondary figure as a player agent.

I don't know what Orr's personality is — or at least I didn't until I read the book — aside from the folklore tales spun of his on-ice persona throughout the years. (Which, from Brunt's description, reminds me a lot of what we're now seeing with Sidney Crosby.)

So, for me, that's the book's real strength, the fact that it gets to the heart of 'who is Bobby Orr', both as in where he came from and where he ended up. Orr is a fiercely private person, someone who shielded his family from the fame he accumulated to the point where very little is known about personal details such as his wedding, marriage and home life. Orr declined to be a part of the book itself, but that doesn't preclude it from being a worthwhile endeavor. (One detail Brunt tells us is that Orr's children didn't learn to skate while growing up in Massachusetts, a curious detail given Orr himself came so close to earning the title of hockey's greatest player of all-time.)

The best tidbits Brunt includes come from the early years, including the rudimentary scouting of Orr when he was just 12 years old, and then the Bruins' overtures that would eventually get him signed to a contract at 14. Orr's family came from modest means — his father , Doug, packed dynamite at a local munitions plant — and when Boston's scout Wren Blair offered the Orrs a $10,000 signing bonus, a new car and siding for the house, it was more than they could resist.

Bobby was a Bruin, and would be for life, despite the fact he was an Ontario kid who should have been snapped up by the then-dominant Toronto Maple Leafs.

It's an origin story in the traditional sense, a tale of beginnings which essentially is the foundation for the entire yarn. Because for all of his successes, Orr was always in essence about where he came from, as much as he tried to escape his humble beginnings.

It's a great book; check it out if you haven't already.

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At 1:05 p.m., February 19, 2007, Anonymous Lyle Richardson said...

I've already started the book, although I now have to wait for my wife to finish reading it, as Orr was her favourite player.

I was lucky enough to be a kid when Orr was in his prime in the early 1970s and to watch him many times on Hockey Night in Canada.

In my humble opinion, he was the greatest player who ever played the game. Nobody controlled a game like Orr could, and that fact he accomplished much of what he did on two bad knees leaves me wondering what heights he might've reached.

His lack of visibility from the game since his retirement has only heightened his mystique. And he was one of the driving forces in the downfall of Alan Eagleson, so it's not as though he completely left it.

Looking forward to finishing the book, as by the sounds of things it could be one of the best hockey books ever written.

At 1:45 p.m., February 19, 2007, Anonymous Numbers Guy said...

I've read the book and enjoyed it, but won't give it quite the same glowing recommendation as James. I was born in 1970, and came to love hockey just as the game skated into the shadow of Orr.

Brunt writes well, but, despite its length, I felt the book was rushed towards the end. It's almost as though Brunt couldn't sustain the story-telling - maybe because we all know how it ends, maybe because how it ends wasn't the story he wanted to tell. I didn't feel much of the suspense and passion inherent in the Eagleson betrayal. Similarly, Brunt's writing drips with pathos, so much so that I lost some of the sense of tragedy in Orr's story.

On the other hand, it's non-fiction, not a movie script. Brunt is an excellent writer working with a compelling subject. The books belongs up there on the shelf alongside Dryden's The Game and Gzowski's The Game of Our Lives.

At 3:17 p.m., February 19, 2007, Blogger John said...

I'm a year younger than Orr so when he was a fourteen year old playing for the Oshawa Generals, I was flailing around in net for the Burlington Lions Club Peewee All-stars.

I have read the book and the first part is extraordinary. Brunt has captured exquisitely the nature of junior hockey at the time and in the pre-draft era, the lengths teams went to sign players. Brunt's knack for quality storytelling describint Orr's early years has a quasi-mythic quality.

However, I do agree that the last half of the book doesn't sustain that same narrative tone. It's ripe with anecdote and it's a solid recounting of the NHL during those years but it struck me a somewhat flat.

That said, it's certainly in the top five of hockey books.


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