When Robert Gordon Orr comes walking out of the Boston Bruins' dressing room in his halfway mod attire and head-down shy manner, you would be excused for thinking that he is the water boy or perhaps an assistant bookkeeper learning the trade of attendance-padding. He is a mere 5'11", 185 pounds, with blue-gray eyes and a thick shock of hair that is browner than blond and blonder than brown and flops down over his forehead, producing a little-boy-lost effect that is deadly to the female. His legs are muscular, but not much more than Carol Channing's. His arms are of normal length and look strong, but not strikingly so. His hands remind one of an e. e. cummings line: "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." His shoulders are squared, but not with the slablike precision of Bobby Hull's. His overall physique is adequate but not impressive; he will never gain employment as a male model or appear covered with salad oil in today's versions of Sunshine and Health.
At 22, Orr (see cover) is beginning to show the indelible facial evidences of his occupation: the thick tissue over the eye sockets, the spidery scars from interrupted pucks and sticks, the drooping lip and asymmetric nose from medical insult and injury. After five years in the bullpits of the National Hockey League, Orr does not yet resemble Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront ("Cholly, Cholly, I cudda been a contenduh!"), but he is en route. His nose has been fractured three or four times and he has taken 50 or so stitches, mostly in the face. His strong, sturdy jaw remains intact, but from the way he plays hockey one can easily foresee the day when he will be wired up and sipping tomato juice through a straw. Then the devastation will be complete, as it has been complete with almost all the great defensemen of the National Hockey League.
"Look at him," says Orr's crony and roommate. Assistant Trainer John (Frosty) Forristall. "He's the key to everything—to the Boston Bruins, to the National Hockey League, to the whole game of hockey. And he skates like he's afraid he'll be sent back to the minors. He takes chances like a rookie."
Let it be said and done with: by acclamation Bobby Orr is the greatest player ever to don skates. Not the greatest defenseman, the greatest player at either end of the ice. He was playing league hockey with grown men at the age of 14 and starring. As an 18-year-old Bruin rookie he made the NHL's Ail-Star team, and last season he was the league's Most Valuable Player, the acknowledged star of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the league's top-ranking defenseman and the league's top scorer. To comprehend what it means to be the best both defensively and offensively in the brutal game of ice hockey, the fan must imagine a combination of Dick Butkus and Leroy Kelly, of Boog Powell and Bob Gibson, of Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. Because of Orr, there are fewer arguments in the big hockey towns about "the good old days." He has brought a sheen to every skater, a gloss to the whole league and the whole sport.
This steady upgrading of Orr's abilities cannot continue much longer, because now he must compete with himself; he has reached the stage where the records he is shooting at are his own. 'Last year he scored 120 points on 33 goals and 87 assists, the most goals ever scored by a defenseman, the most assists ever scored by anyone. This year he will probably fall short of the record; the other teams are bearing down on him, slowing him, clutching and grabbing. But whatever his tribulations, Orr remains the pivot figure in the game, the single charismatic personality around whom the entire sport will coalesce in the decade of the '70s, as golf once coalesced around Arnold Palmer, baseball around Babe Ruth, football around John Unitas. Three years ago the cottage industry known as the National Hockey League reproduced like an amoeba and became 12 teams instead of six, and this season two more big-league clubs were added. The result has been dilutions, mismatches, distortions. Orr is the fixative that binds this unstable mess together.
Orr's style makes him the perfect player to lure fans to expansion hockey games. His coach, Tom Johnson, says, ' "Bobby has all the tricky moves, the fakes and blocks that excite the experts. He does things that no other hockey player can do, and a lot of people just take it for granted. But he also does the things that excite the newcomer: the rink-long rushes, the hard body checks and that whistling slap shot of his. He has the quality of directing the attention to himself. He runs things. The puck is on his stick half the time. If you're looking at your first hockey game—and lots of people are nowadays—all you do is watch Orr and you catch on fast."
Orr is on the ice, helping to kill a penalty. Three times St. Louis has rushed the length of the rink, and three times the Bruin defenders have stood fast. Now there are 30 seconds left in the penalty, and the Blues are threatening again. Christian Bordeleau winds up to shoot from the blue line. Out of nowhere Bobby Orr appears and lowers his stick across the line of the shot; the classic sweep check repels the puck, but Bordeleau has shot so hard that Orr's stick is knocked away. He lets it go and skates toward another St. Louis player whose stick is already on the backswing. Orr blocks the shot with his skate, chases the puck into the boards, immobilizes another St. Louis shooter and freezes the puck. One second later the teams are at equal strength. "Did you ever see a hockey player do things like that?" Tom Johnson asks later. No, never.
To students of Bobby Orr, the spectacular has become routine, and the routine has become unacceptable. One of a defenseman's primary jobs is to get the puck out of his own end and down the ice, and some players carry out this task with all the grace and ease of a starving man eating a pomegranate through a screen door. Orr does it routinely. "As soon as Bobby gets the puck on his stick," says Tom Johnson, "you know it's coming out. People take it for granted. They forget that this isn't automatic. At least it never used to be."
When the Bruins are on offense Orr takes up the traditional defenseman's stance, guarding the point, but it by no means is certain that he will remain there. "If he has the puck at the point and somebody takes a run at him," says a teammate, "that's the end. He'll give them that one-two-circle dance of his, that ballerina twirl, and he's moving in on the net at top speed. No other defenseman would dare do this, because meanwhile he's leaving the whole wing wide open. But I've never seen him get caught."
"If Bobby has a problem," says Boston Goaltender Gerry Cheevers, "it's just that he has no fear. No fear whatever. If nothing else will do, I swear he'll use his head to block a shot. He's already been hurt bad, and he'll keep on getting hurt. But that's his style. He won't change. He won't play it safe."