At 65, Bobby Orr is focused on doing good — quietly
Kevin Keyes barely knew Bobby Orr, the hockey god of his youth, when he pulled into Orr’s driveway on a midsummer day, believing he was welcome.
Keyes remembers “jumping out of my skin’’ with excitement as he led his four children to Orr’s door. He knocked. No one answered.
His children knocked. No answer.
What happened next may not have struck Keyes as exceptional had he known about the innumerable acts of kindness Orr has quietly committed since he arrived in Boston 47 years ago as a peach-fuzzed prodigy on skates.
No one had told Keyes that Orr once turned his home into a hospice for the final months of a dying friend’s life.
Keyes never knew about Orr’s singular effort to save a former Bruins teammate who was wasting away from drugs and drink.
Or that, for decades, Orr has privately counseled and comforted the sick and dying, the disabled and disenfranchised, the poor and grieving.
He is 65 now and still considered by many the greatest hockey player who ever lived, an indelible revelation on ice. During his 12 years in the NHL from 1966-78, he twice led the Bruins to Stanley Cup titles, in 1970 and 1972, and accumulated nearly every honor the NHL grants, including early entry to the Hall of Fame.
But if the true measure of character is found in the deeds done when no one is looking, then Orr has forged a transcendent legacy in the decades since he first wielded a wooden hockey stick on Causeway Street.
His effortless speed, power, and scoring touch, unrivaled in the history of NHL defensemen, revolutionized the sport he loves and turned New England into a hub of hockey fanatics.
His work changing lives is much less known, for a simple reason: He won’t talk about it and loathes anyone else talking about it. The idea of receiving credit — or worse, appearing to seek credit — for doing what a good person does repulses Bobby Orr. This article, which touches on some of those quiet acts of kindness was, in a real sense, written against his wishes.
“I don’t do things to get ink,’’ he said in an interview last week. “I just sneak along and do my thing and meet wonderful people, some people I’ve never met, new friends.’’
Few dare cross him
He is old enough now for Medicare, his boyish face wrinkling, his chestnut hair graying, his mangled knees remade with titanium, and he has not played professional hockey since 1978, seven years before current Bruins star Patrice Bergeron drew his first breath.
But “Number 4, Bobby Orr,’’ as he was known generations ago by children who ate from Bobby Orr lunch boxes and skated in Bobby Orr gear on dozens of new rinks that opened amid Orr Fever, reigns as one of the most admired athletes in North America both for his transformative hockey career and personal grace.
“No one does superstar like Bobby Orr,’’ said Derek Sanderson, a former Bruins teammate who credits Orr with rescuing him from a potentially deadly addiction to cocaine, Quaaludes, and alcohol.
Orr is no saint, of course. He can be tough, stubborn, sometimes loyal to a fault, and can hold grudges for years. “He has had a temper all his life,’’ said Harry Sinden, his friend and former coach.
For decades, Orr has controlled his public image so tenaciously that few have dared cross him, or intrude on his treasured privacy.
“I know some of the incredible things Bobby has done for people, but he would hit me over the head if I ever mentioned them,’’ said Nate Greenberg, a former Bruins public relations chief who has been Orr’s friend for 40 years.
A prominent research physician has never forgotten Orr’s anger. In 1976, Dr. Murray Feingold asked the hockey legend to visit a gravely ill boy at a Boston hospital. Orr agreed on the condition the visit remain private.
The encounter went well until Orr departed and was engulfed by reporters.
“ ‘Oh my God, Bobby, I had nothing to do with this,’ ’’ Feingold recalled saying.
Seething, Orr glared at the doctor.
“Bobby was visibly upset, mainly at me,’’ said Feingold, who later learned the boy’s mother alerted the media.
Orr divulges almost nothing about his acts of charity in his autobiography, “Orr: My Story,’’ due out Oct. 15. He wrote the book, a copy of which the Globe received in advance, as if he were coaching both his sport and society, delivering lessons in honor and responsibility while he examines hockey at its best and worst.
He said he is most disturbed about what he considers the corroding culture in youth sports.
“Some coaches act as if the mortgage were at stake if their Pee Wee team doesn’t win a game, which is outrageous,’’ Orr said. “We’ve got to do a better job with our kids. Teach good values, teach the fundamentals.’’
His door is open
Orr and Kevin Keyes had met months earlier at a Florida golf course. Orr had learned then that 6-year-old Kevin Keyes Jr., who loved playing hockey, was suffering from a rare disorder that left him legally blind, all but ending his days on skates.
The legend invited Keyes and his kids to lunch at his Cape Cod home, which brought them to his door that day.
But where was he? For all Keyes knew, Orr had forgotten him.
He led his children to a side door. They knocked. No one answered.
“Gods don’t answer letters,” John Updike once wrote of Ted Williams, who refused to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd after he hit a home run in his final at-bat in 1960. That was also, as it happened, the year a Bruins scout first spotted the 12-year-old Orr.
As Keyes stood at Orr’s door, the silence hurt. He knocked again.
When his restless children began rummaging through Orr’s garage, Keyes barked, “OK, that’s it,’’ and ordered them back to the family Suburban, figuring paradise was lost.
Then a god answered, Orr bursting from the side door. Keyes recalled Orr explaining that he had been stretching in the backyard when he heard a commotion out front.
“Everybody huddle up,’’ Orr told the children. “We’re going to have a good time, but I want you to promise me one thing first.’’
The kids drew closer, and Orr said in a hush, “Promise me you won’t tell your mother that your father brought you a day early. You were supposed to be here tomorrow.’’
For the next hour, Orr sat with the children on his living room floor, playing sock hockey and sharing stories. He made them lunch, gave them personalized keepsakes, and hugged each one, none more heartily than Kevin Jr., who perched in Orr’s arms, beaming in his Bruins sweater, the Bobby Orr edition.
“The greatest hockey player in the world, knowing he would get no recognition for it, took an interest in a bricklayer’s son who needed a ray of sunshine in his life,’’ said Keyes, a Dorchester native who grew up in Scituate and settled in Florida. “He is the nicest, most generous, most sincere person my children will ever meet. He changed our lives.’’
In the sports world, there are many charitable superstars and many others for whom philanthropy is a masquerade, an exercise in image-buffing. Then there is Orr, who has created a model for giving back that embraces the power of true connection, of responding when the need is greatest.
When social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Orr learned that members of her family were Bruins fans and he quietly traveled to Concord, N.H., to visit.
When former Bruin Ace Bailey died aboard a hijacked airliner that struck the World Trade Center in New York during the 2001 terrorist attacks, Orr turned up the next morning at the door of Bailey’s widow, Katherine.
“Bobby will always have a place in my heart,’’ she said.
When Orr learned last year that James Gordon, a hockey player at Hingham High School, was fighting testicular cancer, he called Gordon’s mother, Terry, and asked to visit.
Orr chatted for several hours with James, his family, and friends, spending much of the time holding Terry’s daughter, Jenna, who has Down syndrome.
Orr posed for pictures with everyone in the house. He later mailed them autographed photos with personal messages, having remembered the name of each family member and friend as if he had known them for years.
Terry Gordon, still in awe months later, said, “Who does that?’’
Spotted at age 12
The man who does that grew up under a big sky near the shores of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, 150 miles north of Toronto. One of five children born to a munitions factory worker and a waitress, Orr lived snugly — bunk beds for the kids — next to railroad tracks where the Canadian Pacific clattered by like clockwork.
In the summer, he crossed the tracks and clambered down to the mouth of the Seguin River and cast his fishing line. In the winter, he tossed his skates over his shoulder and headed upstream to a swath of ice his father, Doug, had cleared.
Parry Sound was the cradle of Orr’s character. In a little city where strangers were few, he discovered the values that would drive him.
“First, he became a great teammate,’’ said Dave Silk, a member of the 1980 US Olympic “Miracle on Ice’’ gold medal team who was inspired by Orr as a youth and counseled by him as an adult. “Then he traded up and became a great humanitarian.’’
The Bruins were so tantalized by Orr at 12 that they subsidized his youth hockey program, hoping to sway his parents when he was old enough to turn pro.
As a 14-year-old eighth-grader, he became Bruins property, and for one brutal Canadian winter he commuted 300 miles round-trip to play for Boston’s junior team, the Oshawa Generals.
Orr lived the next three school years with host families in Oshawa, attending classes by day, dominating the junior league at night.
“I remember two things about Bobby,’’ said Jim Cuthbertson, Orr’s science teacher in Oshawa. “He always arrived with his homework done, even after long hockey trips. And he shared a lab desk with a real jerk.’’
Orr never clashed with his disruptive deskmate, Cuthbertson said. Instead, he served as “a controlling influence, illustrating by example how the kid should act.’’
Orr did the same after he joined the Bruins in 1966. At 18, he was Boston’s most hotly anticipated rookie since Williams in 1939, yet he seemed unfazed by the hype. He took pains to project himself as just another Bruin.
No, Orr told a Sports Illustrated photographer, he would not skate onto the ice ahead of his teammates for a picture.
Arva Orr raised her son to resist vanity. When a newspaper writer called Parry Sound after Orr gained international fame, the writer informed Arva he would like to interview her son.
“Which one?’’ she said. “I have three, you know.’’
A valuable influence
The Big Bad Bruins of Orr’s era were a wild bunch, epitomized by the carousing Sanderson. Orr partied with his teammates — they were regulars at the Branding Iron steak house he owned at Charles River Park — and sometimes joined in their antics.
It was Orr who helped mastermind the “kidnapping’’ of his injured teammate, Phil Esposito, from Massachusetts General Hospital after the Bruins were eliminated from the 1973 playoffs. Orr and his sidekicks spirited Esposito out of the hospital on a gurney and wheeled him to the Branding Iron for the postgame party.
Most nights, however, Orr limited himself to two drinks — he later gave up drinking — and he often policed his teammates.
“A lot of us didn’t know how to behave at that age,’’ Sanderson said. “It was easy to get stupid. Bobby felt very strongly about how you should act. It came to him naturally, but he had to help us. He would say, ‘Derek, would you shut your mouth?’ ”
Sinden knew better than to exploit Orr’s leadership — Orr never wanted to be seen as favoring management over his teammates — but the coach valued his influence.
“He was the kind of guy who held your ego down if you had too much of one,’’ Sinden said.
On the ice, Orr changed hockey like no player before or since. As a defenseman, he was responsible for preventing opponents from scoring. He mastered that, and much more, becoming the greatest scoring defenseman in NHL history.
Dubbed “Nureyev on ice’’ by the late Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald, Orr averaged a remarkable 1.4 points game during his injury-shortened career. His picture — the enduring image of him in celebratory flight after he scored the overtime goal in 1970 that clinched Boston’s first Stanley Cup in 29 years — adorned homes across New England.
Kids wanted to be like Orr. They wanted to wear No. 4 and skate like Orr: slightly bow-legged, without socks, and with a single strand of black tape wrapped around their stick blades.
Many Catholics took their confirmation names from saints. As a boy in Greater Boston, Jim Craig took Orr’s: James Bobby Orr Craig.
“He was my go-to guy, my idol,’’ said Craig, who became the goalie of the “Miracle on Ice’’ Olympic team and later played for the Bruins.
As Orr Mania swept the region, children from the inner city to the boonies flocked to new public and private ice rinks. The Boston Neighborhood Hockey League was born. Bumper sticks marked the territory: “This is Orr Country.’’
The Garden sold out nightly, and in a time before cable television when channel options were few and picture reception often fuzzy, families endlessly fidgeted with their TV antennas to focus on Orr.
“You had to keep redirecting the rabbit ears because the picture would get all snowy,’’ said Bobby Carpenter, who played 18 seasons in the NHL after growing up in Peabody, inspired in part by Orr. “When you got it perfect, you told everybody, ‘Don’t move.’ ’’
Bitter ending, and rebirth
But far too soon, Orr’s best hockey days were behind him. He was plagued by knee injuries, and his relationship with the Bruins ended bitterly in 1976 when his agent, Alan Eagleson, orchestrated his departure from Boston.
Orr never wanted to leave, he has often said, but he was betrayed by one of his bedrock traits: loyalty.
“I trusted [Eagleson] like a brother,’’ he told the Toronto Star in 1990.
Orr granted Eagleson complete authority over his business interests, including contract negotiations, and Eagleson steered him to the Chicago Blackhawks by withholding details of Boston’s far more lucrative contract offer, which included an 18 percent ownership stake in the franchise. The estimated value of that share today is well over $50 million.
When the deal was done, Eagleson told the Globe that Orr was “up in Parry Sound dying of a broken heart.’’
But it was Eagleson who ultimately broke Orr’s heart — and his bank account. Only after Orr’s bad knees forced him to retire in 1978 at age 30 — he played only 26 games for the Blackhawks — did he learn how deeply Eagleson had betrayed him.
He sought and won a settlement. But still, despite the damage Eagleson had wrought, Orr never publicly expressed the depths of his rage against his former agent.
“Bobby always wanted justice, of course,’’ said Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, who took Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup ring and Bruins jersey aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1996 and carried his 1972 Stanley Cup ring to the International Space Station in 2009. “But he was never going to put down Alan Eagleson to elevate himself.’’
Thirsk became part of Orr’s second life, when he rebuilt his wealth and found more time to give back to friends and strangers.
First, he rescued Sanderson. As the captain for life of his former Boston teammates — “he’s like the godfather of the whole group,’’ Sinden said — Orr discovered Sanderson strung out on drugs and booze in the late 1970s and escorted him to detox.
Sanderson relapsed more than a dozen times, and Orr invariably picked him up and paid for every treatment. He also helped Sanderson start over as a financial adviser.
“He helped save me,’’ said Sanderson, who has been sober since 1980. “Bobby knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process, and he never gave up. He was always there.’’
Orr also was there for Feingold in the mid-1980s, when he joined other luminaries on Martha’s Vineyard for the John Havlicek Celebrity Fishing Tournament to benefit Feingold’s Genesis Foundation for children with birth defects.
Robin Young, then a popular television news personality, sat near Orr on a flight from Boston that encountered mechanical problems and extreme turbulence. The two shared an emotional moment — she remembers seeing tears in Orr’s eyes — during “a white-knuckle time’’ when the flight to Vineyard Haven seemed imperiled.
They shared another uncommon episode a night later. As Young left her Edgartown hotel for a walk, she said, Orr appeared unexpectedly and joined her.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, what’s going on here?’ ” she recalled. “I always thought of Bobby as a gentleman, happily married, the golden boy. I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t disappoint me.’ ”
They turned down a lane, which led to a boat ramp. As they paused, the water shimmering before them, Young said, she feared Orr would make a pass at her.
Several uncomfortable moments followed before Young finally said, “Should we go back?’’ Orr said, “OK.’’
When they reached the hotel, Young recalled, Orr said, “Listen, Robin, you’re a young, lovely woman. Please tell me you’re not going to walk alone by yourself again after dark. Good night.’ ’’
Young, now the cohost of NPR’s "Here and Now,’’ said the experience taught her a lesson.
“Bobby really is the golden boy,’’ she said.
‘That’s what Bobby does’
The year Sanderson got sober, the nation watched on television as Craig won Olympic gold and stood wrapped in an American flag on the ice at Lake Placid, searching the crowd for his father. His mother had died three years earlier.
When Craig’s father died unexpectedly in 1988, Orr rushed in.
“It was a very tough time, and Bobby was there because that’s what Bobby does,’’ Craig said. “He has never had to put on a [Superman] cape. All he has had to do is be No. 4.’’
Orr later rescued Silk, Craig’s Olympic teammate, from a post-hockey tailspin. Silk played 11 seasons in the NHL and Europe before he retired in 1991.
“Sometimes the biggest decision you have to make as a professional hockey player is whether you want red or white clam sauce on your linguine,’’ Silk said. “Then you’re on your own, and you don’t get the corner table anymore, and nobody is calling you, and you can pick up some bad habits.’’
A mutual friend directed Silk to Orr.
“It was like a papal visit,’’ Silk recalled. “You get an audience with Robert Gordon [Orr] and you almost forget why you’re there.
“I went into the meeting feeling awfully bleak, but I came out with a renewed sense of hope and motivation and the will to succeed. I was very lucky to be put in front of Bobby.’’
Silk has since enjoyed a long career as a financial executive.
Many others have received Orr’s comfort. In 1995, he took the extraordinary step of opening his home to former Bruins trainer John “Frosty” Forristall, who had been diagnosed with end-stage brain cancer.
When Orr arrived in Boston as a teenager, he was the toast of the town. He could have lived almost anywhere, with almost anyone. But he roomed for several years with Forristall, whose only claim to fame had been playing goalie for the North Quincy High School hockey team.
Forristall helped Orr rehab from numerous knee surgeries, and after Orr scored the winning goal in the 1970 title game, Forristall bronzed his skates as a gift. The skates are displayed in the Orr exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. They are accompanied by a bronze plaque, inscribed by Forristall, that reads, “May you be as proud and happy always as we were on May 10, 1970, when you unlaced these skates.’’
When Forristall fell terminally ill, he was single and short of money. Orr and his wife, Peggy, who lived in Weston at the time, took him in, and Orr spent several months helping to care for Forristall until he died at 51.
“Bobby knows how to spell the word ‘humble,’ ” Bill Forristall, Frosty’s brother, said. “He was very good to my brother.’’
Five months after Forristall died, Travis Roy, a freshman at Boston University, crashed into the boards in his first collegiate hockey game and was paralyzed from the neck down. He had never met Orr, but when he awoke a month later from a coma, he found him at his bedside.
“I remember Bobby sitting there and softly saying to me that everything was going to be OK,’’ Roy said. “There was something about hearing it from him that was different from hearing it from everybody else. You just kind of believed him. You felt like he knew.’’
Orr returned often to Roy’s hospital room and has since helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Roy’s foundation to help spinal cord patients.
Still a beloved figure
One of the wonders of Orr’s second life is that he has nimbly balanced his charitable work and his role as a husband, father, and grandfather with a 22-year career representing professional hockey players. He launched his second career in 1991 under the late agent Bob Woolf, and since 2002 he has owned the Orr Hockey Group, trying to help dozens of NHL players and prospects avoid the financial pain he suffered because of Eagleson.
Orr no longer appears regularly in Boston television commercials. After lending his name to scores of companies and products, from banks to pinball machines, he has focused in recent years on major endorsement deals with MasterCard and General Motors.
He also formed a memorabilia sales company so that he might profit from the fact that, 37 years after his last game in Boston, he remains a hugely bankable star. His former game jerseys typically sell for more than $100,000.
His promotional work sometimes leads him to Parry Sound, where the roads into town are marked with Bruins No. 4 insignia and where a billboard welcomes visitors to the “Home of Bobby Orr.’’
The hockey memories there are ubiquitous, but so is his spirit — that other, less-famous side of the boy the community knew before the world knew.
When Orr’s childhood convenience store, Hillcrest Grocery, burned down last year, he helped jump-start a rebuilding campaign by donating an autographed picture of “The Goal’’ for an auction.
“Bobby is beloved in Parry Sound,’’ said the store’s co-owner, Sue Bye.
Kids still want to be like him. At the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame in Parry Sound, 16-year-old Nicolo Bonfanti, a summer exchange student from Milan, Italy, spent $125 in July on a replica Orr Bruins sweater.
A night later, 8-year-old Ethan Marshall, who wears No. 4 on his youth hockey team, waited hours during the Hall’s annual induction ceremony with his 5-year-old brother, Lucas, to meet the man they idolize.
In Marlborough, Mass., 7-year-old Gabe Elie falls asleep at night with Orr’s picture on his wall. Elie, a youth hockey player, often tries to replicate Orr’s signature rink-long rush to the goal.
“Some kids at school talk about Justin Bieber,’’ said his father, Joe Elie. “Gabe wants to talk about Bobby Orr.’’
Most of Orr’s young admirers have learned about him from their parents and grandparents. Orr is so ingrained in the North American experience that he is celebrated in song (“Fireworks’’ by Tragically Hip), literature (“Dena Blumenthal + Bobby Orr Forever’’), public sculpture (his statue outside the Garden), education (the Bobby Orr Public School in Oshawa), and the restaurant world (The Four’s chain in Greater Boston), among other tributes.
Through it all, Orr has maintained his quiet dignity, splitting his time between his Cape home and his winter place in Florida.
But to generations who have lived in Orr Country, where he sleeps hardly matters. They seem to know where he will be if they need him.
“The best way to put it is, you know Bobby will be there,’’ Sanderson said. “You’re never alone.’’