There’s a Gretzky Camp and a Gordie Howe Camp, but around these parts, there has never been any doubt that Bobby Orr is the greatest hockey player who ever lived.
There’s no way to prove it, of course. It’s a subjective sports argument, which is part of what makes it fun. But for those of us who grew up around Boston and saw Orr play, there can never be any doubt. The rest of you can check the videotape, talk to folks who played with or against him, and maybe take a gander at that statue of a flying Bobby after the Mother’s Day goal in 1970.
I raise this topic today not because the young Bruins of 2016 are playing their home opener at the New Garden Thursday night, but because this week marks the 50th anniversary of Orr’s first game with the Bruins at the Old Garden in 1966.
Fifty years. The golden anniversary for the Golden Child. How can it be that a half-century has passed since the night we first saw the crew-cut teenager from Parry Sound, Ontario?
You think the Bruins are in a little playoff drought now? Hop into the Way Back Machine and see what things looked like on Causeway Street on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 1966. The Bruins hadn’t been in the playoffs in seven years. They were basement dwellers in five of the previous six years. They hadn’t finished over .500 since 1958-59.
Orr changed everything. The Bruins were back in the playoffs in his second season, broke scoring and attendance records, won a pair of Stanley Cups, and became the hottest ticket in town. They made Channel 38 a legitimate television station (remember “Nutty”?). They spawned hockey rinks throughout New England. They created a local cult of hockey. And it was all because of one man.
Bruins brass first spotted him at an outdoor rink in Gananoque, Ontario, when Orr was 12 years old. They signed him when he was 14, but only after the club agreed to a request by Orr’s mother for a new coat of stucco on the family home in Parry Sound.
Globe Hockey Hall of Fame scribe Tom Fitzgerald tried to pump the brakes on expectations before Orr’s NHL debut, writing, “Boston hockey fans can help a lot if they contain themselves in their appraisal of the lad. They must not expect that Bobby immediately will be a combination of Eddie Shore, Doug Harvey, Jack Stewart and Dit Clapper.’’
Orr’s father made the trip to Boston for the kid’s first game. Boston’s puck prodigy was so excited that he arrived at the Garden just after noontime for an evening game.
“I was always coming in way early and they finally gave me a key,’’ Orr recalled in an interview with the Globe Tuesday morning.
Orr wore a variety of numbers (1, 4, 27, 30) during intrasquad and exhibition games during training camp in 1966, and he was especially eager to learn what number he’d been assigned for Opening Night. He’d worn No. 2 as a junior, but that was already in the rafters in Boston, an homage to Shore.
When he arrived at the Garden, he was delighted to see Bruins sweater No. 4 hanging in his locker.
“It was a little different then,’’ he remembered. “Players didn’t request their numbers. You didn’t say, ‘I want 67 or 66.’ You took what they gave you.
“So I was happy to get a sweater. Al Langlois had been wearing 4 and he’d left. In those days, the defensemen wore low numbers.’’
There was a collision of hockey worlds that first night at the Garden as teen Bobby Orr shared the ice with Mr. Hockey, Detroit’s Gordie Howe. This would be akin to a 20th-century basketball player getting matched up against Michael Jordan in his very first game.
In 1966, Howe was a grizzled veteran of 20 years and he’d been MVP six times. Orr grew up believing that Howe (who died in June) was the greatest to ever lace up skates.
“When I was a kid, Gordie worked for a store in Canada and he came to Parry Sound for an autograph session,’’ recalled Orr. “I lined up to get an autograph. Then one of my friends took him fishing and they took me with them.
“I was about 12. So while we were fishing, Gordie Howe asked me if I wanted to play hockey and I told him I wanted to make it to the NHL and he told me, ‘Well, if you get there, be careful, watch my elbows.’ ’’
That turned out to be good advice on the night of Oct. 19, 1966.
“Early in the game, I got my elbow a little high on him,’’ remembered Orr. “A little later, I was watching one of my pretty passes, looking back, and next thing I knew, I was on the ice.
“I’d had my head down, and he hit me pretty good. Gordie had let me know that he was still the man. He was standing over me, glaring down at me.
“A bunch of my teammates skated to my defense and there was a little scrum, but I didn’t want that. I told my guys, ‘It’s OK, I asked for that. I’ll take care of it myself.’ ’’
The Bruins beat the Red Wings, 6-2, with Orr getting his first NHL point, an assist on a goal by Wayne Connelly.
“It was written up as a magnificent pass with Wayne Connelly at the side of the net,’’ Orr said with a chuckle. “I really was shooting it and I didn’t get good wood on it and the puck went off the end of my blade.
“It went to the left of the net and Wayne was standing there and picked it up and put it in. It wasn’t much, but you’ve got to take ’em any way you can get ’em.’’
A few nights later, Boston’s teen angel blasted a point shot past Montreal Hall of Fame goalie Gump Worsley.
The 1966-67 Bruins won only 17 games and finished last again, but it was clear that the hockey times were changing on Causeway Street. Orr scored 13 goals with 28 assists in 61 games and easily won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
The rest is hockey history. And Hub sports history.
“There’s the old saying that it goes by quickly when you’re having a good time,’’ said Orr. “I’ve been in Boston 46 years now. It’s been magnificent. The city, the people, the opportunities. One of our boys was born here, one still lives here, we have grandchildren now.
“This is home and we love the city. And if you look around at the teams, it’s pretty exciting times in Boston. It’s been unbelievable. This is a special city and we’ve loved it.’’
Our town has been blessed with gods of all the games that capture America’s sporting mind. We had Bill Russell, the greatest champion in the history of sports. We had Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived. We still have Tom Brady, who continues to make his case as the greatest quarterback of all time.
And we had Bobby Orr, the greatest hockey player of them all who first skated into our lives 50 years ago this week.