The Bruins went to scout two players. They found Bobby Orr instead
GANANOQUE, Ontario — The little kid with the brush-cut blond hair and the endearing smile strolled through the door of the restaurant here on King Street. His hockey team had just lost to the local Gan boys, a season-ending defeat in the provincial playoffs. But everyone, especially the scouts from Boston, was gushing about the 13-year-old sprite from way up north in Parry Sound.
A few years later, the same kid would be the talk of all the NHL, bringing fans across North America to their feet on nearly every shift. No one had ever seen the likes of Bobby Orr. And on this night, March 31, 1961, the hometown players from this picture-postcard hamlet along Thousand Islands rose and applauded as Orr, all 112 pounds of him, entered the Boston Cafe.
The Gan boys knew something. They had no idea exactly what would unfold in the years ahead, but it was obvious the kid with magic in his stick would be skating off to places far beyond small-town Canada.
“Oh, we all stood up,” said the Gananoque captain, Doug Higgins, recalling recently how his team gathered to celebrate with Cherry Cokes and snacks after the big win. “We stood up for him. It had been a battle.”
“This little bugger had the puck most of the time on us,” recalled Rick Eaton, one of Gananoque’s defensemen and alternate captains, who that night sat adjacent to Orr in a cafe booth. “So young, just a little guy, eh? You knew he was going to rise up the ladder, but no one could know he was going to get to where he did.”
In the moment, no one knew. Not even members of Bruins management, who until that night, Good Friday in 1961, had never seen Orr play, never heard of him. But that evening in the town’s frigid and dilapidated community rink would turn out to be the renaissance of a moribund Bruins franchise, the moment in time that ultimately gave birth to Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins, the crazed, golden era of Boston hockey.
“We were there to scout Eaton and Higgins,” said the legendary Milt Schmidt, recalling late last year, shortly before he died, the memorable day. “We split up in the rink and decided we would meet up at one end when the game was over. Well, to make a long story short, we all came out of that game with the same knowledge: Forget Eaton and Higgins, we’ll take that Orr kid!”
That story, retold for more than a half-century throughout Gananoque and Canada, where hockey lore is national treasure, too easily ignores a few things about Eaton and Higgins. Not the least of which is the fact that both players, each now 70, were scouted by several NHL teams and ultimately signed with the Bruins.
“They were the boys,” a reverential Orr referred to Eaton and Higgins recently. “The Bruins weren’t there to see me. They didn’t know me or anyone from Parry Sound. They were there to see the two boys, Eaton and Higgins.”
A lingering sting
Higgins, in fact, initially signed with the powerful Montreal Canadiens, only to be forced to tear up the deal and sign instead with Boston because NHL rules of the day dictated the Bruins had first rights on all players from Gananoque, a team Boston sponsored through small donations to community hockey.
“I remember coming home from school one day and my father said, ‘Sit down, Dougie, your knees are going to buckle,’ ” said Higgins, recalling the initial contact with the Habs. “I said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ I thought maybe my mom was sick. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The Canadiens called and they want to talk to you tomorrow night.’ Wow, I mean, my dream team, right?”
Though Eaton and Higgins never played in the NHL, both men remain fiercely proud of their hockey careers, particularly those early years, and especially that season (1960-61) when they helped steer Gananoque to the town’s first Ontario Minor Hockey Association title.
The shorthand retelling of the Orr story has caused them varying degrees of heartache through the years.
“I remember reading once, I think in a book, ‘No one remembers Eaton and Higgins,’ ” Higgins recalled, as he steered his 30-foot motorboat out of Gananoque’s harbor. His shrug made clear the sting of a lingering, dismissive narrative.
Just a few years ago, a writer phoned Eaton seeking comment about his connection to the Orr-coming-of-age story. It was clear, he said, that the writer planned to portray him as a foil. He hung up.
Eaton has lived here in a town of some 5,000 year-round residents for all of his 70 years. For decades, he has endured the small-town chatter, the narrative that Orr came to town one night, stole the spotlight, and he and Higgins fell off of life’s scoresheet.
“I feel like that guy that served up the ball to Hank Aaron,” said Eaton, enjoying a beer with a visitor one recent afternoon at the Gananoque Inn at the edge of the St. Lawrence River. “I took a lot of flak for that over the years, and not a lot of nice flak.”
Later, Eaton added, “Most of my life, I was getting, ‘Well, what happened to you? You couldn’t do what Bobby Orr could do.’ That kind of stuff, always. It was hard on me. It bothered me. I am OK with it now, but for a long time, I wasn’t.”
Over a half-century later, the ever-humble Orr offered, “That’s terrible.’’ The two boys, he offered once more, were players.
Beating out the Canadiens
The night of the March 31 game, Schmidt and a handful of Boston brass, including club owner Weston Adams, were among 450 people pressed cheek to jowl inside the Wellington Street Arena. It was the second and final match of a two-game, total-goals series.
A week earlier, Gananoque made the 300-mile trip north and carved out a 5-2 win at Parry Sound. The winner of the Gan-PS series next would take on Goderich (hometown of late Bruin Gary Doak) for the provincial title.
“Bucko McDonald was the Parry Sound coach,” recalled Schmidt. “Bucko worked for Detroit, so everyone figured Bobby would end up in Detroit. But he didn’t get him, did he?”
Schmidt, even at age 98, reveled in the fact that Boston beat out McDonald, the Red Wings, and everyone else in the NHL to secure Orr’s rights. It was the persistent work of Boston scout Wren Blair, who remained in constant contact with Orr’s parents in Parry Sound. They ultimately persuaded Orr to sign over his playing rights to Boston as a 14-year-old.
“Heck, Wren took a room in the Brunswick Hotel until he could convince my mother I could sign!” recalled Orr.
Ultimately, Orr signed a contract that Blair wrote in longhand on Brunswick stationery. Orr’s mother worked in the hotel coffee shop.
In the fall of 1966, he made his NHL debut with Boston.
“You had to really hustle in those days,” said Schmidt. “Is there anyone else associated with hockey around here? Robert Gordon Orr owns the place!”
Also in the Wellington Street stands, scouting for the Canadiens, was 27-year-old Scotty Bowman. Destined to become perhaps the greatest coach in NHL history, Bowman too was bowled over by Orr’s talent.
Bowman visited the Orr home in Parry Sound days later, inquired about the phenom’s plans, but history has it that Doug and Arva Orr said they wanted their boy to keep his head in his schoolbooks. Perhaps they could talk another time, Bowman was told. A fine idea until the artful though forceful Blair kept visiting the Orr home on Great North Road.
“If Montreal had been a little more aggressive, Bobby probably would have signed with Montreal,” noted Higgins. “That means they would have had [Larry] Robinson, [Guy] Lapointe, [Serge] Savard, and Orr . . . and everyone else might as well stay home.”
About 20 minutes into Game 2 of the provincial bantam semifinals, Parry Sound had a 2-0 lead, trimming Gananoque’s overall lead to a single goal. By the end of 40 minutes, it was deadlocked, 3-3, Eaton with a goal and Higgins with a pair of assists. Orr’s team again was down by three goals. In the third period, Orr picked up 2 points, including the final goal in regulation at 17:03, to force a 10-minute overtime.
Gananoque’s Bobby Dickson, who later would play briefly on Orr’s team in Oshawa, banged home the only OT goal, bolting down the wing with a feed from the crafty Higgins.
Glen Grue, these days a realtor in nearby Kingston, was the goalie who preserved the win, stoning Orr on a breakaway halfway through OT. Legend has it that Gan manager Eddie Deans fainted in the stands, falling and cutting his head, when Grue made the game-saving stop on the little wizard who wore No. 2 for Parry Sound.
“Odds were that I wasn’t going to stop it,” said Grue, who later that night was among those who joined Orr at the cafe table. “I think Eddie figured, ‘Oh, no, it’s over!’ and passed out. But I made the stop.”
Grue recalled that Orr was, by far, the best player on the ice that night. All the Gananoque players were aware of the scouts, particularly those from Boston, being at the game, he recalled. Like Eaton and Higgins, he was getting feelers from scouts. He had the NHL dream.
“Then they saw Bobby Orr and forgot all about us,” Grue said, laughing. “And rightfully so. He was special, really special. And just a really good kid. I know all of us felt that. You felt close to him immediately — even though we were on the other team and he was trying to kill us.”
Following the win over Parry Sound, Gananoque went on to edge Goderich, 3-2, in the championship series, clinching it in Game 5 at a neutral rink in Toronto.
With the first provincial win in town history, the proud sons of Bernie Amo, the town’s beloved Esso Oil dealer who sponsored the team, arrived back in town to a heroes’ welcome at approximately 1:30 on a Sunday morn. The fire engine siren blared. The sleepy little town partied with gusto that would be the envy of Montreal.
“They brought us up to the hotel up on the corner and put us out on the balcony; you’d think we won the Stanley Cup,” recalled Higgins, who made a brief speech at the Provincial Hotel. “We gave a little talk and thanked everybody. This older lady come out in her gown and said, ‘Has the whole town gone crazy?’ ”
The town rink and the youth teams that called it home shaped and centered the Gananoque community. There was one movie theater in town, but for the most part, the hub of entertainment was the oversized Quonset hut arena with its steel roof, erected along Wellington Street in 1928.
“It’s the place I first said hello to the woman who became my wife,” recalled Ray Stevenson, a left winger on the ’61 bantam champs. “We met there during public skating.”’
Absent central heating, the place was always cold. It also lacked a Zamboni. To make new ice, kids were often summoned from the snack bar and stands to scrape and broom the surface. Then it was the charge of the rink’s two-man ice crew, Stan “Porky” Young and William “Shorty” Westcombe, to fill up a pair of 45-gallon drums with hot water and pull them by hand along the ice. Hot water streamed out of the barrel and onto a mop-like attachment.
According to town historian John Nalon, Porky and Shorty were still on the job the night Orr came to town.
“Now this was before my time,” recalled Higgins, “but I’m told that, originally, the bench doors opened outward, toward the ice surface. So if the coach saw an opposing forward come flying down near the bench, he’d yell, ‘OK, change!’ The door would fly open and the winger lugging the puck would get flattened. Fixed it after the first year.”
Rick Small was there the night the 13-year-old Orr played in the old barn. His father, Harold “Bomber” Small, coached the Gan squad. His older brother, Pete, was an alternate captain along with Eaton. The place was so packed that Small scampered to a perch above the clock at one end of the rink and looped an arm into the rafters to remain secure.
“I was 8 years old at the time,” recalled Small, now 64, “and Bobby looked about my size. He was actually a peewee, playing up a level to bantam. I just remember that he wore No. 2, and because he was so small, his sweater hung really low on him. And it seemed he never left the ice.”
Eaton remained in hockey a few more years, and in fact played briefly in Oshawa, collecting four assists, Orr’s first season there in 1962-63. More than a half-century later, he can’t recall whether he ever partnered with Orr in Oshawa. Over the next few seasons, he played for amateur squads in Kingston, Chatham, and finally Brockville.
“So I was well on my way to being a bum,” said Eaton, who went on to work some 40 years on the floor of a Gananoque company, Medtronics. “I knew there wasn’t a future for me in the game.”
He found other sports to love, and still plays squash through fall and winter, and tennis in spring and summer, typically on the courts adjacent to the Lou Jeffries Recreation Center, which also houses the town’s “new” rink that opened in 1972.
The old Wellington Street arena, where Orr played, was condemned and torn down in 1971, snow and rain often filtering in from widening gaps in the metal roof after 43 years in service.
“The sport I truly loved?” said Eaton, delighted that his daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law soon will move back to Gananoque after years in remote Yellowknife, far north of Edmonton. “I ran sled dogs. Oh, man, I did it for years until the houses built up around us. There just wasn’t room on the trail.”
If he had his druthers, said Eaton, he would choose a spot alongside the Iditarod above a free ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. He rarely watches hockey anymore.
Higgins also played just a few more years after signing with Boston, a deal that included the Bruins buying a new car for his parents. He still has fond memories of his father Mike spraying water on a backyard rink, the freezing spray forming an icicle on his nose. Next-door neighbor and best pal Fred O’Donnell, a Bruins winger in the mid-1970s, often played on the same rink.
Prior to signing with Boston, Higgins said, he was offered scholarships to Cornell and UNH. He ultimately played some Junior B hockey, then went on to play at Algonquin College in Ottawa, one of Canada’s top research colleges. He married a girl from Gananoque and has lived for decades some three hours away in Petewawa, Ontario, working for the federal government in the science of firefighting.
“I might have been homesick at age 14,” said Higgins, pondering why he didn’t remain on the pro hockey track. “And my parents were pushing education.”
For the most part, said Higgins, he has treated the Orr chapter in his life as a positive. It was often an asset on the job, especially as a conversation starter with clients.
Hockey fans of a certain age in Canada readily connect the names Eaton and Higgins to Orr when the subject is hockey. And in Canada, the subject is always hockey, and oftentimes Orr.
“From my standpoint, it is a pain in the butt in one way, that it still comes up all the time,” said Higgins. “But, hey, if they bring up my name with the greatest hockey player ever born, I think I have to be happy about that.
“Not only that, but let’s not forget, we beat him that night.”’