Mikhail Baryshnikov, in his prime, could fly. He could defy gravity and soar, twisting and turning in mid-air in spectacular ways. He was Mary Martin as Peter Pan, exhibiting all her exuberance and exhilaration about being able to fly, but without the cables.
Bobby Orr, in his prime, was as athletic as Gene Kelly, as inventive as Fred Astaire and could soar with as much superhuman strength and beauty as Baryshnikov. But unlike these other ubermortals, Orr did them one better — he danced on ice. But no figure skater was he. He never executed a triple Lutz to the pluck of a classical violin or jazz guitar; what Orr did was blast a puck into a goal while executing a beautifully grotesque arabesque to avoid colliding with someone like Gordie Howe.
It was as if Orr’s every move on ice was choreographed by Agnes De Mille and Muhammad Ali. Orr would speed across the ice as fast as Bob Hayes or the Flash, all the while protecting the puck like a Canadian Pit Bull, inevitably smashing the hard rubber into the goal with a sleight of hand that would impress Houdini.
I know this because I saw Orr do this. In person. Once. At the first hockey game I ever attended. It was against the Los Angeles Kings here in L.A. on Thursday, March 11, 1971. The Kings were terrible that year. Orr and the Boston Bruins were terrific — they just missed repeating as Stanley Cup champions that year. Orr himself, at age 23, had one of his best years ever. I was 19.
Watching Orr was 60 minutes of pure bliss. Orr was so good that night that I truly felt that he could have beaten the Kings singlehandedly. He almost did. He assisted in the scoring of three goals that night and scored a fourth one himself in Boston’s 7-2 rout of the Kings.
I was so impressed, so awestruck, that it was more than two decades later before I attended my second hockey game. I figured, quite honestly, what was the point? I had already seen the hockey player who, it seemed to me, was the best who ever played the game.
Another thing that made Orr so remarkable was that his primary responsibility on his team was defense. Yet he was one of the best offensive players the game has ever seen.
When Orr was 13 years old, in 1961, Joseph Heller published his now-classic comic novel “Catch-22.”
I mention it because it’s the only book I’ve ever read with a character named Orr in it. Prognosticatively, Orr is a pivotal character in the book as he is the only character in the novel who knows how to solve the paradox of Catch-22, which, or course, is the best catch that there has even been.
I won’t spoil for you what happens to Heller’s Orr, but let’s have a little fun by applying Heller’s Catch-22 (as written by Heller) to Bobby Orr (in some additions written by me):
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that being a defenseman and not scoring a lot of goals was the process of a rational mind. Since Orr went out of his way to score a lot of goals despite being a defenseman, it could be argued that Orr was crazy and could be pulled out of any game. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to play more games. Orr would be crazy to try and score lots of goals and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to try and score more goals. If he scored them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Andrew Cohen, writing last fall in The Atlantic, said this about Bobby Orr: “He was so much better than the other players around him, and played with such artistic majesty, that he could take your breath away.”
Exactly. And what made Orr’s art so majestic was the result of two other characteristics: Bobby was nimble and Bobby was quick.
And like Orr’s Bruins, who won two Stanley Cup championships in three years in the early 1970s, the once hapless Kings of almost half a century ago are on the verge of duplicating that feat.
While neither the Kings nor their opponents in their quest for the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers, have another Bobby Orr, the Kings do have someone who reminds me of Orr’s nimbleness and quickness. He also has Orr’s passion for the game and, like Orr, is a risk-taker.
He’s Jonathan Quick, and, of all things, he’s the Kings’ goalie.
Quick’s brilliance got me to watch the Kings two years ago, and he’s been at it again during this playoff season.
When I was a kid, watching hockey on TV was a joke. Trying to follow the game on our small family black and white TV was nearly impossible.
But today, on our big 55-inch rectangle, in sharp, colorful images, hockey’s a blast to watch on TV.
The Kings’ popularity here in L.A. should be greater, given the excellence of the team. If you want to see some really exciting TV today, tune in to the Kings-Rangers game this afternoon. It’s on NBC and starts at 5 p.m. here in L.A. (8 p.m. ET).
Last year Orr, now 66, penned his autobiography, “My Story.” He is still very much involved in hockey, as the co-owner of an agency representing hockey players.
My guess is that Orr will be watching the Kings and Rangers tonight. Of winning the Stanley Cup, Orr wrote in “My Story”: “It’s difficult to put on paper what it feels like at the moment you suddenly realize that you did just win it. I can tell you that it was a mixture of excitement and relief, and winning it the first time only made me want to repeat the experience again and again. Regardless of your profession, when you get to the top of your chosen field, however you measure that, it is a thrill you’ll never forget. In the world of hockey, the top of the mountain was, and always will be, a Stanley Cup Championship.”
My all-time favorite story about Orr is this one, about how one can never take the boy out of the man. It was told by the wonderful writer about sports, Frank Deford, in his 2012 memoir “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.”
As it happened, Deford was in Boston at a dinner honoring Boston Celtics basketball great Larry Bird. Orr attended the dinner as well, and sat next to Deford.
When Bird got up to speak, he stared talking about what it was like to play in Boston Garden, and about how, before every game, he would look up at all the championship banners hanging from the ceiling. And, Larry said, he always focused on one. There was a pause. “Number four,” he said. Everybody is trying to remember what great retired Celtic was number four, when Bird paused, perfectly … then added, “Bobby Orr.”
Even before he said the name, Orr caught on. His face had frozen in shock. The two players had hardly met, and Bird had never told anyone this before. And when he pronounced the name and started talking about how he idolized Orr, this guy from a different sport, Bobby’s hand reached over on the table, and he almost involuntarily grabbed mine, stunned, his fingers tightening over the back of my hand. “Oh my God, Frank,” he whispered. “Oh my God.”