"He's the perfect hockey player."
Those are the words of Boston coach/GM Harry Sinden, who had the best look at Orr on a nightly basis and insists Orr is the best player ever because he blended extraordinary talent and a brand of toughness that no one else has ever possessed.
"(Gordie) Howe could do everything, but not at top speed. (Bobby) Hull went at top speed but couldn't do everything. The physical aspect is absent from (Wayne) Gretzky's game. Orr would do everything, and do it at top speed."
To make matters even more interesting, Orr was the sport's most dominant player, arguably its perfect player, and he did from the blue line. By doing so Orr revolutionized the game of hockey. His slick passing and playmaking and his end to end rushes were unheard of by a defenseman. Only the very very best forwards would try a solo effort. Orr did it seemingly effortlessly, and so convincingly, therefore forever changing the hockey landscape.
Perhaps the great writer Jack Falla sums it up best:
“Orr had broken scoring records by such huge margins and played with such creativity and abandon as to alter a half century of tactical hockey orthodoxy about the proper role of a defenseman.”
Before Bobby Orr defensemen were counted on primarily for defensive purposes. They would rarely join a rush, never mind lead one. They stayed in front of the net and helped clear the puck out of the defensive zone. Their main job offensively was to get the puck out of their end and create a quick transition game. The best players would almost always be forwards.
But the kid from Parry Sound, Ontario played like a forward, while still delivering sound defense. His display of end to end rushes and his mastery on the point of the power play changed the way offense was generated, and how defenses would cover them. He was simply the most skilled player the NHL has ever seen, even more so than Wayne Gretzky or even Mario Lemieux, both of whom benefit from the game revolutionized by Orr.
Orr won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1967. He would finished second in scoring among defenseman with 13 goals and 41 points, astounding numbers in those days. Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy that year, but was quoted after being named the winner - "I might as well enjoy it (Norris Trophy) now, because I expect it's going to belong to Bobby Orr from now on." He would be proven correct.
By 1969 Orr set an NHL record for defensemen scoring with 64 points including 21 goals. The following season he would nearly double that point total to 120 points based on 33 goals and 87 assists, becoming the first defenseman to score 100 points in a season, and the first (and only) to lead the league in scoring! In three years Orr obliterated scoring records not only for defensemen, but for all players.
The 1970-71 season was Orr's best statistically, as he piled in an amazing 139 points based on 37 goals and 102 assists. No player had ever scored 100 assists in one season before, and only two have since (Gretzky and Lemieux). Remember, this was all before Wayne Gretzky's offensive rewriting of the record books. These numbers were even more mind-boggling than Gretzky's considering Orr was a defenseman, and the era he played in.
1974-75 would rival the 1970-71 season as Orr was on a mission to become the first defenseman to score 50 goals. He came up just short, finishing with 46, but added 89 helpers for 135 points. No defenseman has ever scored 50 goals since, although Paul Coffey bettered Orr's total by 2.
All this time Orr was bothered by knee surgeries. However he managed to play a full schedule for the most part. During his prime he played 75-80 games, with the 1972-73 season being the lone exception. He played in only 63 that year, yet still managed 101 points.
He would end up winning the Norris Trophy as best defenseman for 8 consecutive years. In 1970 he became the first player in history to win down four individual trophies in one season. He won the Norris, Art Ross (Top scorer), Hart (MVP) and Conn Smythe (MVP in playoffs). He ended up with 3 Harts and 2 Smythe Trophies, as well as two Stanley Cup rings.
Speaking of Stanley Cups, Orr may have scored the most famous playoff goal in hockey history. Orr's overtime goal that won the final game of the playoffs and brought the Cup back to Beantown for the first time in 29 years. Just 40 seconds into overtime of game four, Orr took a centering pass from Derek Sanderson right in the slot and shot it past a sprawling St. Louis Blues goaltender, Glenn Hall. As soon as the puck hit the back of the net, Blues defenseman Noel Picard would hook Orr's skate with his stick, sending Orr flying through the air. The picture of Orr celebrating the winning goal in mid-flight will forever be etched in the minds of hockey fans all around the world.
Orr finished his career with 270 goals and 915 points in 657 games, absolutely mind boggling numbers for a defenseman. He remains as the only defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring. He held 12 individual records at the time of his retirement. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979. Perhaps the greatest accolade given to Orr was the by the fans. The Boston Globe once conducted a poll of New Englanders to determine who was the greatest athlete in Boston history. It was not Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell or Larry Bird. The winner was Number Four, Bobby Orr.
Often overlooked is Orr's physical attributes. He was a ferocious body checker and an astute shot blocker. People would often tell Bobby not to sacrifice his body, because his knees couldn't handle the punishment, and he was good enough to play without that abuse. Bobby would simply reply "It's the only way I know how to play."
Orr's brilliant career was shortened by bad knees. Had he been able to continue for a few more years, maybe there would be no question as to who is the greatest of all time.
In January 1998, The Hockey News named Orr the second greatest player of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky. He would finish just 13 polling points out of first, and 13 points ahead of third place Gordie Howe. I think that proves the three stars from different eras are on a level all on their own.
Howe dominated the way hockey was always played, up and down the wing, bash and crash and physically intimidate. Gretzky would dominate the all offense era of fast skating and high scoring. Some how the game had changed between the Howe and Gretzky eras. Bobby Orr was largely instrumental in the revolutionization of hockey. One can only imagine how much more he would have altered the game had he been fortunate enough to stay healthy.