Orr v. Gretzky: A Neutral Moderator Steps In

SORRY, NO. 99, BUT NO. 4 IS STILL NO. 1 Chicago Tribune April 25, 1999 Sunday, CHICAGOLAND FINAL EDITION

April 25, 1999

I beg to differ.

The greatest hockey player of all time did not retire last Sunday.

He was forced from the National Hockey League by knee injuries 20 years ago.

Bobby Orr, you see, was in a league by himself.

He may not have carried the game in a public-relations and ambassadorial capacity, as Gretzky did for two decades, but Orr revolutionized forever the way defensemen played it. He was a fourth forward and a defenseman at the same time, equally brilliant near either goal.

Orr played only nine seasons before his body broke down. He hobbled the last four years of his career, including the two played in Chicago, where no one was fortunate to see what those of us in Boston did from 1967 through 1975. He left the game at age 30.

I had not watched Orr for 25 years and had, until last week, vainly tried to explain how good he was to my 10-year-old son and his Squirt hockey teammates. Then, on a trip to Boston's Fleet Center to watch a figure skating show, I came across the explanation I had been seeking.

It was all in "The Best of Bobby Orr" video.

There he is, the Orr who was the first defenseman to be as great an offensive threat as any forward, the Orr who made you long for penalties to open the ice surface. Then Orr would control the puck until he tired of it, skating circles around hopelessly overmatched opponents, staging end-to-end rushes with grace and balance, stunning speed and change-of-pace, doing pirouettes most figure skaters would envy.

When Orr came into the NHL in 1966, the records for goals, assists and points by a defenseman were 20, 46 and 59, respectively. For six seasons from 1969-70 through 1974-75, Orr averaged 36 goals, 87 assists and 123 points. His highs in each category were 46 goals, 102 assists and 139 points. He twice won the league's scoring title.

His impressive defensive skills largely went unnoticed, but Orr won the Norris Trophy as the league's top NHL defenseman eight straight years. He won two Stanley Cups in Boston--the World Hockey Association lured three of the Bruins' top players after the second--and three straight MVP awards. In his memoir, legendary Montreal center Jean Beliveau devoted an entire chapter to Orr because of his impact on how the game was played.

It was a figure-skating champion who last year told a story that said it all about Orr.

Scott Hamilton had been playing golf with Rod Gilbert, the All-Star forward for the New York Rangers, when Gilbert recalled a game against the Bruins.

The Rangers had a power play, and Orr took the puck behind the Boston net and stood there with it as Gilbert positioned himself in front of the net.

"Come on, Bobby, bring it out," Gilbert said.

"You come get it," Orr teased.

"I'm not going to do that. You'll just go the other way," Gilbert said.

"I'm not moving. Come get it," Orr said.

"For God sakes, it's my power play," Gilbert pleaded. "Don't make me look bad."

Orr probably did, just the way he made every opponent seem hapless in leading the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. In the first, he scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime against St. Louis, then was upended and sent flying horizontally in a moment that became a photographic icon of Boston sports history.

We lost dozens more of those moments, because Orr's career was too short. Arguing whether he or Gretzky was the greater player is like arguing whether Sandy Koufax or Warren Spahn was the better pitcher.

For four years Koufax was unhittable, putting up the numbers 25-5, 19-5, 26-8 and 27-9 with earned-run averages between 1.73 and 2.04 and season strikeout totals that reached 382. Spahn pitched 20 full seasons and won 20 games in 13 of them, the last when he was 23-7 at age 42. He won 363 games to Koufax's 165.

What Gretzky won, beyond the Stanley Cups and the scoring titles and MVP trophies, was the respect of nearly everyone he encountered--because he was one of the few great athletes who had earned that respect by giving it.

Never was that more clear than at the 1998 Winter Olympics, when Gretzky hung around to walk in the Closing Ceremonies after his Canadian team had lost. It was his way of saying how grateful he was to have been in the Olympics, even though it was the Olympics that should have been grateful for Gretzky's presence.

Orr didn't have a nickname that began with "Great." Hockey of his pre-cable TV era received little or no national exposure. Gretzky had longevity and advantages in public exposure that do not diminish his deservedly legendary status. Ironically, his talents were more subtle than Orr's obvious genius.

It is too bad Orr never had the chance to play in the Olympics, on the wider, longer ice surface. He might have carried the puck forever, giving it up long enough to score a goal or assist on one, reminding everyone why hockey is the most beautiful of team sports when it is played the way Orr and Gretzky played.

Bobby Orr wore the poetically correct No. 4, making his name and number a perfect rhyme. In the chapter and verse of professional hockey, he is No. 1.

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