Monday, January 2, 2012

20 Trends That Shaped Modern Hockey: Bobby Orr's Defensive Revolution

(the term "modern" is used loosely as this book was published in 1987.)

Read this excerpt from an old NHL publication (Hockey: 20 Years; the NHL since 1967 by Dan Diamond and Lou Stubbs, an official publication of the NHL. 1987: Doubleday Canada Limited, Toronto, Ontario; Doubleday & Company Inc., Garden City, New York. pp. 30-31 below). We take for granted all the wonderful things Bobby Orr did for the game of hockey and, as a Bruins fan, I especially take it for granted.  Anyway, this is a pretty simple article but I think you will enjoy it. Although the publication date indicates that it is not modern in terms of chronology, Orr's excellence is timeless, and that is plainly but nicely talked about here.

It is rare in hockey for one player to be able to revolutionize the way an aspect of the game is played, Rocket Richard, Gordie How and Wayne Gretzky are superstar players, but their abilities are so exceptional that they don't lend themselves to easy imitation. Bobby Orr's achievements in the NHL and skills as a player equal those of the game's other great stars, but because he played defense, his success as a puck carrier and scorer defined a new role for defensemen. It is almost as if he invented a new "offensive defenseman's" position that has, in only 20 years, become an accepted and required component on any good hockey team.

Orr also revolutionized owner-player relations by insisting that his first contract with the Boston Bruins be negotiated by his agent Alan Eagleson. Prior to Orr's arrival in the NHL after a superb career as a junior in Oshawa, Ontario, promising young hockey players signed what was called a "C-form" which committed the player's professional hockey services to one NHL franchise. Without the ability to entertain offers from other clubs and without union protection, a player who wanted to play hockey was usually forced to take what was offered to him by the club that owned his rights. Orr was so obviously a future star that Boston management accommodated his request and negotiated through Eagleson. Orr received a contract far larger than any other rookie pact signed up to that time. This success added to Eagleson's standing in the hockey community and contributed to the successful organization of the NHL Players' Association.

On the ice, Orr's great speed and puckhandling skills enabled him to play defense as it had never been played before. While the league had seen rearguards like Eddie Short, Red Kelly and Doug Harvey make occasional dashes into the offensive zone, none of them dominated the game like Orr, who continually rushed the puck up ice, defending by attacking the opponent's goal. Orr took the chance of being caught out of position on his end-to-end rushes, but his great speed usually enabled him to recover. In his 2nd season, the NHL expansion year of 1967-68, he emerged as a scorer with 21 goals, bettering a single-season record for NHL defensemen that had stood since Flash Hollet scored 20 goals for Detroit in 1944-45. This performance was rewarded with the first of 8 consecutive Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman.

Orr accomplished something unheard of for defensemen in the NHL when he won the scoring title in 1969-70 and 1974-75. In 1970-71 he had 102 assists, which alone would have been enough to win the scoring championship in most seasons. He lifted the goal scoring record for defensemen to 46, where it remained for 11 seasons until Paul Coffey scored 48 goals for Edmonton in 1985-86. He surpassed the 100-point plateau in 6 consecutive seasons and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player for 3 straight years.

The emergence of Bobby Orr as a superstar occurred at an opportune time for the NHL, as 2 of the league's greatest players, Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau, had just announced their retirements. The NHL lost another top attraction when Bobby Hull left to play in the WHA the following season. Orr, along with Phil Esposito and the early 1970s teams that came to be known as the "Big Bad Bruins," packed arenas around the league. (side note: are the Bruins not doing that in this current season as well? yes!). In May of 1970, the Bruins ended a 29-year drought, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1941. While Boston was an easy winner over St. Louis in the 1970 final, Orr's Cup-winning overtime goal in game four has become a vivid image of the arrival of the Bruins as one of the NHL's best teams. Film and photos of this important goal show Orr hurtling horizontally through the air, with an expression of joy on his face. These images were widely used to promote the NHL and the game of hockey in the early 1970s.

Orr and the Bruins became hockey's media darlings, and the best-known NHLers in the United States. Orr's famous #4 jersey became the first choice on playground rinks wherever hockey was played.

The Bruins paid a return visit to the Stanley Cup final in 1971-72, as Orr again scored the Cup-winning goal, ending a rugged 6-game series with the New York Rangers.

Orr's presence on the ice for the Bruins was so central to their attack that Philadelphia Flyers' coach Fred Shero devised a special strategy designed to overwork the Bruins star in the 1973-74 final. Rather than follow the conventional wisdom of trying ot keep the puck away from Orr, Shero's Flyers were instructed to repeatedly dump the puck into Orr's defensive area, and then skate in to bump and challenge him before he could wheel out and start an offensive rush. This strategy proved effective as the Flyers' heavy checking and Orr's customary 40 minutes of ice time combined to fatigue the Bruins star by the end of the playoffs. In 1973-74 the Flyers became the first expansion team to capture the Stanley Cup, winning the deciding game 1-0.

Orr's career was interrupted and finally ended by serious knee injuries. After 1975, when he had a fourth operation on his left knee, Orr appeared in only 36 NHL games spread out over 4 seasons. The Bruins, realizing that it was unlikely that he would be able to play again, allowed him to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks for the 1976-77 season. His last grand performance was during the Canada Cup international tournament in 1976 when he was named MVP of the tournament, which was won by Team Canada. After 5th and 6th operations, Orr rested for the entire 1977-78 season in the hope that his damaged knee would heal. He returned to play on 6 games in 1978-79, announcing his retirement in November, 1978. He became the youngest member of the Hockey Hall of Fame when he was inducted in September of the following year.

Defensive play in the NHL was irrevocably changed by Orr. Single-handedly, he made the position a glamorous one; that of the on-ice general or quarterback who dictates the pace and nature of his team's attack. Some of the strongest-skating and most creative young hockey players at the junior, collegiate, and youth league levels began to gravitate to defense. Brad Park and Denis Potvin continued the Orr-style game in the NHL, dazzling fans with their skating skills. In the more recent seasons, Ray Bourque, Doug Wilson and Paul Coffey have demonstrated that a defenseman playing a vital role in his team's attack is a permanent feature of modern NHL play. ⋄

I typed up another paragraph from a later part of the book that elaborates on Orr's role in contract negotiations, the NHLPA, and a huge change in player salaries. From page 38 ("20 Trends that Shaped Modern Hockey: Alan Eagleson and the NHL Players' Association"):

Through Bobby Orr, Eagleson won the the right for an agent to negotiate on behalf of his client with an NHL club. Hap Emms, the general manager of the Bruins, had offered Orr a $5,000 bonus and a rookie contract calling for $8,000 in salary in his first season. This offer was later upped to $10,500. Eagleson, initially, excluded from the contract discussions, counseled Orr to hold firm to demands for a much higher salary. Eventually, Eagleson was allowed to negotiate directly, winning a 2-year deal for Orr that was said to be worth $75,000.

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