New book might answer Orr vs. Gretzky debate

Updated: December 13, 2006, 12:54 PM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

It remains hockey's greatest poem. Succinct, romantic, lyrical and timeless.

Number Four.
Bobby Orr.

If you ever wondered why some people believe Bobby Orr, and not Wayne Gretzky, is the greatest NHL player of all time, read the new book titled, "Searching for Bobby Orr." It's on stands now and the author is Stephen Brunt.

SHOT OF THE WEEK
The shot of the week is back! Every week, we will present an NHL photo and I'll provide a caption. E-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown/state) and the next week we will use the best ones and provide a new photo.

LAST WEEK:
Two minutes: Narcolepsy. (AP Photo)

Your submissions:
When an angry Phaneuf attacks, they always tell you to get into the fetal position and play dead.
-- Andrew Ross, Sault Ste Marie

"Brad, time to wake up!"
"C'mon mom, five more minutes!"
-- Dan, Smithtown, N.Y.

"Can't sleep, clowns will eat me. Can't sleep, clowns will eat me!"
-- Jim Tinnick

"Note to self: The cannonball only works when the pond is NOT frozen."
-- Jeff Allison

Brad Richardson tossed political correctness aside this Halloween when he decided to be Eric Lindros.
-- Russell Siminoff, Parsippany, N.J.

"Guys, check it out, my impression of Claude Lemieux vs. Darren McCarty in '97."
-- Ryan Hicks, Troy, Mich.

"I wonder if Buccigrosswill spoon with me."
-- Adam Felenstein, Los Angeles

THIS WEEK:

NHL Linesman Jay Sharrers giving birth to fraternal twins. (AP Photo)

What clearly separates Orr from Gretzky is his on-ice toughness. He fought, sometimes savagely, with a barroom Irish temper. If Gretzky was ABBA, Orr was The Clash. That's not necessarily an endorsement. It's just the way it is.

Every person who plays or even loves hockey is an emotional person. That is the common denominator of the hockey culture. Orr's emotion is much like that of another Boston legend, Larry Bird.

The cover sets the entire tone of the book. It is Orr, probably from his rookie season, holding his wooden Northland stick with gloves that almost go to his elbows. He is helmetless, freshly shorn, pimpled, 18, the highest-paid player in the game. He is looking off into the unknown. Small-town boy in a big city. The leading man behind the greatest transformation the sport will ever see. It is incomprehensible that Robert Gordon Orr will turn 60 in 15 months.

I see an Orr movie coming, and I see Matt Damon playing Orr.

"Searching for Bobby Orr" is a textbook of NHL history that does what any good read should: raise more questions about the league's most poetic player.

Question from John Buccigross: Why did you write the book?

Answer from Stephen Brunt: For a bunch of reasons. Obviously, it's a subjective, personal opinion, but I think Orr was the greatest player who ever lived, or at least the greatest of my lifetime. I didn't see [Maurice] Richard in the '50s or [Gordie] Howe then. To me, there are only two players in the discussion -- Orr and Gretzky.

They're the two great, original talents the sport has produced, where there's no true precedent and no one could really duplicate the way they played after they were gone. Writing about Orr was an opportunity to explore the whole idea of genius, in sports and in general. I was also very interested in the time during which Orr emerged. It was a pretty significant era for the NHL [leading up to the first great expansion], for pro sports in general, with the emergence of the first unions and player agents, and for Canada, which really began to come of age in the country's centennial year, 1967.

I wanted to write a book in which I could put Orr into that context. And to me, the heart of the story was the most important relationship in the history of hockey, and one of the most important in the history of professional sports -- Orr and Al Eagleson. There was a classical element to the story, with the betrayer figure and with Orr's "fatal" physical flaw, his bad knee. There's a play or a novel in there somewhere, though I'm not the guy to write it. Plus, the story hasn't really been told properly before. There hasn't been an Orr bio written for more than 30 years, and it's pretty clear that he's never going to do his own book.

[As the story goes ... Acting as both Orr's agent and executive director of the NHL Players' Association, Eagleson falsely told Orr that the Blackhawks had offered the star a more lucrative offer when his contract with the Bruins ran out in 1976. It was later revealed that it was the Bruins that offered the better deal, which included an 18-percent ownership take in the Bruins organization. Eagleson's reputation was permanently destroyed in the 1990s when he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud an embezzlement.]

Q: Explain the title, "Searching For Bobby Orr."

A: For writers, he has been elusive. He fiercely guarded his privacy, even during his playing days. Where someone like Gretzky is an open book in terms of his family and background, Orr has always closed those doors. Even for guys who played with him and shared the Bruins' locker room, he was a bit of an enigma. So, there's a quest involved. I don't claim to have answered all of the questions, to have "found" him completely. That's why I like the open-ended aspect of the title.

Q: What did you learn about Bobby Orr from writing the book?

A: A tremendous amount about his family, his upbringing, his time in junior hockey and with the Bruins. I also watched hours and hours of Orr on tape, which was a great experience. Anyone who watched hockey back then has a memory of how he played. But it's another thing entirely to go back and see those games and understand just how dominant he was.

Q: How much did Bobby Orr cooperate?

A: My idea was always to write an independent, and in some ways, impressionistic biography. I've been down the "as told to" path with a professional athlete before, and didn't get much out of the experience. Ideally, I would have liked to have written my own book, with access to Orr. But after we met, it was pretty obvious that wasn't going to happen, now or ever. When I made it clear that I was going to write the book in any case, Bobby laid out some ground rules, which I accepted and honored -- I agreed not to approach any members of his immediate family.

Q: What was the biggest challenge during the project?

A: I guess trying to find people who were part of his life 40 and 50 years ago, to try and unlock some of those doors, and to get a feel for what each of those places must have been like at the time -- Parry Sound, Ontario, where he grew up, Oshawa, where he played junior hockey, and Boston in the 1960s. I also wanted to try and get to the origins of the Orr-Eagleson relationship in a fresh way. That required steering away from a lot of what we later came to know, the caricature of Eagleson as a cartoon bad guy, and trying to imagine how he must have appeared then. The main narrative of the book ends with the 1976 Canada Cup, which was the last significant hockey Orr played. He was named the most valuable player in the tournament. I wanted that part of the story to end with him still on top. Then, there's an epilogue that goes into his life after hockey, the Orr-Eagleson split, etc.

Bobby Orr
AP PhotoFew players have been able to skate coast-to-coast like Bobby Orr.
Q: Approximately how many books have you sold and what has been the reaction?

A: The book was No. 1 on The Globe and Mail's bestseller list last week, which is the best reflection of sales in Canada. There are 50,000 copies in print here, which is a pretty significant number in this country. Without tooting my own horn, I'd say the reviews and reaction have been exceptionally positive.

Q: Have you heard from Orr?

A: Not so far.

Q: What hockey book needs to be written?

A: I still think there might be more to be done on Gretzky, warts and all, though, of course, there have been bios written. I'd love to read a real hockey Ball Four. [Phil Esposito's] book was close, but I thought that, in the end, he pulled a lot of his punches. The '80s Edmonton Oilers are ripe for that kind of treatment. And I think the world could use more lyrical writing about the game that's so common around baseball. Ken Dryden's "The Game" is the closest thing to it.

Q: Anything you would like to add about you, the project, Orr, or anything hockey?

A: I think that the whole idea of Orr really strikes a chord for anyone of my generation. I'm 47. Of course, you always think that the greatest times, and the greatest players, were when you were young. But hockey fans especially like to think back to that era, before the world and the sport became so much more complicated. There's something comforting in the nostalgia. But I also think that it's possible to accept our heroes as human beings, flawed like the rest of us, not the one-dimensional image from the front of a hockey card. That's what I was shooting for here, a great hockey player made of flesh and blood, a unique talent who became a star at a very significant moment in the sport's history, and who was one half of a very human drama with Eagleson that on some level we can all understand.

Hey Bucci,

What would you say the approximate percentage of questions that you receive for the mailbag actually get published?

Joey Freeze
Flint, Mich.

0.01 percent. You beat the odds Joey Freeze. GREAT hockey name.


Hey Bucci,

OK, seriously, after being in tears at the end of an amazing ceremony for The Golden Brett, then in tears for an entirely different reason three hours later:

Brett Hull
AP Photo/Tom GannamThis sight brought tears to Blues fans' eyes -- for more than one reason.
--How does Mike Kitchen still have a job?
--How did this entire team not get hyped up after watching such pomp and circumstance, after seeing how one player can affect an entire city for years?
--Why hasn't John Davidson traded away these bored, lazy and coasting vets to ice a team that has something to prove, even if it's amateur hour? What's the worst that can happen, we come in last? Already doing that.
--What does it mean when Larry Pleau did not take part in the Hull ceremony last night?
--Why continue to start Lega-sieve?
--At what point does John Davidson accept accountability for continually breaking his preseason promise (that continues to be played during commercials on the radio during games) of "We will not be out-worked"?
--Is there anything short of a Ben-Stiller-and-Owen-Wilson-finally-coming-out-as-a-couple-level miracle that can help this sorry team?

Disgusted in STL,
TC

I don't know because my sources tell me the players can't stand Kitchen. I think he will be fired soon, maybe while this latest column is up on ESPN.com.

You are talking about losing to Detroit on Brett Hull night. Ceremonies are hard on home teams sometimes, especially when the team is not very good. I'm sure the Blues were watching the Hull highlights and some of those great St. Louis Blues moments and were saying, "Boy, we suck."

The Blues organization has never loved Jason Bacashihua. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a free agent this summer and Blues might offer him a huge deal. He, coupled with Erik Johnson's arrival next fall, would be a major upgrade. Just keep being awful and get another Top 3 pick in next summer's draft.


Hey Bucci,

Just couldn't help but smile along with the Golden Brett last night as his No. 16 was rightfully raised to the (corporate name deleted) Center (yuck!) rafters. Has there ever been another three-year offensive rampage by two players through the NHL like Hull and Oates had in the early '90s? In his speech, he urged the fans of the 'Note to be patient with the new regime of Checketts and Davidson. They would lead the organization in the right direction. As I watched the Wings proceed to drub my once proud franchise, I could only wonder how long it might take until the team was playoff worthy again. The lack of young forwards in the system is discouraging, and the powers that be keep drafting defensemen and goaltenders with their high picks. Any thoughts?

Looking for that silver lining (or Blue lining as it may be),
Andy Wells
Springfield, Ill.

It will probably take years, but I can see them making a slow improvement climb starting next season. They need to let the young players take ownership of the locker room and the team. The Penguins did that last season and that will pay huge dividends soon.


Hey Bucci,

Watching the Blues retire Brett Hull's No. 16 on Tuesday reminded me of a question I often ponder. Who had a better career, Brett Hull or Mike Bossy? They are very similar hockey players. Both were deadly snipers, both belong to the exclusive 50 in 50 club, both have multiple Stanley Cups, and they both have at least one Lady Bing. The Golden Brett has a Hart Trophy, but Bossy anchored a dynasty. I grew up as a huge hockey fan in St. Louis and am too young to have experienced Bossy's career first hand, so my vote has always been for Hull. I was just wondering what an unbiased fan like you thought.

Cheers,
John Joe
St. Louis

Brett Hull never played on a team as good as the Islanders' dynasty, of course, but he played on some very good ones. Hull was in the playoffs every full year of his career. Still, it's hard to say anyone was a better goal scorer than Mike Bossy.


John,

I just wanted to give a shout out to Joe Nieuwendyk. I've enjoyed following his career over the years on various teams, and look forward to seeing his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Scott
Braintree, Mass.

Hockey Hall of Fame lock. A productive, clutch and stylish player to watch.


John,

Last Saturday against Boston, Carolina's Erik Cole showed he might be the most dynamic player in hockey. A Bruins defenseman took a shot from the point, and Cole went down to block it. The puck careened out of the zone. Then, he got up, accelerated, got to the puck, then skated around both Boston defensemen [who had a head start and momentum on Cole], waited out Tim Thomas, and lifted the puck into the net. That is silly good. And, oh yeah, when Erik walks into a room, even Chuck Norris walks out.

Andy V

One of the plays of the year in the NHL.


Hey Bucci,

I'm hoping you made an honest mistake and somehow missed Miikka Kiprusoff when you assembled your Western All-Stars. He more than meets all the criteria anyone can come up with for an All-Star. Granted, the team's record isn't all that stellar right now, which doesn't always reflect well on the goalie, but I don't think many would fault the Finn for the Flames' road woes this year. Possibly you figured he'd rather spend the time on a beach somewhere than playing in a meaningless game, much like how he passed on the Olympics last year?

Kirk Jensen

Can a brutha get a breakfast ball? I beg for a mulligan. I should have included Miikka.


John,

There is no way Minnesota will win the NCAA championship this year. There is a term called "defense" and apparently Minnesota has never heard of it. If Wisconsin could score more than one goal a game, it would have swept the Golden Gophers easily last month. The Gophs are way fun to watch, but they don't play any defense, it's all O-ffense.

Kris
La Crosse, Wisc.

I was doubted by a Wisconsin season-ticket holder last year when I said the Badgers would win during the long, cold winter. Like I said, Maine or Minnesota.


John,

I'm a sophomore at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and I read your articles every Tuesday in my History 112 class. You've saved me from getting caught sleeping on more than one occasion.

Go B's
Josh
Freetown, Mass.

They Might Be Giants
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.comBucci's History 101: John Flansburgh and John Linnell.
I'm a big history guy. Love the history. Here are some facts for you while you've been reading about Bobby Orr.

• As a young man, Benjamin Franklin was an excellent swimmer.
• Thomas Jefferson loved to shop and spend. He was in debt most of his life.
• Disease killed more people than guns during the Revolutionary War.
• There are nine Supreme Court Justices, Josh.

"In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate
Louis Cass, a general and expansionist
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

"Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear
The factions soon agreed
He's just the man we need
To bring about victory
Fulfill our manifest destiny
And annex the land the Mexicans command
And when the votes were cast the winner was
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

"In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump"

-- "James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants


John,

The NHL honored Rocket Richard by creating an award for the player who scores the most goals each season. The NHL already awards the Art Ross Trophy to the player who leads the league in points. I believe the league should complete the trifecta and create an award to the playmaker who leads the league in assists. The award should be named after Wayne Gretzky, who retired with enough assists to be the all-time leader in points even if he never scored a goal. What do you think?

Chet Zeshonski
Williamsville, N.Y.

Watching Mite hockey and seeing so few teams pass the puck well, I'm in favor of anything that could possibly promote better passing, especially in USA Hockey. Too many players are allowed to attempt to go end-to-end in an effort to help their team win. That's fine for post-pubescent hockey, but it does everyone a disservice, especially me. It's no fun to watch.


J.B.,

I wrote a while back without response and I am now ready to hop the boards for a shift into panic mode. My gal (Meghan Winters) is about to give birth in the next few weeks and we need a proper hockey-inspired name.

I need a name, yo!
Cheers,
Josh Young
Vancouver

Raymond Jean Bourque. I like Ray Young or R.J. Young.

Hockey Fact from "Hockey For Dummies" by John Davidson with John Steinbrede: For many years, the blades on sticks were completely straight, but New York Rangers star Andy Bathgate began experimenting with a curve in the late 1950s. During a European tour of Rangers and Blackhawks players, Bathgate showed his innovation to Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, and they began playing with one themselves. And it wasn't long before most NHL players had done the same thing.


John,

Long-time reader, first-time writer. I've always wondered if the NHL has considered giving a team the option of taking the power play over a penalty shot. In a recent Pens-Rangers game, Jordan Staal was awarded a penalty shot and the announcers made much of Lundqvist's record against them; it played out exactly as predicted. It seems like the team awarded the penalty might want to take their chances on a two-minute minor rather than have to face a great shootout goalie straight up, so why not give them the choice?

Duncan MacRae
Boston

I'm for anything that offers choices. That makes for great theater and great debate. The two-point conversion in football is a rule like that.


Bucci,

I'm currently a journalism major at Florida International University in Miami. Upon graduating I plan to get out of the state so I see some real hockey for a change. In your opinion, which is the best hockey town? How about the best for an aspiring journalist?

Devin Dunevant

Any Canadian city or St. Paul, Minn. Sadly, hockey continues to lose traction in the nation's newspapers. It is one of the major challenges the league faces. It's not everything, but it is part of the media issue the league faces in the United States as they try to cultivate new fans.


Hey John,

You mentioned Scott Niedermayer as your MVP thus far. What are your top 5 if you were to vote today? [Rod] Brind'Amour has to be in there, doesn't he?

Mike Dickinson
Rocky Mount, N.C.

Rod is slowing down. As I write this, no goals since mid-November and he's battling a "lower-body injury." With Carolina's lack of scoring depth, teams can now focus on Rod the Bod. Even with the Canes' issues, they should still be a safe bet to make the playoffs.


John,

Great idea starting the hockey photo of the week. Here's a pic of my son Asher. He was born this past July and he already LOVES to watch Pens games on TV with his old man. I just hope he gets to grow up watching them play in Pittsburgh!

JR Yarbrough
Frisco, Texas















Oh, baby.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.