Dave Jackson is an old friend of mine – and a sports aficionado. He graciously allowed us to post the article he wrote on Orr vs. Gretzky. Enjoy! (And feel free to share your thoughts on this! We would love to hear what you have to think!)
It’s the never-ending argument: who was greater… who had a more long-lasting impact on their game… whose legacy truly defines their sport? The shouting, beer-infused, projectile spittle barstool debates of yesteryear now belong to the hallowed ground and super-computers of sports history scholars and sabermatricians. Fortunately, when it comes to the NHL, we are at least spared the pedantic rhetoric of the likes of George Will.
As for the NHL, the choice between the two (and only two) giants of their sport is clear – Bobby Orr vs. Wayne Gretzky. (Perhaps only the PGA offers the same clear delineation – Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods). So why even compare? They played different positions, skated during different eras, and their careers were vastly different in tenure. Why bother? Because humans love to compare and contrast. We like closure. Absolutes. Unfortunately, the case here is not one that is, or ever will be, easily closed. But let’s at least have some fun doing it!
Wayne Gretzky is a contemporary of your humble author. We were both born in Southern Ontario in 1961 – and even played against each other in a couple of Peewee and minor Bantam tournaments at the time. I knew about him because, by age 11, just about anyone who followed hockey in Ontario knew about him. His minor hockey scoring feats were not just beyond legendary – they were beyond belief! At the age of 10, Gretzky scored an astonishing 378 goals and 139 assists in just one season with the Brantford Steelers. His play attracted the attention of media beyond his hometown, including a front-page sports section story in the now-defunct Toronto Telegram. By age 13, he had scored over 1,000 goals. His NHL scoring records are nearly as mind-boggling.
Bobby Orr attracted similar attention, at just a slightly older age. The Boston Bruins first noticed Orr in the spring of 1961, playing in a youth hockey tournament in Gananoque, Ontario. The Bruins' Wren Blair described him as “a combination of Doug Harvey and Eddie Shore.” The Bruins immediately pursued Orr, with Blair making regular visits to the Orr family home in Parry Sound. In the fall of 1961, the Bruins invested $1,000 to sponsor his minor hockey team – a figure almost unheard of at that time. Although three other NHL teams (Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens) were interested in Orr, he signed, in 1962, with the Bruins. Orr explained that he signed with the Bruins because: “They're a team of the future. They're rebuilding and I want to be part of that building program.” He made the Bruins roster at just 17 and was an immediate impact player.
Bobby Orr was the product of a different time. His star shone in the tumultuous late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But unlike his superstar contemporaries of the era – Joe Namath, Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali – Number Four expressed no apparent social or political ideological views. He was polite, soft-spoken, respectful, well-mannered and well-groomed. In a word – Canadian.
Cool… quiet… confidence. The Don Cherry ad nauseum video homages to Bobby Orr aside, you simply had to see him with your own two eyes to believe it – live and in-person, if you could! Grainy late ‘60s and early ‘70s film and video just doesn’t do justice to the singularly unique combination of rocket-like speed, power, grace, agility, puck-handling skill, and high hockey IQ. And while Orr possessed off-the-carts offensive prowess, he was also a responsible defenseman whose vastly superior skating ability allowed him to get back into the play quickly – especially if he was out of position. He routinely blocked shots and was a tough, rugged bodychecker – and not averse to dropping the gloves, when necessary.
In my lifetime and in my opinion, Bobby Orr was the most dynamic, complete hockey player that’s ever played the game. Only two other athletes – Gretzky and Michael Jordan – challenged his infinitely superior skillset and ability to rise to an even higher level of greatness in clutch situations… all at the very highest level of team sport. But unlike Gretzky or Jordan, who enjoyed long and relatively injury-free careers, Orr’s was sadly cut short due to a succession of serious knee injuries – primarily his left. Perhaps the closest analogy to Orr’s all-too-short, yet incredible career would be that of “The Left Hand of God” Sandy Koufax. Both athletes were forced into retirement at the tender age of 30, and are still to this day the youngest to have been elected to their respective Halls of Fame.
In 1971, I was lucky enough to see Orr for the first and only time live as the Bruins visited the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens in February, winning easily 5 – 1. But what I remember vividly to this day, early in the game, was Orr setting up behind his goal and blasting off like a nitro-fuelled dragster – straight up the middle and leaving every forechecking Leaf forward in his dust. Then came the strange and pathetic vision of completely overmatched defenceman, Brian Glennie, haplessly flailing away with stick and arms, frantically trying to get an angle on Orr. In the end, all Glennie could do was fling his now-horizontal body at Orr’s feet, tackling him like a football linebacker – the last desperate method of preventing the great man from a clear-cut breakaway.
When the referee only called a two-minute tripping penalty, instead of the obvious penalty shot, the crowd (probably close to 40% Bruins fans in attendance in those days) went nuts. Orr? As always, head down, no backtalk to the ref, quietly skating back to the bench with that “aw shucks, I hope I didn’t embarrass ol’ Brian in front of his home crowd” look. That’s the just the way Bobby Orr rolled.
Although just 13 years his junior, Gretzky played in a much different era – pro hockey was evolving into a more structured and systematic game based, in part, on the Soviet style of play that focussed more on team passing and positional awareness than individual talent. Coaches had become more sophisticated and now espoused the importance of puck possession and cycling the puck down low. This new hockey system was tailor-made for Wayne Gretzky. His instinctual abilities as a playmaker in the offensive zone were without precedent. Not imbued with great size, speed or a particularly hard shot, Gretzky’s greatness was more subtle to the eye than Orr’s – beguiling in its magic-like nuances and rhythms. Gretzky transcended the usual norms of sport. How could a player with such obvious limited physical and athletic gifts be this amazing? To me, Gretzky’s greatest gift was being spectacular without looking spectacular.
Gretzky’s still-hard-to-fathom numbers speak for themselves, and there’s little doubt that he would be a prolific scorer even in today’s game. But the NHL game has changed so dramatically since the days of Orr and Gretzky. Open up a YouTube video and watch a bit of game action from the ‘70s and ‘80s. If a young hockey fan had never seen pro hockey from that era, it would undoubtedly appear to them that the players were skating in quicksand; it really was played at a grindingly slower pace than today. The defensive coaching schemes of today would take away most of the open ice that Orr and Gretzky enjoyed in their day. And, in my opinion, no single position in professional sports has evolved more than that of the hockey goaltender. Today’s typical NHL goalie is a supremely athletic near-giant with yoga instructor-like flexibility, superior hand-eye coordination and amazingly fast reflexes. And perhaps most importantly, in terms of lightness of weight and increase in size, their equipment is light-years ahead of the stuff worn back in the days of Orr and Gretzky.
Alas, I digress. So is one greater than the other? Are Smarties better than M&M’s? Porches cooler than Ferraris? Beatles or Stones? Are Orr and Gretzky even comparable? Who knows… Is there really even an answer? Either way, pull up a couple of barstools with your buddies and have at ‘er!
What do you think? Orr or Gretzky? Leave us a comment and keep the debate alive.