Bobby Orr is the greatest defenseman in the history of hockey. During his time in the NHL he was without equal, not merely among fellow defensemen, but all players, no matter the position. At a time when many of hockey’s greatest names were simply putting their stamp on the game, such as Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, and Bobby Clarke, just to name a few, Orr was busy being the best, shattering records, and changing the way the game was played. In an all too brief career of only 9 true seasons, Orr accomplished more than most could only dream of. Here are the highlights…
- Won 8 consecutive Norris Trophy awards, which is both the longest streak and highest quantity among all defensemen. No other defenseman has won more than four in a row.
- Won 3 consecutive Hart Memorial Trophy awards, making him one of only two defensemen to win the award multiple times and the only defenseman to do so three times in a row.
- Twice won the Conn Smythe Trophy, one of only five players to do so multiple times and the only defenseman in league history to do so more than once.
- Twice won the Art Ross Trophy and is the only defenseman ever to do so. Also holds the record for most points in a single season by a defenseman with 139 and has the highest career points per game average for defenseman at 1.393, good for fifth all time and the only defenseman in the top 25.
- Led the league in assists 5 times during the regular season, the only defenseman to ever do so more than once (only other time it happened was prior to 1925). Also the only defenseman to ever record more than 100 assists in a single season and one of only three players to ever do so, the other two being Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Is third in career assists per game behind the same two legends.
- Recorded the highest single season plus/minus in league history and has the second best career plus/minus total of all time. Not only that, his career +/- to GP ratio is nearly two times better than the second best ratio among all players with 500+ career GP.
- Accomplished all of this and more while playing on a busted knee for almost his entire professional career.
That last point is key. While the majority of hockey fans are fully aware that Orr’s dominant career was cut short due to injury, not enough truly understand the extent of the damage done to his knees. His style of play throughout his career put immense pressure on his left knee in particular and injuries to it started almost immediately. It was first injured in the NHL (lesser injuries occurred in junior as well) during his rookie season and from that point on further damage occurred to his left knee nearly every season he played, requiring multiple surgeries, time in casts, and near constant soreness and pain. Truth be told, the only two seasons that Orr was close to 100% were 69/70 and 70/71, both of which just so happen to be Orr’s most dominant seasons.
So how did Orr perform at such a high caliber despite injury? He was simply better than everyone else, period. Whenever Orr was on the ice he alone controlled the play and tempo of the game. It wasn’t just because he was more talented, it was also because he had more determination and drive than any other player on the ice. He was so good at carrying and protecting the puck that while killing penalties he would merely skate around with it to kill time rather than dump it down the ice. It was this constant control of the puck in all situations that played a large part in the deterioration of his knees as it made him a persistent target for attack from the opposition.
While the injuries and pain did their best to hold Orr back, he was relentless. His final full season in the NHL was perhaps his third best on record. He led the league in scoring once again, while also contributing his highest single season goal total. But then that was it. The pain and damage was too much and the inevitable had finally arrived. He would see only 36 more games in the NHL over bits and pieces of action from three seasons.
The final straw was likely his participation in the 1976 Canada Cup. Due to knee surgery that had kept him out of the 1972 Summit Series, Orr wanted badly to represent Canada on the global stage and likely saw this as his last opportunity to do so. Despite hardly being able to walk before and after games, Orr played and played better than anyone else in a tournament filled with legends of the game. He led Canada to victory and was named the tournament MVP. This led his teammate at the time, Darryl Sittler, to sum up his play, and really his entire career, with just one modest sentence.
“Bobby Orr was better on one leg, than anybody else was on two.”
Orr’s impact on the game cannot be understated and there should be no debate as to who is the greatest defenseman of all time. Though it’s impossible to know what Orr could have accomplished if given more time or even if he had been healthy during the short time he was allowed, we do know that without question Orr was the best player of his generation, bar none, and that this unparalleled level of greatness places him head and shoulders above all other defensemen of any generation.