March 21, 2013
The hockey game is a way to get Eddie Coyle out of the house, to set him up for the bullet he will receive later in the night in the back of his head. Dillon, the man who will fire that bullet, now drinks a beer with Eddie as they watch the Boston Bruins play the Chicago Blackhawks from the second balcony at the Boston Garden. Menace hangs in the air, but Eddie doesn't notice. His beer has been preceded by a string of beers.
He also is watching Bobby Orr.
"Can you imagine being a kid like that?" he says as Orr skates, one end of the rink to the other, accompanied by a rising level of crowd noise. "What is he? Twenty-four or something?"
Dillon says nothing.
"Greatest hockey player in the world," Eddie continues. "Number 4, Bobby Orr!"
Dillon says nothing.
"What future he's got," Eddie, the man with no future, finishes…
The scene -- Robert Mitchum as poor Eddie and Peter Boyle as Dillon in 'The Friends of Eddie Coyle,' the 1973 film adapted from George V. Higgins' noir novel of the same name -- probably is the best preservation of the wonder, the energy, the excitement of that time in hockey. Mitchum is dead now and Boyle is dead and even George V. Higgins is dead and the Garden has been torn down and replaced, but this is the way it was.
How good was Bobby Orr?
"Greatest hockey player in the world. Number 4, Bobby Orr."
That was how good.
He turned 65 years old on Wednesday, an uh-oh milestone, the long-time retirement age, but the number seemed to mean less with him than it does to most people. Age has not been a factor in his life for a long, long while. His career pretty much was finished by the time he was 28 due to injured knees. His official retirement came when he was 30. His enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame followed when he was 31. He has been frozen as a hockey player ever since, his abilities sort of caught in a magical snow globe.
Like a James Dean, a Jimi Hendrix, a Marilyn Monroe, an Elvis, his time on the stage was truncated, ended so soon that he never had time to age before his public's eyes. Blink and he was gone. There were no pictures of him in his thirties, close to his 40s, slowed down and sticking around for another year. Blink. Gone.
How good was he?
"My title was coach of the Boston Bruins," flamboyant Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry always says. "Actually, what I did was open the door for Bobby Orr and watch the greatest player I've ever seen play hockey."
He was the wunderkind, Childe Bobby, maybe born in a manger, maybe not, headed for stardom almost from the first time he put on skates. Milt Schmidt, the coach and assistant general manager, went with Bruins scouts to a youth hockey tournament in Gananoque, Ontario in 1961 to look at a couple of players named Eaton and Higgins. Schmidt and Co. stumbled upon this tiny 13-year-old defenseman, younger than everyone else, hockey pants and shirt too big for him, running the entire show. The things he could do were obvious.
"We forgot Eaton and Higgins," Schmidt said. "We saw the guy we wanted."
By the time he was 18, he was in Boston, running the show in the big time. The Bruins were in the final leg of an eight-season stretch where they couldn't make for the playoffs even though there were only six teams in the league and four qualified. Three years later the Bruins -- the Big, Bad Bruins -- were Stanley Cup champions. Two years later, they were champions again.
This kid, this prodigy, was a force that never had been seen in the NHL, an offensive-mined defenseman. He controlled the puck for longer stretches of time, skated wherever he wanted as if he were playing a game of keep-away back home on a pond in Parry Sound, Ont. He became the first (and only) defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring. He did it twice. In a seven-year span, only he or teammate Phil Esposito led the league in scoring. Esposito, a large-size center, did much of his work on rebounds and redirects of Orr shots from the point.
Even better than the kid's scoring was his style. He moved in great loops and swoops, one end of the ice to the other. Defensemen mostly had been restricted in their movements in the past, required always to stay in zones, think about turning back to help protect the goalie. Orr was fast enough, confident enough to get back from anywhere. There were no boundaries. Not for him. The entire ice surface was his zone.
He traveled without a helmet, without a visor, traveled free, easily identifiable in his brush cut and stride. In one classic rush, he took the puck and started moving, even though one of his gloves had fallen off. He reached down with one hand, never lost stride, never lost control of the puck, picked up the glove, settled the glove onto his hand, reached the other end of the ice and scored a goal. That was Bobby Orr.
"He was a star," coach Harry Sinden said, "from the first time he stood in a Bruins uniform for the national anthem."
The 11 surgeries on his left knee, maybe more, ended his career early, but did little to alter his place in the game. The argument can be made -- and made well -- that despite competition from Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and maybe Sidney Crosby right now, he still is the best player ever to skate in the NHL. The argument also can be made -- and made equally well -- that despite Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Bill Russell and Larry Bird and Tom Brady and anyone else, he also was the best athlete ever to play in Boston.
How good was he? Dan Canney, the Bruins trainer in those good times, once told a story about a quiet change that Orr brought to the game.
"The last goaltender left in the league who didn't wear a mask was Glenn Hall," Canney said. "He was in town to play against the Bruins and the day before the game he went to Massachusetts General Hospital to visit our goaltender, Eddie Johnston. Eddie had been hit in the head by a Bobby Orr slap shot during practice. He'd had a concussion, was in kind of tough shape."
Johnston and Hall talked. Johnston described the injury, detailed his condition. It was a nice visit. Hall was in the nets the next night, no mask, as usual. Somewhere in the proceedings, Orr lined up a slapper from the point. Hall reacted at the sight of the wind-up, before the shot was taken.
"I was watching him," Canney said. "He took his catching glove and put it full over his face."
The next game, as the story went, Glenn Hall wore a mask. He wore it from that moment until the end of his career.
Happy Birthday, Bobby Orr.