Reid on NHL: One last cardboard salute

One of the greatest, if not the greatest to ever skate in the NHL (we’ll leave that debate for another day) stopped by Sportsnet this past week.

Bobby Orr dropped by to talk a little hockey and also to talk a little about an excellent program he is involved with: Chevrolet’s Safe and Fun hockey program hands out thousands of hockey helmets to youngsters all over the country. Check them out here.

Of course, being a gigantic hockey card nerd, I couldn’t let Bobby get away without asking him a few questions about my favourite Orr card of all time.

Orr’s career, as most of you are aware, ended way too early. Knee injuries took their toll on No. 4. After only six games in the 1978-79 season, Orr was forced to retire at the age of 30.

Which brings us to the card. In its 78-79 set, O-Pee-Chee rolled out a "Special Collector’s Card." It did not picture Orr during his glory years with the Bruins. It did not show Orr suited up with the Chicago Blackhawks — a couple of air-brushed cards had taken care of that.

Instead O-Pee-Chee went into the archives. They went back to the fall of 1976, to the first ever Canada Cup.

The 1975-76 season was a one on Orr. Injuries limited him to only 10 regular season games, but he still put up 18 points. He left the team at the end of the season.

The question for Orr during the summer was, ‘could he play in the Canada Cup?’ Fans were finally rewarded with a best-on-best tournament. Surely we’d know who had the greatest hockey nation on earth after this tournament. The only concern was, would the greatest player on the planet be good to go?

Orr was banged up, but this wasn’t the first time Canada had been down this road. They had to play the entire 1972 Summit Series without Orr. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

"I was with the team in ‘72 but didn’t play," Orr said. "I wasn’t sure if I was going to play in the (76) series. I wasn’t in great shape. I did a little bit of training, short training, but again the team was so good, it was not a difficult series to play in."

Orr is being his ever modest self here. He finished in a three way tie for the tournament scoring lead with nine points. When he looks at that old photo, taken 36 years ago, the honour of playing and winning for his country is obvious.

"Oh I know that puppy," said Orr. "My dream was to play in the NHL and be on a Stanley Cup team. 1976 certainly is the highlight. It’s the only time I played for my country in an international series and that team was unbelievable."

A closer look at the old card and you can see another defenceman, sitting on the bench beside Orr. It’s Denis Potvin.

Potvin racked up nine points in the tournament as well, part of that three-way tie for the tournament scoring lead alongside Orr and The USSR’s Viktor Zhluktov.

"Denis is one of my favourite defencemen. I think he’s — in my mind — one of my top ones. Denis was tough. He could play anyway you wanted," Orr stated as he giggled at the thought of the talent that team had on the blue line alone. "That defence with Robinson and Savard, it was pretty good, pretty good."

And let’s not forget about the talent up front: Bobby Hull, Daryl Sittler, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne — we could go on and on. And of course you can’t forget about Rogie Vachon, who put on a great show in the crease.

This is crazy to even think about, but 16 of the players on Canada’s roster from that ‘76 tournament are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. So of course, we have to ask: If ‘72 was the greatest moment, was 76 the greatest team?

"I’m not going to compare," Orr said. "I think in years to come they’ll talk about it as one of the best teams. It was pretty good team. It was a very good team," said Orr.

The 1976 Canada Cup was Orr’s last great hurrah. He went on to play just 26 more NHL games over the next three seasons, even sitting out all of 77-78.

Thankfully, when the people at O-Pee-Chee decided to pay tribute to Orr when he was forced to retire, they picked one great shot. In his one and only time representing Canada on the international stage, Orr helped Canada win the first ever Canada Cup and was named tournament MVP in the process. There’s a reason you see those stars on the front of the card: Bobby Orr truly was one.

"I wasn’t going to play. I was so happy I did," says Orr.

So are the rest of us.