Orr on ’72: Best player misses greatest win

Canada’s most dangerous hockey player was there in Russia watching Game 8 of the Summit Series, but he wasn’t on the ice.

On Sept. 28, 1972 — 40 years ago today — Bobby Orr, the man they call the Greatest Hockey Player Ever or the Greatest Defenceman Ever, depending whom you ask, would have to soak in history instead of make it.

Orr, now 64, can’t remember where in Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace he was sitting when Paul Henderson relieved/thrilled a nation (“I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast,” he smiles), but he recalls so much more about what he believes to be the greatest victory in the history of sport.

To think what Team Canada could have done if Orr had played in the defining tournament.

Heading into the summer of ’72, a 24-year-old Orr had just completed one of the most decorated seasons in all of athletics.

Having just inked the NHL’s first million-dollar contract (spread over five years), the Boston Bruins wonder took 1971-72 by its jugular. En route to his second Stanley Cup ring, Orr unified the league’s three MVP titles Triple Crown-style: Hart Trophy, check; a second Conn Smythe Trophy, check; All-Star Game MVP, check. He also won the Norris, placed second in the regular-season scoring race (to teammate Phil Esposito), and won the playoff scoring race.

But his knees were damaged, and he needed off-season surgery.

Orr practised and traveled with Team Canada but never saw any action.

“I thought instead of using (Orr) full time I might just use him on the power play, but we don’t get any power plays from these officials. We’ve averaged about one a game. I’m not going to dress a guy for minutes’ action,” coach Harry Sinden wrote in his 1972 book Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series.

So, was there a remote chance Orr could have laced them up for Game 8?

“Nah. If I recall, I was not ready to play. I would’ve hurt the team more than helped,” Orr says. “Maybe some people had it in their minds, but I was not prepared to play.”

Forty years later, Orr reminisces on the Summit Series.

“What that team did, I don’t think there’s been a greater win in sports — what they overcame in the eighth game, going into that third period down 5-3,” Orr says. “Again, I was there, and the conditions were different. What they did was one of the great victories in the history of sports.”

Orr says Team Canada commissioned scouts to various rinks all over the U.S.S.R. to observe the Russian players, but the scouts only saw them skate with their scattered individual clubs, never as a collective. The common belief was that the Russian goaltending was weak, and that Canada would roll over their overseas opponents rather easily.

“We saw them practise that first day in Montreal, and we left the practice. They were running into each other, couldn’t make a pass,” Orr says. “First game starts, Canada was up 2-nothing … [Editor’s note: Phil Esposito scored 30 seconds into the game, and Paul Henderson scored six minutes into the first period.] Then all of a sudden we thought, ‘This isn’t the same team!’ They wouldn’t give us the puck. I think the final was 7-3 (for Russia). We knew we had a battle.”

Orr runs down the rest of the series: Canada’s 4-1 win in Toronto, the 4-4 stalemate in Winnipeg, the Russians’ 5-3 victory in Vancouver. “Now we got to go over there and win three of four. And we lose the first one (5-4). So you got to win three in a row to win the series. Unbelievable.

“It bothered me a lot, not being able to play,” Orr admits.

But the Hall of Famer takes solace in a tournament that happened four years later, when he wore the red maple leaf and led his country to victory in the inaugural Canada Cup. Orr scored nine points in seven games and was crowned MVP of the tournament. Not a bad consolation for missing ’72.

“One of the highlights of my career was in 1976, finally playing for Canada in an international series,” Orr says. “That’s there with my Stanley Cups.”

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