The news that Bobby Orr was writing a book emerged into the wider world back in March, just as Number Four was celebrating his 65th birthday. There wasn’t much more to be told at the time, beyond bare details. Orr: My Story would be the title. It would be out in October.
It’s been a while since Orr wrote books, of course, a good, oh, what, 40 years? He was pretty prolific, bookwise, back when he plying the blueline for the Bruins, publishing exactly as many of them, in the early 1970s, as he won Stanley Cups, i.e. two. (Three, if you want to count Hockey As I See It, a booklet he published in 1970 with Pepsi.)
Those weren’t really autobiographies. Orr On Ice (1972), for which he had the help of writer Dick Grace, never even pretended to be. At age 24, Orr was the game’s dominant player, had been for a few years, and he was ready to tell kids — sorry, “youngsters” — what he knew.
His foreword states the case head-on: “Believing that pictures tell a better story than words, I am presenting this book to you with as few words as possible. … Hockey is all action, and action photos speak louder than words.” Turn the page and we’re off: here’s the man himself, standing tall in jockstrap and skivvies, knees yet unscarred, showing you how to get dressed. Ten pages later, he pulls his sweater over his head, and we’re ready to move on to what’s next up: groin exercises.
Bobby Orr: My Game (1974) was textier, but as Orr new co-pilot, Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated explained upfront, the aim, again, was largely instructional. The time had come (prefaced Mulvoy) for Number 4 to explain just how he played the game — in detail. After 25 pages of third-person biography, the narrative shifts over to the first to start at the start: your skates don’t need to fit at first, and if your hockey gloves don’t have palms, no worries. Get out there, skate, have fun, that’s what it’s all about.
Talking to The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek in March, Orr came equipped with a helpful list of what the new book would not be: a tell-all, or an exposé of his dealings with his former disgraced agent, Alan Eagleson. “If anybody’s going to buy my book because they think there’s a lot of dirt in it,” he said, “don’t buy it.”
What Orr didn’t dish: who was the writer he worked with, this time out?
No-one at the publisher, Penguin, would tell me. I asked, and they wouldn’t.
I called up Russ Conway in Lawrence, Massachusetts: was it him? A long-time reporter for The Eagle-Tribune, Conway is a friend of Orr’s and the author of Game Misconduct (1995), the book that did expose Eagleson’s many malpractices. An Orr book I’d like to read would be by him. This isn’t that book. “No,” he told me, “I don’t know who’s doing it.”
Roy MacGregor, then? He ghosted Wayne Gretzky, of course, when Gretzky was writing a column in The National Post in the 1990s, not to mention providing what publisher Simon & Schuster calls “editorial services” to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s upcoming hockey book.
There’s no-one better when it comes to writing about hockey these days: MacGregor has that going for him, too. He also happens to have played against Orr, long ago, up Parry Sound way. If you’ve read MacGregor’s great novel, The Last Season (1985), maybe you remember how he rendered the scene into fictional form as an early rehearsal for Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup-winning goal of 1970.
I sent an e-mail: hey, Roy, is it you? Waiting to hear back, I turned back to Massachusetts. What about one of the writers on the Bruins’ beat? Kevin Paul Dupont, maybe, from The Boston Globe? Or maybe his colleague on the paper, Fluto Shinzawa? I reached him, and he was quick to reply: “Have not heard. Sorry.”
I thought about Stephen Brunt. In his fine Searching For Bobby Orr (2006), he tells of tracking him down, meeting with the man himself — and Orr telling him that he was probably going to do his own book, some day, so wouldn’t be helping in Brunt’s search.
I guess he could have come back to Brunt. When I couldn’t reach him, I e-mailed the friend who’d set up Brunt’s Orr meeting, another former Globe hockey writer, Tim Wharnsby, now at CBC.ca, to give him his chance to come clean.
Sorry, he said, don’t know.
Word came in from Roy MacGregor. “No,” he said, “I am not working with Bobby, though God knows I talked to him about it enough. We are friends but he went with someone else. It’s a great mystery to me and to others. No idea who this person is. Not bitter in the least, but curious.”
Maybe had Orr gone Ken Dryden and written his own story? Why not? Another possibility was that he’d gone Ken Dryden and hired — well, Dryden. That would have made for some interesting reading.
The last person I asked was Stan Fischler. He’s the dean, after all, of hockey book writers, not to mention the don, the senior fellow, the heavyweight champion of the shelves. Now 81, he’s got his name on 90 or so of them. His autobiographies include collaborations with Brad Park, Denis Potvin, Rod Gilbert, Dave Schultz, and Boom-Boom Geoffrion. What about it, Mr. Fischler? Ready to confess?
He chuckled at the question. He’d been asking it himself, trying to figure it out. His best guess had been another Boston hockey writer and friend of Orr’s, Joe Fitzgerald from The Boston Herald, but a contact at the publisher’s had told him no, wrong. Fischler wasn’t sure whether he was going to read it. He still hadn’t decided.
Only now that we have the book in hand — Orr: My Story is published today — does the truth come out at last. Dr. Vern Stenlund is the man in the mystery. An old friend of Orr’s, he teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor. He also happens to have played in the NHL, though as he himself is quick to point out, his numbers pale in comparison to his partner in prose and his 1,022 total points. In his four career NHL games, all with the Cleveland Barons, Stenlund notched a single big-league shot-on-goal.
(Photo courtesy of Chad Coombs, http://www.chadcoombs.com)