Peter Mansbridge didn’t mention him when he talked to Bobby Orr on CBC’s The National last night about Orr: My Story, published today, and you won’t see his name in most of the reviews and interviews. In the book itself, it doesn’t appear until page 280, at the end of a deft afterword. Then it’s there again, over the page, where he gets the final word in Orr’s acknowledgments:
My special thanks go to my friend Vern Stenlund for helping me get all this down on paper. We’ve worked on a few projects over the years, but this one required special patience.
But if little of the light that Bobby Orr’s new autobiography is generating will illuminate Orr’s friend and ghostwriter, that’s just as Dr. Vern Stenlund prefers it. Born and raised in Thunder Bay, he played his junior hockey with the Junior B Chatham Maroons before moving up to A with the London Knights.
As the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players notes, he was a scoring star in those years, netting 84 goals in three seasons. In 1976 the California Seals drafted him 23rd overall, just after Brian Sutter (20th) and ahead of the likes of Randy Carlyle (30th) and Kent Nilsson (64th). His four NHL games came in the spring of 1977, after California had moved to Cleveland. Injuries took a toll in the years that followed. “I had some knee problems and shoulder woes that kind of took the starch out of my game,” he says, “but such is life.” He retired from the game in 1981 after a final year skating in Norway.
He went on to coach, at the youth, Junior B, and university level, and for Windsor in the OHL. He got a master’s degree in education and followed that with a doctorate. He wrote influential books, Coaching Hockey Successfully (2002) with Denis Gendron and (with Steve Cady) High-Performance Skating for Hockey (1998) among them. And when Bobby Orr got involved with Chevrolet’s Safe and Fun hockey program to mentor minor hockey players, it was Stenlund who worked with him.
Nowadays, when he’s not shaping the memoirs of all-time hockey greats, he teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor.
Friendly and forthcoming, he was on the phone recently from his office to talk about his work on Orr: My Story, having made clear that the background is where he’d rather remain. “This is Bobby’s book,” he started by saying, “and I sort of did some grunt work for him, so I don’t want to be perceived in any way shape or form as trying to upstage him …”
Did you and Bobby Orr ever meet on the ice?
You know, I only played four games in the Show… My fourth game was against the Chicago Black Hawks, last game of the season, ’76-77 season, and I was called up the last two weeks with Cleveland. And so we went to Chicago and I was very hopeful that I’d get a chance to play against him. He was so banged up, of course, he only played about 26 games over the two years in Chicago — or three years, actually, I guess — so by the time I got there, his time was done. I’ve always told him, I think he must have heard I was coming to town and he got a little bit weak-kneed and didn’t want to got in the line-up that night.
What kind of a player were you?
Yeah, you know I was sort of a big centreman for my time and I was a skill guy. My heroes when I watching the NHL, I was a great Jean Béliveau fan, and I remember as a kid watching him, toward the end of his career. Loved Gilbert Perreault, the way he played. I was a kind of a guy that liked to carry the puck, rush the puck, that was my game. I always felt hockey was artistry on ice, you wanted to be creative, and that’s what I tried to do.
You write in the book about the day on the golf course in Florida when, after years of telling you that he didn’t want to do a book, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ What changed his mind?
That’s a very good question, and I can’t speak for Bobby but I think, perhaps, as we get older — Bob’s at a time in his life, he’s turned 65, he has grandkids. And so much has been written about him. I think maybe he just came to a point where he said, it’s time for me to put it on the record because I should tell my side of things on a number of issues. His feelings on the game. So I think it was just good timing. He finally decided it was time to do it and let’s get at it. It was a heck of a process, I can tell you that.
How did you go about it?
We would take blocks of time where we would meet down either at his place in Florida or I’d get into Cape Cod and we would spend two or three days together. He is a workhorse. His work habits are unbelievable. He gets going and it’s just hang on for dear life.
And I’ve got to say this, too. I’ve never done this type of project with anyone else, I’m told that there are some people, if they’re doing a memoir in this form, they’ll leave it to someone else. He has his hand on every word in that book. He was relentless in wanting make sure that that book is an accurate reflection of who he is and what he believes. That’s a great compliment to him that he just didn’t sign off on a book contract and then sit back. He went to work.
How much time did it take?
I don’t have a log of it. I can tell you, start to finish, it’s the better part of three years. And that is consistently working. I don’t think there was a day that went by in those three years that he and I weren’t communicating either by e-mail or by phone. Or he’d give me another tidbit, and you go in and do some research, you talk to people. It was pretty consistent across that whole timeline.
Did the memories come easily from him? Were there times you had you to prod?
[Chuckles] Well, you know, his personality is such that … he said to me right off the bat, if people are expecting some kind of tell-all, they’re not going to want to read this book, because I have no intention of doing that. And you wouldn’t expect that from Bobby Orr, and that was never his intent.
In terms of prodding, you’re darn right I had to prod him, because I would go to put something in the book and he’d say, ‘No, we can’t say that.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean we can’t say that?’ and he’d say, ‘That sounds arrogant,’ or ‘That sounds like I’m bragging.’ I’d say, ‘Bob, it’s not bragging if it’s true.’ He would say, ‘No, we’re not putting that in.’
We had many fights — or discussions that led to fights, where I’d say, ‘Bob, people want to know this.’ But I think it’s a reflection of who he is. What you’ve got in that book is very, I think, authentic as to what kind of person he is. He had no desire, none, to talk about any of the big-time awards. We had to beg him, at the back of the book, just give people a sense of what it meant to win the Cup. What did it mean, certain events in your life. And he finally acquiesced and said, okay, we’ll do a little bit of that. But I’ve told him, at some point in time there’ll be another book and I’m going to write some of the stuff that he wouldn’t let me talk about.
People would be fascinated by some of the stuff that his teammates shared with me, and opponents. Not so much about the hockey side of who he is, but who the man is. And so that part he really wouldn’t let me really go as far as I wanted to. But, again, it’s his book, his hand is all over it, that’s what he wanted. And I respect that.
Did you seek out many of his friends and teammates?
I talked to a lot of people. And that was always interesting. You talk to a guy like Johnny Bucyk. Or Derek [Sanderson]. Or Eddie Johnston. Teammates. They didn’t talk so much about the hockey side of it. I was very impressed by the fact that when you asked them a series of questions, they’d always come back with anecdotes from off the ice. I learned a lot about leadership through writing this. And the way he conducted himself, and the way he was viewed by teammates and opponents. It was really interesting to talk to the people I talked to and to get that from them. It really went beyond the hockey.
When he was talking about the book earlier in the year, he said that if had been up to him, he wouldn’t have put anything in about Alan Eagleson. In the event, there’s an entire chapter about him. How difficult was that to draw out of him?
At the end of the day, he had certain things he wanted to share. And I think he did a wonderful job of doing it, not in a caustic way. I think he was very evenhanded, and it was a very balanced perspective on it.
Was it as easy as the Cherry chapter? No. No, it’s a different context, a different time of his life. But he was very gracious in the way that he described things and what he allowed to go in that book and I think — I think when you read that chapter you get a pretty good sense where he sits on that particular topic, and I don’t think he needed to say anything more.
You wrote an afterword for the book, and you say there that having spent time with Bobby Orr, you can usually tell how how he’s going to finish a sentence. So was it straightforward getting his voice right on the page?
I think that part of it was fairly easy, because I know Bobby pretty well, on one hand. And on the other hand, we have a shared past. I went through the same stages of development, hockeywise — I got to pro hockey. Obviously, I didn’t do [laughs] what Bobby did on the ice, but I understand what it’s like to be in a boarding house, I understand what it’s like to try to make that climb. He would say some things to me along the way and it was very easy for me to translate that and put that on paper because I’ve experienced a lot of what he was talking about. That part of it, no, that wasn’t difficult at all, that was really fun to be able to do that.
He’s talked about how he doesn’t like to look back and linger on thoughts of the past. Was it hard to get him to reach back and recall events in the detail you wanted?
Yeah, getting the detail was a challenge with him, because he’s a guy that, he sort of wanted to give you the facts and if you wanted to try to make rich dialogue out of that, he’d say, ‘No, no, this is what happened, and that’s what I want to say about it.’
I kidded him a couple of times during the process about it. One time I said, ‘The publisher would like you to say, There was a beautiful red cardinal on the telephone line as I walked to school, the rain was drizzling.’ Bob would rather say, ‘Hey, I saw a bird and it was cold outside.’ He didn’t want a lot of fluffiness. He called it “honey.” I’d write something down and he’d say, ‘Naw, there’s too much honey on that, you’ve got to take some of the honey out.’ So that was the term that we used. And every once in a while he’d say, ‘All right, all right, leave that honey on. I’ll give you that one.’
That was the process. We’d go back and forth, I’d pull a little out, he’d say no. And then he’d give a little bit. He was pretty gracious. But I’d be lying to you if I said it was all fun and games for three years. Because he’s a very demanding guy. He demands effort from everybody around him, he’s a perfectionist, he wants it done right. So if I brought something to the table and it looked like I hadn’t put much thought into it, I got that cold stare that Derek Sanderson refers to, “The Look,” he calls it. I’d get that a few times and you’d realize, uh-oh, that’s not good enough for this guy.
As I’ve told everybody, at the end of the day, I hope the book does very well. I hope people appreciate it, and I hope it brings value to people. But through that whole writing, I was very focussed on one thing, there was only one person I wanted to please on this, and that was Bobby. The publisher, God love ’em, I hope they do well with it, but I wasn’t there to please the publisher. I wanted Bobby to be happy and I think, as this thing is starting to unfold now, I’ve got a sense that he’s pretty pleased with it.
You’re working on another book now with the former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.
Kevin’s another Thunder Bay guy, and he’s asked me to help him a little bit with his book that’s coming up, and so we’ve started that process. It’s going to be a very interesting read.
This interview has been edited and condensed.