the ghost of bobby orr (ii)

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.

orr 1But 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. Continue reading