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

the ghost of bobby orr (i)

The Goal: Photographer Chad Coombs' "Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.' For more of his work, visit www.chadcoombs.com.

The Goal, ish: Photographer Chad Coombs’ “Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.’ For more of his work, visit
http://www.chadcoombs.com.

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? Continue reading