The Man Who Flew
A Heartbreak, a Hero, a Young Man redeemed: The NHL just released its “100 greatest hockey players of all time” list. Here’s why Bobby Orr is the greatest and I’ve never even seen him play.
The walk to the Dean’s office at my boarding school is something of a paradox. Given the season, floor to ceiling windows in much need of a fresh paint job lining the corridor either frame beautiful snow capped vistas of the Berkshire mountains in Northwestern Connecticut or powerful whooshing winds that billow freshly fallen leaves over endlessly rolling hills.
But ask any student, current or former, and they’ll attest that despite this setting, or the smiling faces of administrators and prospective families getting ready for a tour that you’ll pass along the way, being led by the Dean to his office for a 1-v-1 meeting in the middle of a Tuesday is anything but scenic. And though I know this (it is a kind of school dogma) a sizeable chip sits on my shoulder — an edge I project, whether by cooling scowl or icy stare — because I’m angry and angsty, ready to do battle with anyone and everyone lately, including this Dean of ours. And judging by his stature, this meeting is going to be one hell of one.
He is an imposing man this Dean, stockily built with photos and awards of his collegiate lacrosse career covering every inch of his office — the odd one of his family somewhere in between. Legend has it he holds the Division 1 varsity record at his college for the most ground balls in field lacrosse ever recovered. If you haven’t seen a “lax” scrum (or free-for-all as I prefer to call it), WWF style chaos basically ensues as any player is eligible to be hit by an opponent, so long as you’re within nine feet of the loose ball. And out of that mayhem, out of nine or ten hard hard hitting D-1 laxers clubbing their way through flesh and bone in search of a tiny, mud-caked ball that would make a snitch look like a beach ball, the Dean had apparently come up with the most. Ever. So you can imagine what it’s like to go mano-e-mano alone in his office with no referees in sight. And if you can’t, well…I suppose some things are meant to be seen — so, lucky you.
Despite this, the chip on my shoulder refuses to dissipate as I stand in his office with its two chairs: a large recliner behind his desk for the Dean, the Warden, and a hapless wooden chair before him for me, the Convict. He lowers his weighty torso into his recliner without sound while I “politely” drop my book-bag to the floor before cockily sliding into old woody.
But he stops me as I do, tilting his sturdy-jaw up — menacingly calm:
“No, don’t sit. This should only take a second.”
Good, I think. I’ve never been a fighter, the longer one goes, the more my chances shrink. But even I know any man can win one as soon as it starts. So, Mr. Dean — let’s get this on.
“What you did this past weekend, Matthew?”
“This past weekend?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You should say, ‘yes’ to me. But anyway — go on.”
“Well, this past weekend, I went to New York City with a bunch of the guys.”
“New York City. Very nice. Did you take the train there?”
That small shot in our little skirmish here for the loose ball of truth produces an unconscious grin on me but not for The Dean. He doesn’t avert his gaze, not even when two birds flutter past his window, wings tapping glass. If he can hear them, he doesn’t let on. I suspect he can’t. He’s too focused.
“I took the train to the City. Students aren’t allowed to have cars in or around campus.”
“And how about back — did you take the train back?”
“Okay, now, this next part is very important: what were you doing on the train?”
I’m looking at him, square and sure — the wheels on his recliner squeak, squeaking as he rolls closer to me perhaps smelling blood in the water.
“Were you drinking?”
So that’s what this is about.
I perspire cooly, but not nervously. Though it signals I’m losing, I’m going to lose proud — clung to my little adolescent angst even though I shouldn’t be. In fact, from the moment he had plucked me in front of all my buddies in the cafeteria having announced, “come with me” loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear, I should have been repentant. I might have even have been, had I genuinely believed I’d done something wrong. I might have even have lied to him.
But I don’t believe I am in the wrong, so I choose to tell the truth, edgy and unflinching — which eventually, in a weird way, becomes my saving grace.
“Yeah. I was drinking.”
For a moment he loses his ferocity like he hadn’t expected that response. Evidently, all the other guys on the train had flat-out denied what he’d come to know as true by way of a neighboring school spy who saw us all.
“There something wrong with that? We were signed out of campus.”
“Well, aside from being underage and illegal, it’s against school policy.”
“What do you mean, school policy? We weren’t at school. We were off campus. The rules say you’re not allowed to drink on campus —
“It doesn’t matter, Matthew.”
“Sure it does! I was signed out perfectly fair and square—
But the Dean raises a finger, stopping the fight dead in its tracks — the result of our scrum, though valiant and honorable for me, a foregone conclusion.
“It’s doesn’t matter. It’s against the rules. I’ve got to send you home.”
Meaning he’s got to suspend me and make my parents book a next-day flight home to Canada from Hartford for a week long school-imposed, exile.
Tell the truth. Fight the hard fight. Only to get suspended.
I told you the walk was something of a paradox.
And so just like that, only two months before I am to graduate and head to a college of my own to play Division I hockey, I’ve earned myself this, as well as full probation when I return, and worse I realize, when the edge gradually softens, I’ve jeopardized my relationships with the teachers, peers, and people who fought tooth and nail to get me admitted here in the hopes of achieving a brighter future. After my beloved parents, one Man’s face and efforts come to mind in particular. He’s the One who’d given me a sterling recommendation to get into this school after I had missed its admission deadline by about, oh, I don’t know — six months. He put his name on the line sending a note to the Headmaster and the Dean saying I’d be a great addition to the school culture. I wonder how he signed that note when he sent it, if he scrawled, “Bobby Orr” the way you always envisioned he would or if he just put, “Mr. Orr.”
In any sense, whatever was on the note, it was signed by Bobby Orr himself, as a family favor and act of good will to us, and I’ve just spat in his face.
Nicely done, Matt.
His Legend goes something like this: back in the day, which were according to Stephen Brunt’s, Searching for Bobby Orr, the rigid days of the 1960s before the hippies and their music arrived, everyone was saying that the mission couldn’t be done. Actually not only that, they were vehemently proclaiming that the mission was so impossible it was considered futile to even think of! And what was this mission they spoke of?
Making the Boston Bruins a legitimate NHL hockey franchise again.
And though the rivalries amongst the Original Six were still as heated as ever, even after forty some odd years, two world wars, a Depression and a Boom — the English and the French, the Canadians and the Americans, the sports writers and fans and league execs, this population comprising the ‘they’ of whom I speak of here, were in agreement on this one fact. That the Bruins were absolute crap and without a bonafide prospect, or even so much as a basic plan to escape the basement, would continue to be for, well, who knew, but a long time. And if we’re going to be honest, they were right.
Hell, even the city itself was in the dumps. Youth hockey enrollment in Boston had never been so low and what little rinks did remain throughout Charlestown and Southie, Brookline and Watertown, were in such poor conditions no one bothered to even turn the lights on sometimes or clean up the empty beer cans crumpled on the floors long after the odd rec league game had ended. And let’s not even get started on the old Boston Garden and its putrid smell or that its stands hung unnaturally over the ice encaging the perennially losing B’s in a kind of Bull rodeo where they were the clowns night in and night out.
For this and a myriad of other reasons, the working-class flame of New England’s biggest city had dwindled to a faint flicker, blanketing, it seemed, the rest of the Coast in a kind of darkness not suggestive of prosperity being along the way. Not even the kind hard working Bostonians would have accepted, least of all the kind that Wall Street and the Big Smoke had begun to achieve. No, Boston and its B’s simply did not have its act together and short of a miracle, which were few and far between in those days and these ones as well, some wondered if they ever would…
And then He came along.
Found by happenstance or divine intervention, depending on your perspective, it always depends on your perspective, playing a throwaway game in an impish town buried along a corridor in the Ottawa valley whose name might otherwise be forgotten by anyone outside that postal code had the events unfolded differently. But they didn’t, and instead, the town of Gananoque, and another just like it several hours North entitled, Parry Sound, have become essential to the Legend the same way that a Bethlehem and Nazareth are essential to their own. I wonder if we would all remember the names of those places had miracles not lived and been found there?
In any sense, that the Man who would go on to change a city, a sport, two countries, not to mention the lives of those he loved and those he battled with for the better, was found, all four foot nothing one hundred pounds of him, in obscurity does much to confirm the notion that miracles and greatness are about smallness — they are best, and perhaps, only found in the tiniest corners of the world where all of our eyes, but for the hungriest of eyes, might never look.
And Boston was certainly hungry, or again to be honest as number Four always stressed, when their most dog-gone desperate Scout in search of his own personal miracle found Him. And after the Scout had gotten His name on a legitimate, notarized contract following a long but committed courtship, things began to change. In particular, what everyone (even old Conn Smythe in Toronto himself) said began to change. No longer did they say Boston and its B’s were destitute and forsaken, doomed to roam the basement forever and for after.
No, instead, they began to say that Boston had a hope and a light.
They said that Boston finally had a future.
And the future was Bobby Orr.
So who could have known I’d be destined to royally tick Him off?
I stare at the screen of my flip cell-phone waiting for my messages to load, having just turned it on after my plane bumped along the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Chin to chest, shoulders squared, I bristle through the terminal heading towards curb-side pick up, not caring if I bump into an innocent passerby or a Border Guard just trying to do her job. I’ve been slighted I feel, still angry at the world in my fighting mood, and this damn phone won’t load, not even as I hold it to the crisp Spring sky when I step outside where a sun blazes above — slowly thawing the remnants of another cold Toronto winter. It is indeed a strong sun but it’s not strong enough to thaw the own cold encasing my chilled heart…
Outside, cabs and cars streak past collecting other arrivals and from a parking Toyota, a Woman leaps into the arms of her recently arrived Husband or Boyfriend. They exchange kisses and hugs, their love producing a scowl of reciprocal disgust on my face. They’re so happy and I am so not. Another car honk-honks, forcing my attention to see my Dad who’s come to pick me up — sharing in my displeasure. I heave my bag in the trunk with an audible thunk, then head for the passenger door but just as I reach for it, my phone beeps, the service having finally returned. No new messages. I sigh.
The silence of our drive through Toronto’s greying infrastructure is probably what’s best for Dad and I right now — each in a brood so deep we feel drowned by. He did just have to shell out on a round-trip international flight for his newly suspended son the night before, and make arrangements to pick him up at the airport the next day in morning rush hour, and drop him off at home and lastly put in a full day’s work to pay for said flight. If anything, his brooding’s warranted while mine, to most, probably seems like your average teenage pissing and moaning. Except, somehow it’s not. Somehow it feels more gangrenous and lethal, but I haven’t found a way to articulate that to him. Or anyone for that matter. I’m hoping I might be able to. I’m hoping someone will come and break through.
“How was your flight?”
“You get some breakfast in you?”
“No. But I’m not hungry.”
Some more silence. Then:
“So what exactly did you get suspended for? I still don’t understand.”
“I was drinking with a bunch of the guys on the train headed back to school from New York City after our weekend there and some rat Teacher from another school saw us and reported us to our Dean.”
“But you weren’t physically at school drinking?”
“You swear you were not on campus?”
“Yes, Dad — I swear.”
He seems to do some internal computing after he’s gathered the facts straight from the horse’s mouth reaching the point where every kid who’s ever pissed off their parents knows they’re about to get an ear-full —
“Well, that’s stupid. You weren’t on campus. He should mind his own business.”
Apparently, no yelling is going to come in this ride but I’m not exactly going to test my luck. This is after all only day 1 of 7 on my sentence, so I’m not out of the woods yet. A red light forces Dad to stop. He puts a sports radio show on while I thumb my cell phone. He can see my silent obsessions, and perhaps, the way only a parent can, he can see the why behind all of this.
“Is this all about her, Matty?”
I close my eyes and exhale, answering him with my breath and some tears that leak through. But no words. It’s too hard to say. He tilts my chin up and gently grabs my cell phone — gesturing at its empty, message-less screen.
Inevitably, this whole thing, the ego and attitude, the chip and its edge, is about a her — the high-school girlfriend I had dated for a year who I’d gone to visit only a few weeks prior to the train-drinking incident at her University in Europe on Spring Break.
She was the first girl I ever thought I loved but was a year ahead of me enjoying the fun and freedom of University while I deferred to my all-male boarding school in the boonies of Connecticut, hoping to pursue my college hockey dream. That maintaining the relationship was tough would be an understatement, but I gave it everything I had — marking off the days until we were together again like a kid waiting for Christmas, sending notes by snail mail, and using every last dollar I had to buy those long distance calling cards, which never actually work, to leave her messages. It had been a grand love for me, the way any good one ought to be, a soul-stirring endeavor, a candle in the wind, which I was determined to keep aflame.
Finally, Spring Break arrived and I hopped on a 7 hour cross-Atlantic, multi-flight trip I’d booked with “borrowed” money from my parents. I wouldn’t make it to her until 4:00 PM the next day, tired and broke, but boy was I beaming with the smile of a young and reckless man, drunk on love and teaming with possibilities! I had finally made it! I could do anything!
She broke up with me a little after 9:30 PM that very night.
It was my first taste with the kind of savage betrayal we’re all capable of doing to each other at any given moment and like any brush with betrayal by people you thought you loved and thought loved you back — I’d been gutted. Left to bleed out an ocean and two flights away from the only people who were capable of cauterizing the blood loss: my family. I called home, bawling and sobbing over the European pay phone receiver to my folks. What had I done wrong? I called and wrote her every chance I could, sent gifts without receiving any, I stayed positive through it all, but evidently it wasn’t enough — so what was?
But there was no answer. There wouldn’t be not then, not ever, just like there’d never be another message from her again on my phone. Some things I imagine aren’t meant to be answered. And it took my long tear-ridden return flight home the next day which my folks booked for me at the low cost of $3,000 to come to that conclusion I could only get to after I had entombed myself along the way.
By the time I’d stepped off the flight into their arms in Toronto, I had lost a significant amount of blood and what remained had been boiled to acid and sucked back up into my heart where it would course through my veins as the source of that edge and anger. What harm that can do not only to everyone around you but to yourself when you keep that stored inside. Who cared, I wondered. It felt like no one really did and I felt, in the same way that those Boston fans felt all those years ago, that no one would come around to change all of that. I needed a miracle to save me. And just where do you find those?
I think my Dad has surmised that answer too. He’s a smart man, a college hockey graduate himself, but more importantly, a Father who can deduce something is terribly wrong by the level of his son’s personal disintegration.
The light changes green and he gasses us on.
“Well, Matty,” he says driving, “I don’t know what to tell you about all of that stuff. The sun comes up tomorrow. It always has. But I do know one thing,” he continues. “You’ve got to call Him.”
“You know who. Don’t play those games with me. You’ve got to call Bobby and tell Him what happened.”
“No buts — he put his name on the line for you to go to this school and whether we agree with it or not, you’ve got to call Him and tell Him.”
“So you mean to tell me I’ve got to call the Guy who famously made grown men on his own team cower in the bathroom if they had a crappy period and say, Hey Bob, just wanted to tell you I got caught on some stupid misdemeanor violation and got myself suspended but yeah, thanks again for the recommendation?”
“Life isn’t fair sometimes but when it isn’t, you’ve got to be a Man, Matty. Besides — do you know what would be worse?”
“If you don’t call him and he hears about this from someone else. If that happens, there won’t be a bathroom stall in the world you can hide in.”
He pulls up to our house in East Toronto and unlocks my door.
“Make the call.”
I sigh before he nudges me out onto our quiet street, my bag in hand and the newfound fear that goes alongside my recently announced penance.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Dad yells through the lowered passenger window. “I want it done before I’m home from work today or else I’m calling him.”
Before you’re home from work. In a few hours. Which is not nearly enough time to grow a set and rehearse what I’m actually going to say to him.
And the hits just keep on coming.
“What’s Bobby’s phone number?”
The first time I heard Bobby’s voice in person cemented the fact that all the tales we heard about him when we were growing up were true — which is strange considering if a Legend is a composition of stories, the ones that belong to his, the ones told by the generation before us who’d been fortunate enough to see him play, were mythic in quality. To us, they told us he could shoot, score, lead, follow, and do all of these things from the defense. They told us he could see things before they happened and of course they told us he was fast. One moment you’d see him, a brilliant white light in his be-spoked Boston B, then the next he’d be gone, a streaking blur, off into the Beyond kind of like a hockey Angel. Someone even told us that no one had ever seen how fast he really was, for if he did get to top speed we’d all be left behind and he was just too good a man to do that.
Once, in ninth grade, my English teacher had taken a sick day so we had a Substitute come in — a former regular who taught for years but had taken up this sub role upon retiring. We were in the middle of studying Death of a Salesman but instead of packing it in, our Sub picked the lesson up right where we’d left off the previous day with our full time Teacher.
“Alright, so Loman’s in the dumps — Miller’s painted him to be this guy who internalizes his suffering, lets it affect his relationships. Which we all kinda do, you know — he’s this everyman. I mean, he’s certainly no Bobby Orr.”
I remember a fellow student of mine then raised his hand.
“Who’s Bobby Orr?”
The Substitute kind of half chuckled, before he turned to the next page.
“Uh, I wasn’t joking.”
And my classmate really wasn’t. The Substitute had taught my older brother so he knew my face and name and looked me in the eye, almost incredulous.
“What have they been teaching you since I retired?”
I could sense a pity in his voice. After all, he had been so lucky to grow up in the good old days marveling at Bob and recognized that great things didn’t ever really come around that much. He thought about what to do then ordered us to close our text books, pulled out the class computer, hooked it up to the projector, which took some tinkering, and finally Googled, “Bobby Orr Stanley Cup Winning Goal Flying Video.”
He showed it to us on repeat and analyzed it for the rest of our lesson.
So it wasn’t so much as there were questions about the authenticity of the stories we’d heard about Bobby’s Legend growing up— it was just the way we were told that made you wonder if something so unreal could be so true.
But despite what anyone ever told you about him, it all paled in comparison to the story of Bobby and his family of Orrs being better people than he was a hockey player. That first time I ever met him and his son Darren at my brother’s junior game in Barrie, Ontario couldn’t have made anything more true.
After his playing days had subsided, not by choice but by tragedy, Bob picked himself up and chose to become a player agent and a darn good one at that, imparting the wisdom gleaned from a life spent in the pressure cooker, but more importantly, the values by which he had been raised, onto the next generation of players. With some luck and a few connections, Bob and his business, of which his son Darren was a part, agreed to “represent” my older brother whose own career was taking off. Technically, the word is “represent” but “take care of” would be a better fit because that’s all they’ve ever really done.
And at that point in his career, my older brother had earned himself his first NHL contract so Bobby and Darren had made the trip, along with my Mom and Dad and young brother Ben, to his game in Barrie to hand-deliver a hardcopy for him to sign. We were waiting after on the concourse when my Mom took me by the hand towards a small crowd which had formed around two tall gents possessing long squared faces and matching sets of trimmed hair-cuts. I was a young defenseman myself and had often asked, or bugged the way kid brothers do, to meet Bob and Darren if the chance arose. My brother was after all the star of our family and certainly warranted a majority of their attention, but if I could just say hi to the both of them, of whom I’d heard so much about, well that would just be great.
We got to the crowd on the concourse and Mom pushed her way to the front, giving a hug to both those gents like they were old friends while I stood with everyone else. To my amazement, both the gents turned to me.
“You must be Matttt,” the gravely voice went.
Oh my God, it was Bobby Orr speaking to me and he knew my name.
“The defenseman we’ve been hearing so much about.”
And that I play defense! Like him! What?
“Put her there.”
Meaning bring it in for a boy-ish hug with him and Darren and I did. My brother then showed up and they all went into the restaurant to chat and sign his contract.
But I just watched them go, remembering how my Substitute Teacher had finished up our class that day way back in ninth grade when the video had ended and that class-mate of mine snarkily remarked:
“So Bobby Orr was just that famous hockey player.”
“Just that famous hockey player?” our Substitute retorted, “Bobby Orr wasn’t just that famous hockey player. Boston was in the crapper, the game was on the decline, players were getting the shaft, kids were lipping off to parents, and don’t even get me started on the Soviets! Up our wazoos with a flashlight, trying to steal this beautiful thing away from us!”
The Substitute paused, then threw another knowing glance at me.
“Bobby changed all that. Just that famous hockey player? Oh, no. No, he wasn’t. He was so much more.”
He turned to the projector screen, which displayed the frozen image of Bobby in mid flight, soaring through the air, flying into the Beyond.
“He was The Man who Flew.”
And I was smitten with Him after our embrace yet poised to bring him crashing down, all with one phone call about getting suspended from school.
Step, step. Pause. Step, step. Pause. Those aren’t my ice skates chopping up a fresh sheet at the nearby arena. No, those are my feet hitting the hardwood floor in our East Toronto home after Dad has just dropped me off — nervous as all hell. The house is empty — why wouldn’t it be, it’s a Wednesday and everyone’s at work or school — but for me, the prodigal son whose feet pace quicker than they ever moved on ice, passing my cell-phone resting on our island with a set of phone numbers pre-punched in.
The phone number is Bobby Orr’s direct cell phone and all that’s left to do is press send, wait for the ring tone, hear his gravely voice on the other end, give him the scoop, then bite the bullet and see what happens.
The only trouble is a lot of things could happen.
1. He could freak and hang up and that would be the end of that, a quick and painless death. Not so bad. 2. He could freak and chew me out over the phone and then proceed to take out his disappointment with me out on my brother, a client of his and that would only compound my anger and misery. In my current state, this option seems most likely and though it sounds rough, it pales in comparison to option 3. He is actually in Toronto at the moment, perhaps visiting a client, or catching a Leaf game, and he will proceed to re-enact option 2 but in person. What? Too crazy? It could happen, you never know. Bobby was famously intense. His Legend always had a bit of that Chuck Norris feel. You know, he doesn’t sleep. He waits.
Wait, what the heck am I saying? This is Bobby freaking Orr. One of the busiest men in all of pro sports. He’s got some of the top clients in hockey right now, dealing with injuries and multi-million dollar contract negotiations in the middle of a Wednesday on top of his own family, wife, kids, and grand-kids. Time is money to him and you know what? I bet he was so busy he had his Assistant or Secretary send off another cookie cutter recommendation letter with his name on it to the Admissions department at my school when the twerp kid brother of his client asked for a favor.
No way in heck he’s gonna answer this call let alone call me back, if he even remembers who I am. No, what’s going to happen is I’m going to call him, he’s going to be in a meeting, he won’t recognize the number, hit deny, straight to voicemail, I’ll do my thing, and then when he’s kicking back at the end of a long day going through his messages, he’ll press number delete before my message is even over.
So, I can do this.
No, not just I can do this — I can freaking do this! I can make this call and you know what? I’m the one who’s hurt here. I’m the one who got thrown under the bus. Why the hell should I have to apologize anyway? It’s not going to make me feel better. Nothing anyone can say will take any of that —
And in my over-blown confidence, I’ve just pressed send on my cell-phone…
Wait! I’m not ready! But I can’t hang up now — it’s already rung once and if I don’t let it ring through, he might actually call me back!
Okay, I’ve got to go through with this.
Yes, I’ve got to go through with this. Yes, I can do this.
Be a Man. Besides, I’m gonna get his voicemail anyway.
Wait, I thought it was voicemail after three rings!
Oh, God — I can’t do this, he’s gonna pick up! He’s going to —
And the line is answered on the other side, someone saying:
“Hello, you’ve reached…”
The automated tone of his voice mail.
I stop pacing and fill my lungs with air after the pleasant robot finishes telling me to leave my message after the beep — I’ve got to keep calm and actually spit my words out. No chance I can survive that fight with my phone again. There goes BEEP. I keep calm and confident, assured and maybe even a bit cocky:
“Bobby, Matt Clune calling on Wednesday afternoon from Toronto. I ran into some trouble at my boarding school and was sent home. It’s no big deal, I should be back in no time to finish up, but I just wanted to let you know, firsthand like a real Man would, that this happened. Have a great day. Bye.”
I shut the phone.
We did it…
Oh, my, God wait, we actually did it! We are free! Home free! Time to get back to —
Then my cell phone rings.
And instantly, I am paralyzed — pinned in place.
It rings again.
It can’t be Him, can it? I mean they said he was fast but he can’t be this fast. It’s not even a half second later.
Yet my cell phone is still ringing.
I take a step forward — both knees actually buckling along the way. I check the screen:
Sweat beads from every part of my body. A lump balloons in my throat. Gone is my swagger, ego, anger and angst. And slowly, I flip my cell open.
“Hu…hu…hello?” emerges, voice cracking like a pimpled pip-squeak.
“Matttt,” goes the voice on the other end with its familiar gravel.
Evidently, he was that fast, and perhaps as some had expected, faster.
“It’s Bobby Orr.”
Aside from the time we met in Barrie, the last run-in I’d had with Bob had been the summer before I went to boarding school after I’d been admitted on the strength of his recommendation. Bob and Darren and some of their partners held a youth leadership camp in Watertown, Mass which my parents insisted I attend. The week long program for the younger kids and clients of the Orr group focused on team building, alcohol and drug awareness, physical fitness, and life away from home. I think there was even a session on how to iron your dress shirts and slacks without a big ugly crease down the middle, something Bob famously hated when he was growing up. He was, after all, one of the boys and the boys were always trying to look sharp so they could find themselves a nice girl.
I didn’t know a soul at camp, it was my first time in another country, I was away from my brothers, my beloved then girlfriend, and I just didn’t feel like I belonged. Most of the campers, after all, were highly touted kids who were guaranteed to play in the NHL and high level Division I programs and here I was, the twerpy kid brother who got a pity invite. Naturally, I kept to myself.
My instructions upon arriving at Boston Logan Airport were to get out my cell-phone and call a specific phone number which would hook me up with my ride to camp. So I did that and after two rings, a bouncy voice answered:
“Cluney, it’s D! Darren Orr — you here?”
Darren himself was picking me up.
“Uh, yeah — I think so.”
“Okay, where ya at?”
I looked around — I had taken an Air Canada flight in from Toronto.
“I’m in front of the Air Canada sign at the pick-up curb.”
“Okay, buddy — sit tight, I’m in a Black SUV. I’ll be right there.”
I hung up and waited a good five minutes, keeping my frightened eyes peeled for any sign of his SUV but no car of that description came into sight. My cell rang in my pocket.
“Cluney — it’s D. I just did a lap and didn’t see ya. Where are ya exactly?”
“Uh, in front of the Air Canada sign. There’s a Police Officer two tiers down.”
“Air Canada sign. Cop two tiers down. Got it. Be right there.”
Click. He hung up. Another five minutes passed. No SUV. My cell rang again.
“Cluney! It’s D, I uh, I did another lap. Didn’t see ya! You sure you’re in front of the Air Canada sign, buddy?”
“Uh, yeah — it’s right here. Big white letters. Air Canada.”
There was a pause on the other end.
“Are you on the departures or arrivals level?”
I stepped to my left and peaked around the Cop. In bright letters it said:
“I’m on the departures level. I’m so sorry.”
“Ha. I thought so. Sit tight. Be right there.”
Departures. Real smooth, Matt. Five minutes later he showed up with a big smile, sat me in the front seat, and rode off for the camp in the west end of the city. On our way, we passed through the Logan toll booths and he popped in a couple dollars from a stash in his middle arm rest — maybe about four bucks worth. As we went, it occurred to me that for the three laps I’d made him take just to find me at the airport, he had to go through the tolls and then come back in, paying his four bucks each way there.
And he never said a word about it. He just smiled his Orr smile.
At camp, we broke up into five teams of ten players, each with a Counselor who was either a college Junior or Senior. They were in charge of us for the week, responsible for making sure we did all our drills and activities but what was most important was making sure we were in attendance at each of the keynote seminars scheduled every day of the week, anchored around a guest speaker. One day it was Derek Sanderson, the next it was Ray Bourque, Travis Roy, and so forth — all legendary speakers in their own rite.
None of us expected Bobby to be there, it was the middle of summer, on a stinky college campus with a bunch of feisty kids scampering around. But on a Wednesday out of nowhere, we all walked into a lecture hall for our scheduled speaker, only to learn they’d been changed out for a special surprise and Bobby Orr all stood staring back at us from a lectern.
He spoke in possession of his boy-ish charm, even when he had to turn serious for a moment with sobering stories of what it was like to pursue your dream but get homesick, to be picked on and bullied, to lose and feel frustrated, to to quit, to be mistreated and feel the urge to “let loose”.
But to all of that stuff and those feelings, he just simply said to us:
“Despite whatever happens guys…”
He was looking us in the eye, cool, calm, and poised.
“Do what’s right.”
Up until the mid-point in the camp, I dared to venture outside my comfort zone sparingly. But after he spoke to us, to me, I made a point to be a leader for the week’s remainder. I introduced myself to other people I didn’t know, I asked our Counselor if I could help set up the next drill, I went to bed early, got up even earlier, and when we made a mistake and had gotten called out for it, I was the first to own up for it. Bob and Darren couldn’t be watching the camp — they were too busy — but that was besides the point. I wasn’t looking for anything from them, I was just struck by how simple and powerful Bob’s words had been. He cared and that made all the difference.
It was, to say the least, the camp of my life, and when it ended, there was a final banquet to announce the team results. We were having burgers and salad and saying our goodbyes while I was personally getting ready to catch a ride with Darren again, sure to remember the location of the departure terminal. I had after all been there staring at the Air Canada sign for a good half hour.
The camp’s Director came over the P-A system with a special announcement, declaring each team had one camper nominated by their Counselor as their team MVP. These MVPs would have to come up now and receive a special prize for winning the award. The first four teams went first and when I was busing my paper plate to the trash, I heard my name over the P-A system.
My Counselor had elected me as our team MVP and I was to receive a prize.
I made the long walk to the front smiling at all the guys who’d now become my friends then shook the Director’s hand and my Counselor’s before they handed me my folded prize — which I held up for everyone to see.
It was an official Boston Bruins hockey jersey.
And the number on the back of it was, 4 — the name above reading, ORR.
Not only that, but there was a personal autograph on the front signed:“To Matt— Good Luck Always, Bobby Orr.”
Had He been watching this whole time? I searched the room for any sign of Him. But there was only Darren, signaling me that it was time to go. Time to go was right, I suppose. I had gotten everything I needed from this camp including a set of words to live by. A set of words to live by that sure would have done me some good to remember when I was acting out on that train, goofing off to numb my broken heart and my pain and misery.
And, of course, a set of words that would do me some good on this phone call that I’m having with Bobby Orr right now.
“I got your message, Matt. What happened?” Bobby asks me without any sign of judgment or that famous temper of his flaring up.
I can’t even believe I’m having this conversation with him.
“…I got in trouble at school.”
“Uh-huh, I heard that. But what were you doing?”
“I was drinking, Bobby. I was drinking off cam — ”
But I stop. To Him, it doesn’t matter if it was off campus or on campus. It doesn’t matter if I’m hurting or miserable, embittered or disillusioned. What I had done was reckless and stupid. If I hadn’t of gotten caught for this, it would have been for something else later— something worse. What had happened to me, Bobby would say, doesn’t matter — it’s what I did that matters so in the end my argument is moot, as it had been with the Dean.
“I was drinking, Bobby.”
My nerves and my pubescent cackle voice have gone away, replaced with a tone of sinking shame that comes from admitting your failures to your hero — a Guy you just wanted to make proud and feel good about taking you under his wing. I’d failed him and any anger or resentment I harbor to the girl who broke my heart, or the Teacher who ratted me out, or the Dean who’d suspended me in the first place, pales in comparison to that feeling.
“That’s all. I was drinking.”
I start to cry, gently of course, so he can’t hear.
“Well…” he starts, letting out a small sigh, “you can’t be doing that, Matt. You just can’t be doing that.”
“I know, Bobby. I know. I’m really sorry.”
Just get this next part over with — just get this part where you tell me you or Darren are never going to speak to me again over with so I can be alone. Where you let me go like that girl let me go without a care in the world. Just get rid of me —
“You’re a good kid, Matt. And I expect a lot more out of you because I’ve been hearing good things from the Dean and your Headmaster at school.”
You have? My heart leaps for a moment, slowly coming back to life.
“So don’t let this happen again, okay? I do not want to hear about this ever again. Do you understand me, Matt?”
He’s not letting me go…
“Yes, Bobby. I do. I promise it won’t. I promise.”
He’s going to stick with me!
“Good. Thanks for the call. I really appreciate that.”
“Okay, Bobby —
“Oh, and one more thing, Matt.”
Anything, Bobby. Anything.
“You remember what we talked about last summer at camp, don’t you?”
“Yes, Bobby — of course.”
I slurp up a tear, dabbing my nose on the side of my goose-bump ridden arm.
“Do the right —
But the line is already dead on his end. He is already gone. That fast.
Do the right thing my Hero once said to me, and do the right thing I have in this life. I went back to school, made amends with everyone, graduated, went to college, played four years of solid hockey, gathered my degree, played a couple more years in the minors, then moved on with nothing but the utmost pride and confidence in myself that I had been prepared to live a good life by one of the greats. Along the way, Darren even got to stay on as my “agent” but I always felt he was something closer to a friend or uncle when I see’d him at my college games on a freezing cold Worcester Tuesday in February, his square jaw and brush cut watching me play through the glass in his dark coat. He’d always tell me afterwards he was “in the neighborhood” so he wanted to catch a game and see me. In the neighborhood. Two hours away from his house with his own wife and kids. A Legend himself. I even had to have a call with him when I decided to retire. I said I was moving on with my life, that I’d done everything I wanted to do with hockey, and now was the time to go.
“You sure that’s what you want, Cluney?”
“Yeah, D. I’m sure. You okay with that?”
“Okay? Am I okay? Hell, the only thing that matters to me is if you’re okay with it. If you’re happy, buddy — we’re happy.”
Years later, I found out one of the guys who was drinking on the train back in boarding school had lied to the Dean about the whole incident and eventually got caught. He was expelled and his life took a different turn.
And yet I told the truth to the Dean, I stood face to face, toe to toe, pissed, arrogant, whatever I was feeling in that moment, unafraid to tell this bruiser the truth. It may have been reckless, but all this time later, I suspect I was actually doing what I had been trained to do by number Four — which was, as he said, the right thing.
Tell the truth. Get suspended. Live a good life.
The paradox remains and will probably always remain, even though I don’t really understand it all that much. Some things are best left unanswered as I’ve said but the question of greatness surrounding Bobby, that paradox, well there is no question for me about the greatness of he and his band of Orrs.
They were there for a boy in his time of need, in his darkest hour just as they had been in Boston’s darkest hour, when that boy was hurting and alone. They were simply there. Such a small feat but greatness is smallness and had they not been there, had they withheld their guidance and compassion, the boy might have walked a different and darker path but instead is here today with the best life ahead of him.
And is that not what greatness is?
I’ll never forget what Bobby and the Orrs mean to me but if I somehow do — if these memories fade in time, as they sometimes tend to do — I suppose I can always look at that jersey he gave me. I still have it. I mean, of course I do. It hangs on the wall in our living room where it gently sways from time to time by way of the ocean breeze as a reminder that every so often, Angels fall to Earth and slow down just long enough for the rest of us to catch up and get a glimpse of how great we can all be. And though they swear they’re just like us — Bobby would scold you if you ever called him great to his face — we all know better, don’t we?
Yes, because we, above all, know one small but very important fact:
Matt Clune is a writer for the screen and for print with his brother, Ben.