Re-living the curse of hockey’s bad knees

When Bobby Orr was at the peak of his career, I stumbled on a story that would’ve been a “scoop” except it wasn’t breaking news, just speculation. Orr’s bad knees were going to end his career sooner than planned — according to an orthopaedic surgeon who had seen it happen before…to him.

The surgeon’s name was Jerry Wilson. He’d played three NHL games in Montreal (with Rocket Richard and Dickie Moore as linemates) following eight knee operations, the first when he was 11. At 20, he was cut loose by the Canadiens. Fifteen years and a medical degree later, with orthopaedic training to analyze his knee experiences, he told me this:

“Orr could play five or six years, but I predict he won’t play more than a couple, because his ability will go and he won’t be able to tolerate that. He’ll be an ordinary hockey player.”

A “couple” was several seasons fewer than everybody in hockey, including Orr, expected. He played two more, then mini-seasons of 10, 20 and 6 games.

Two seasons…plus 36 games.

Wilson was right. Orr became ordinary, but for an other-worldly seven-game Canada Cup when his knees rallied, allowing him to skate better than he walked, one last time: He was the MVP.

Hockey broadcaster Ken Nicolson told me of Wilson’s theory. For my Montreal Star “scoop” I never contacted Orr nor his orthopaedic specialist in Boston, Dr. Carter Rowe. I later heard neither was impressed, mostly because they thought Wilson’s prediction unethical. Years later, my boss told me the story should’ve won a National Newspaper Award.

Wilson had been watching Orr closely for a year.

“I saw a description of the operation — a deteriorated knee at a very early age, and there’s no way, up to this point, that science can fix it. I remember reading that Carter Rowe said an osteophyte [degenerative arthritis] was pinching his cartilage. That’s why I assume it’s arthritis of a moderately severe degree…a condition that does not get better. With more trauma, more work on it, you just get deterioration.”

Wilson, whose son Carey and grandson Colin both played 10 NHL seasons, showed x-rays of his own knees to university med students and asked them to guess the age of their owner.

“They all said ’78 or 80’,” he added.

Wilson was 35. His hockey career ended 10 seasons after his first knee operation. Orr was 25. His hockey career ended 10 seasons after his first knee operation.

Months after Orr retired, I happened to be sitting beside him at Madison Square Garden, during a Challenge Cup practice. There was talk that people would one day have knees replaced. Naive, or just hoping one of them might be the best player I’d ever seen — a defenceman who averaged more points per game than today’s super-star forwards Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin — I asked him about getting artificial knees.

Orr gave it his “aw shucks, I don’t know” laugh.

Reportedly, he has had both knees replaced now, decades too late to extend (wishful thinking) his career.