The best of his — or any — generation

Hockey’s Boy Wonder was never going to grow old. Come Monday, Bobby Orr turns 75.

Orr was 18 when he burst into the National Hockey League to save the Boston Bruins, who the previous season were last in goals, last in goals-against and one point away from last place. Although Orr didn’t make them champions as a teenager, he did the first year he could legally drink champagne from the Stanley Cup.

He’d been on the Bruins’ radar at 12, when his parents signed a ‘C’ form that gave Boston his professional playing rights for life, and Orr did become the heart and lungs of the Bruins. Anybody under 50 has likely only seen how he did it on old highlights, and anybody over 50 is likely to say you don’t know what you missed.

Writing about Bobby Orr isn’t about living in the past; it’s intended — like all Distant Replays — to embrace, remember and respect the past. Each generation’s fans have a greatest hockey player, with legitimate statistical evidence to validate that opinion. Orr is mine.

For him, it goes beyond statistics, yet the one that is always going to define him: winning the NHL scoring championship. He was, after all, a defenceman, and no other defenceman has won the Art Ross Trophy.

Orr did it twice.

The second one was his last “real” season before the knees that had been intimate with a surgeon’s knife too many times finally gave out. The next season, Orr heroically and stoically was the Canada Cup’s MVP, then played in only 10 NHL games. Over the next three years, he played in 26 more.

NHL President Clarence Campbell, who watched every player from 1920 to 1984, said he never saw one with Orr’s skills. The coach in the corner, Don Cherry, always called Orr the greatest ever: “Nobody even close.” A defence partner, Don Awrey, once said he’d give Orr his knees if it would help him play again.

He’s the greatest player of my generation because of what he did to hockey…what he did for hockey. Until Bobby Orr, defencemen orchestrated attacks to the offensive end. Orr led them. When he was a rookie, NHL experts said he’d have to change how he played. Instead, Orr changed how the game was played.

He did it modestly and efficiently, because there was nothing Orr couldn’t do. Nothing he didn’t do. He single-handedly laid the groundwork for all defencemen who followed, while setting records that still stand, for points (139) and assists (102). Paul Coffey, his career twice as long, is the only blueliner to come close in points (138) — without Orr, it’s doubtful he’d have been allowed to be that offensive. Only four players ever won a scoring title with more than 139 points (Connor McDavid will be the fifth, next month). Among active defencemen, Roman Josi has the modern-day assists record, with 73 from last year. This year, only three have more than 50 assists to date.

Bobby Orr’s career lasted nine full seasons, over at age 27. He had always looked young, and then he left young.

Maybe that’s why none of us thought he would ever grow old.