Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review: "Searching for Bobby Orr", by Stephen Brunt

Stephen Brunt is one of the more thoughtful, insightful, and measured sports journalists who populates the Canadian landscape.  Even in this modern age when sportswriters are meant to give good footage on camera, and good quotes on air, he does so by the content and analysis he provides, rather than by RPM's or decibels.

Because that's what he is at his core, a sportswriter, and it shines through in his biography "Searching for Bobby Orr".  Having had to read some autobiographies that are stunted and barren lately, Mr. Brunt's work distinguishes itself both in the quality of the prose and the care taken to present facts, and quotes from different sources and actors in the life of the Bruins Hall of Famer.  Whereas some other books can be slogs, this one causes the reader to race ahead to find out more, and then to fight that urge and backtrack to re-read some passages that were initially skimmed over, just to savor the language and imagery contained therein.

The interesting aspect of this book is that it is an unauthorized biography.  Not that the author claims a strained or broken relationship with his subject, he in fact had what he describes as a very cordial meeting with Mr. Orr before he launched this undertaking.  Despite this, Bobby Orr declined to participate, and further asked that Mr. Brunt refrain from contacting his immediate family and a few other close relations, a request that the author honoured.  

While this could have hamstrung a lesser writer, aborted the journey before it began, Mr. Brunt forges on, and uses the plentiful documents which exist on Bobby Orr's career, and excerpts them extensively.  There are also numerous players, officials, journalists, and other figures who had contact with Mr. Orr who are not in the imposed 'no-fly zone', and who have lots of anecdotes and remembrances to provide.

One of the products of the decision of Bobby Orr to stand aside on this project is that it perfectly illustrates the private nature of the man.  While he is universally described as warm, hospitable and generous in this and other works, he is also famously guarded with his home life.  He has numerous friends and partners and colleagues who are in his inner circle, but those outside this find him, while courteous and genial when the occasion is right, to be generally aloof or guarded.

Stephen Brunt takes care to illustrate that this is at least partly as a result of his experience with his former agent, business partner, and closest friend and confidant Alan Eagleson.  It is of course impossible to write a book on one without dealing with the other, they are inextricably linked.  Mr. Orr still feels slighted by how he was demeaned and abandoned by some in the press and hockey world when Alan Eagleson's legal battles started and forced some to take sides.  

Mr. Brunt takes care to explain how Bobby Orr was under great financial duress during this time, and came as close as can be to bankruptcy, but managed to repay any debts outstanding and rebuild his personal fortune.  The author makes the argument that his travails make him uniquely qualified to advise young players in his current role as a player agent.  If his mega-watt name and personality doesn't win over young players and their parents, the authority he can speak with when it comes to the necessity of keeping an eye on their contracts and investments will often clinch the deal.

There are many enjoyable aspects to this biography.  For this reader, who came of age very shortly after Bobby Orr's prime, it provided a great deal of knowledge to flesh out the legend.  The early career, his family life, how he was pursued by many teams, how the Bruins may have been the only organization to truly understand how special a player he could become, all are engrossing.  There are explanations for Leafs fans of their team's lukewarm pursuit, how they felt they already had 'enough prospects' on defence, they could allow the Bruins to snatch one away.

The crucial part of the story is how the Orr family felt railroaded somewhat, how all these scouts were beating a path to their door while Bobby was barely a teenager, yet they could never get a straight answer as to what signing one form or another meant, and how much money their son was entitled to or could expect to earn.  His mother was inflexible that he should finish high school and graduate, but felt that was a low priority for these hockey men.  These factors among others played a large part in Bobby's father enlisting the aid of a young Alan Eagleson at a fateful summer barbecue chance meeting in Parry Sound.  

Another interesting aspect of the Bobby Orr story this book deals with is the legend that he never knew the Bruins offered him part-ownership in the team prior to his leaving them to sign with the Blackhawks, that this was kept secret.  In fact, Stephen Brunt finds two mentions of this offer in newspapers published at the time, along with Alan Eagleson's comments that he felt taking a stake in the team might be unworkable, not in Mr. Orr's interests, and that the league "would never allow it" in any case.  Of course, that is just further indication of the conflict of interest Alan Eagleson had, his job was to further Bobby's interests, not to worry about whether John Ziegler might have a problem with a player, even one of his client's magnitude, being also an owner.  We of course saw a couple decades later Mario Lemieux suit up for the Penguins while a part owner, so these hurdles can be negotiated.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, and specifically to those Canadiens fans who only knew Bobby Orr as a superlative opponent, or a legendary foe to those a little younger.  While we know the lore of les Habitants, we tend to not be so well versed on that of other teams, and this is as good a place to start as any.  Mr. Brunt tells the story with even-handed care but also with affection for his subject, as difficult to pin down as he may be, and the result is a great read for any hockey or sports fan.

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