Bobby Orr: Behind the scenes of The National interview
Famously shy hockey legend is natural and off-the-cuff in talk with Peter Mansbridge
(Leslie Stojsic was part of a CBC team that visited hockey great Bobby Orr in Parry Sound, Ont., to record an interview for chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge’s program Mansbridge One on One. This is her behind-the-scenes take on the interview with the legendary Number Four. Follow Leslie on Twitter at @LeslieCBC.)
It’s a sunny July afternoon in Parry Sound. The Mansbridge crew is in town to get ready for a big interview: Bobby Orr.
Orr has written a book, My Story, about his life and the game he loves. We’re in his hometown to do the first interview with him.
I’m not quite sure what to expect from the hockey hero — he’s famously shy — even Peter has never met him.
I enter Parry Sound’s Stockey Centre with our crew, Andy Hincenbergs and Mike Heenan.
We’re looking for Cheryl Ward, who runs the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame there. A young clerk points her out to me. “That’s her over there.”
Beside Ward is a man hauling material in hockey bag. I considering stepping in to introduce myself to Ward and then realize who the gear-lugger is. It’s Number Four himself, going back and forth and up and down stairs with stuff from a storage room.
Orr, a legendary defenceman, is a modern-day Shakespearian figure, a marvel on the ice. One season, he led the NHL in points: 120 (21 above the runner-up), an unprecedented achievement for a defenceman.
Aside from the Stanley Cups and trophies — and there were many — it takes your breath away, today, to watch him skate, pass and score in those grainy films from the 1970s. The speed, grace and skill he demonstrated have yet to become the norm in the game today.
But with the talent came tragedy. Orr’s brilliant career was cut short by his painful knees. He had to retire in 1978, at only 30 years of age, after 12 years in the NHL.
Then there’s the betrayal.
Orr's first professional contract was one of the first in professional ice hockey to be negotiated by an agent, Alan Eagleson. Orr got the NHL’s first million-dollar contract with Eagleson.
And they were close: Orr says he trusted him like a brother. But Eagleson mismanaged Orr’s money so badly that when Orr retired, he says, he found himself deeply in debt.
Orr has since rebuilt his finances and now runs a successful sports management company. He himself has become an agent to some of the top players in the NHL today.
There’s no real reason we haven’t seen movies about this man’s life. I suspect it’s because he’s so low-key. As we discover, he’s instantly likable, funny and certainly not an introvert — but not an ego-driven attention-seeker either.
So it is that we see this Canadian icon hauling gear. When there’s a break in the action, we introduce ourselves.
Orr still has the same boyish good looks as he did when he played for the Boston Bruins. But in person, what stand out are his blue eyes, always watching everything, Not intense or hawkish, just adept at taking in 360 degrees of information. They are the eyes that saw the plays on the ice before anyone else did.
Orr mentions there was a mixup and he doesn’t have formal gear for the interview. No matter, we tell him, it’s actually better. Peter is casual in these interviews and given that it’s summer, shorts are perfectly fine.
The next morning, we arrive at the location to set up ahead of time, around 6:40 a.m. Guess who’s there to greet us, bright and early?
When the interview gets underway, it’s as if Bobby and Peter have known each other for years. Almost from the beginning, there’s a lot of laughter, especially at the murder of crows that started heckling when the taping began.
Orr is thoughtful in the interview. He’s had years to think about what he wants to say.
But he’s also very responsive, natural and off-the-cuff in his answers. We’ve been told if Orr is fond of you, he’ll get physical in a playful way. He’s practically slappy!
And still very boyish: he calls his nemesis “Mr. Eagleson,” is if he were still an adolescent. When asked why he still calls him that, Orr replies, with a swat, “This is television, Peter!”
Peter hadn’t planned to ask about the injuries. But when Orr turned up in shorts, showing the many railroad tracks of scars across his knees, it provided an opening for one of the most compelling parts of the conversation.
They’re painful just to look at. You can’t help but wonder how much those rudimentary surgeries exacerbated Orr’s problem. If the current arthroscopic procedures today were available then, how much more would we have have seen from Number Four?
In the weeks since the interview, I corresponded with Orr a few times. In one email, I mentioned our young colleague who transcribed the full interview, no hockey fan herself, who found herself quite enchanted with the conversation — and even developed a crush on him.
“What’s her name?” he wrote back.
Not long after, an envelope arrives. It’s a signed photo of Orr’s leap through the air after scoring the famous 1970 Stanley Cup winning goal. “To Sian, with love, Bobby Orr.”