Bobby Orr pegs Gordie Howe No. 1 all-time – calls game today ‘dangerous’

Canada Post's 2014 NHL commemorative stamps (courtesy Canada Post)
Canada Post's 2014 NHL commemorative stamps (courtesy Canada Post)

On the day he was honored with his own stamp, the man many hockey fans feel was the greatest player of all-time gave his stamp of approval for that designation to Gordie Howe. Bobby Orr threw his support behind Mr. Hockey in the never-ending debate concerning the greatest player ever to play the greatest game. “Gordie is, in my mind, the greatest ever,” said Orr, who recently penned the foreword for Howe’s memoir, Mr. Hockey. “His numbers are outrageous and most of that was with the six teams, when it was a lot tougher. I don’t think there’s any question. Play any way you want to play…he was special.” That word, along with spectacular, otherworldly and dominant, could be used to describe Orr himself. More than 35 years after Orr played his last NHL game, he is still the standard bearer, if not for all players then certainly for defensemen. At 66 years old, Orr still looks youthful, aside from the fact that his two knee replacements give him a noticeable limp.

Orr was in good company Thursday afternoon when Canada Post honored him and five other Hall of Fame defensemen from the Original Six with their own postage stamps. One name Orr refuses to inject into the conversation is his own. “I don’t talk to anybody about ratings,” he said. “I just don’t think about it because it’s not important to me. When I played, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that I played terribly or I played well. I could look in the mirror and I knew what I was doing. I knew if I played well and I knew if I played poorly. I didn’t need to read about it or talk about it.”

Orr, Pierre Pilote of the Chicago Blackhawks, Red Kelly of the Detroit Red Wings, Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens, Tim Horton of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Harry Howell of the New York Rangers were honored with postage stamps. The stamps commemorate defensive excellence during the NHL’s Original Six golden years from 1942 to 1967. Luckily for Canada Post, Orr managed to play one season in the Original Six, his rookie season of 1966-67. Otherwise, Canada Post might have had trouble finding someone to represent the Bruins, since Eddie Shore’s NHL career ended in 1940. (We’re willing to bet that a Dit Clapper or Bill Quackenbush stamp wouldn’t have flown off the shelves with the same frequency as Bobby Orr’s.)

Orr was quick to point out that the others who were honored played the bulk of their careers during the Original Six era. All were worthy recipients for the honor to be sure. You wouldn’t find anyone better than Howell on the Rangers, Horton on the Leafs, Harvey on the Canadiens, Kelly on the Red Wings and Pilote on the Blackhawks during those years. In the cases of Horton and Harvey, you could make an argument that they’re still the greatest defensemen those teams have ever produced.

None of them was better than Orr, who was robbed of even more greatness because his knees betrayed him and modern medicine did not have the ability to repair knees the way it does today. Looking back, Orr actually said he probably would have handled his health setbacks differently if he had to do it all over again. “Maybe take a little better care of myself after injuries,” he said, when asked what advice he’d have for the younger version of himself, “so I could play a little longer.”

Orr is still one of the game’s major power brokers and obviously still has the ability to draw a crowd. He likes the game Drew Doughty and the Los Angeles Kings play and enjoys the fact that there is more of an emphasis on speed. But he doesn’t like everything he sees in that respect, saying the elimination of the red line has made the game too fast. It’s a sentiment some other hockey people share.

“I think it’s dangerous,” Orr said. I think with the size of the players and the speed of the players, without the center line players are being hurt. Teammates are running into each other and I think it’s dangerous, I really do. Back a few years ago, race cars got too fast, so they tried to slow them down a little bit and I think the speed of the game today, because of the size and the strength of the players, is dangerous.”

Orr’s agency represents Connor McDavid, the Erie Otters wunderkind who has been on everyone’s radar since gaining exceptional status from Hockey Canada to play major junior hockey when he was 15. Orr doesn’t have too many words of advice for McDavid, who is the current frontrunner to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 entry draft.

“I don’t know who’s going to teach him how to play,” Orr said with a laugh. “They’re pulling at Connor from so many directions and he’s handling things so well, but the kids get tired and I just don’t want him to get tired. Make sure it’s not a chore, keep loving the game and that’s all you have to talk to a kid like Connor about. The kid is pretty talented.”