Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr played his first NHL game 50 years ago today and even though expectations were sky high, he exceeded them.
In the grand scheme of things, it turned out to be a nothing game between the two worst teams in the NHL, the first of a mind-numbing 14 games the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings would play against each other that season. The Bruins would go on to win the game 6-2 and it would give them a 1-0-0 record, the only time in the 1966-67 campaign the Bruins would be over .500 en route to a last-place finish in the last year of the six-team NHL. The Red Wings never made it over .500 that season and finished second-last.
It was the first game of a long and painful season for both teams. The Bruins would ultimately finish out of the playoffs for the eighth straight year and the Red Wings would also miss to begin an epic string of futility. They would make the playoffs only twice in the next 17 years and it would be another 21 before they would win a single playoff series.
“I don’t even remember that game, isn’t that a shame?” said Peter Mahovlich, who suited up as a 20-year-old rookie for the Red Wings. “I was probably so excited just to be playing myself.”
But the real excitement on Oct. 19, 1966 was for the NHL debut of Bobby Orr, who earned his first NHL assist 50 years ago tonight and started on his quest to change the game forever. And long before the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid came along, Orr knew first-hand what it was like to be hyped to biblical proportions. In fact, going into his first game, Boston Globe writer Tom Fitzgerald did his best to put the expectations into perspective, writing: “Boston hockey fans can help a lot if they contain themselves in their appraisal of the lad. They must not expect that Bobby immediately will be a combination of Eddie Shore, Doug Harvey, Jack Stewart and Dit Clapper.”
The funny thing is, Bruins fans had every right to expect that of him because that’s exactly what Orr became. He wasn’t immediately a combination of all those players, but he got off to a pretty good start with 13 goals and 41 points, which was good enough to win him the Calder Trophy. And with 102 penalty minutes, Orr did show a fair bit of Eddie Shore and Jack Stewart, sending a message that he would not be physically abused. Only five players in the league amassed more penalty minutes than Orr did that season. Only seven other 18-year-olds in NHL history have more PIM in their rookie season than Orr did, but Orr was the first to break 100. (In fact, Orr’s toughness and his defensive play in his own end were so overshadowed by his greatness in other areas that they are often overlooked.)
Meanwhile, Orr redefined the defense position and distinguished himself as the best player in the world by a fairly significant margin. In fact, it could probably be argued that at no time in the league’s history was the chasm between the best player and the rest of the league as wide as it was as when Orr was in his prime.
Covering Orr’s first game as a Bruin, Fitzgerald had this to say about the debut: “The high point of the occasion for the house full of fans, and for the other Bruins for that matter, was the calm and really major league job turned in by Orr, placed on as tough a spot as any boy ever to break into the NHL.
“Although he did not score a goal, the lad with the blond whiffle did everything else expected of the best at his position. Bobby demonstrated that the critics who doubted his defensive savvy were dead wrong. He played the position like a veteran; was very tough in dislodging opponents around the net; blocked shots; and made adept plays in moving the puck from his own end.
“It was an individual triumph of a kind that bosses of the Boston team were hoping for, but this long-hailed rookie unquestionably exceeded all of their anticipation.”
And he would go on to do that again and again in his 12-year career, the last three of which were marred by injury and a nasty divorce from the Bruins. But Orr crammed more greatness into those nine years than almost any other player in the history of the game has done throughout his career. Orr is certainly the greatest defenseman of all-time and, depending upon your perspective, the greatest player ever to play the game. He scored one of the game’s most memorable goals and did almost as much for hockey in New England as Gretzky did for the game in California.
And it all started 50 years ago tonight. The Bruins plan to honor Orr at a ceremony at their home opener tomorrow night, not far from where it all began in a nothing game between the NHL’s two worst teams.