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Searching for Bobby Orr
Book Review by Lorna Jackson
Bobby Orr:

By Stephen Brunt. Knopf, 295 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

The title suggests an existential journey into the absurd hockey abyss to answer the question, What means Bobby Orr? The cover—glitzy gold framing a surreal glossy of a pimpled Orr—imagines one possibility: god. Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt also asks, What means god?

Searching for Bobby Orr, though, doesn't find the most prolific and gifted defenceman in hockey history. Bobby doesn't like press, see, and his friends know it. So Brunt didn't enjoy access to Orr, his friends and family, or players who might have helped construct a more measured version than the one that sports reporters have fed us since the early '60s. Access denied, try plan B: summarize articles, debunk books, dish ribald insider dirt (the Bobby Orr pubic trim favoured by 1960s strippers), and have a good weep over those goddamned knees.

What happens when sports news goes 24-hour-multichannel and trans forms the private, mumbling nation of hockey players into a psychedelic planet of newsworthy heroes? Brunt gets it. Less convincing is his speculation about Orr's Boston-era fan appeal (you call that handsome?) and his relationships with reporters. Why would Orr buddy up with a news guy like Russ Conway, who was later credited with the downfall of Orr's own Col. Tom Parker, Alan Eagleson?

One elegant chapter details a 1970 Orr end-to-ender, Boston vs. Detroit. Reminiscent of John McPhee's classic tribute to an Arthur Ashe tennis match, Levels of the Game, Brunt describes in high-def detail the pursuit by Frank Mahovlich—just off a nervous breakdown and dumped by the Leafs—and Gordie Howe (who "looks like someone's dad"). Brunt breaks from the slo-mo replay to explain teammates on the ice like Derek Sanderson, who, broken and broke thanks to all the cocaine and Quaaludes hockey dollars could buy, would soon need Orr's tough love to "haul him out of the abyss". The chapter ends with Orr up against Kitty Carlisle and Pierre Berton on Front Page Challenge. It's a breathtaking and deeply moving dozen pages of sports journalism, a long poem's worth of rhythms and good words, when Brunt's search finally digs up his own passion and talent.

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