Early this summer, my colleague Jason Clinkscales posed the question, which athletes’ autobiographies need to be written? After very little self-deliberation, I suggested Bobby Orr.
The reason Jason’s question is so compelling is that very few autobiographies, if any, need to be written at all. When it comes to athletes, that number shrinks even more. How does one empathize with or learn from a story that centers on someone’s stardom and fame? As a result, many autobiographies that find their way to the shelves scream “read more about me, by me.”
Orr, on the other hand, has a unique story to tell. His career arc follows that of a Greek hero. A child prodigy from an obscure hometown, Orr signed his rights over to the Boston Bruins at age 14. By 25, he was on top of the hockey world after a meteoric rise. Orr was the undisputed best player of his era and maybe the best of all time as well.
But every hero has his fall, and so it went for Orr. Chronic knee injuries robbed him of a prime. His unbreakable trust in his agent turned friend Alan Eagleson, Orr’s hubristic quality if he had one, robbed him of his fortune.
Redemption came in retirement in the form of a steady family life and a new-found career as a player representative. Orr set out to prevent kids from falling into the same trap that cost him so dearly.
I knew that story before I wrote my words for Jason. I just wanted to read Orr tell it himself. Unbeknownst to me, he was putting the finishing touches on his autobiography as I was whimsically calling for it to be written. Orr: My Story was released in stores on October 15. I read it in a week. And I have to say it was rather … unfulfilling.
Much of what swayed my opinion was strictly personal. For the record, Orr is my all-time favorite defenseman. It bridges on hero worship at times. It should be said that I’m far from alone in that aspect. So naturally my expectations, or rather my desires, were set unreasonably high. This is his story, and I should let him tell it.
And yet, Orr’s personality causes problems from the start. In his introduction he writes, “If this book were just about nostalgia, or highlights from my career, it would just reinforce a version of the story I never found particularly interesting.”
Orr has never been one to speak at length about himself. Such a quality endeared him to millions of fans. It also prevented him from speaking with biographers who have come calling through the years. He remains a humble Canadian of modest birth who is thankful for all that was provided to him in life.
Orr devotes much of his book to extolling his parents for their role in his upbringing. He makes it a point to name influential coaches whether they be from his time as a squirt in Parry Sound or the dying days of his Bruins career. For example, Orr has an entire chapter making a convincing argument that Don Cherry should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Teammates receive a heap of praise. So, too, does Orr’s wife Peggy. In other words, Orr’s story is all about the people in his life. And that’s fine, and it’s nice. But it leaves so much out.
Orr might not find his career achievements “particularly interesting,” but his audience does. Choosing to ignore his statistics alienates Orr from his readers. It also robs the autobiography of substance. Unwilling to talk about his role in the Bruins’ success in the early 1970s, Orr breezes through his career. He discusses Stanley Cup runs as Wikipedia might: vaguely and void of emotion. In describing the Bruins’ 1972 series against the New York Rangers, Orr writes, “We were up against a great team … Still, we took the first two games in Boston, and though we lost game three in New York, we held on to win the fourth by a goal. We were heading back to Boston with a 3-1 lead in the series.” Statistics and some personal reflection don’t have to be the story, but they certainly aid the story.
Orr does mix in some keen insight on teammates and opponents alike. He calls Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau “Mario Lemieux before Mario Lemieux was born.” And some previously undisclosed anecdotes jump off the page. In the aftermath of the infamous Pat Quinn hit, Orr recalls an encounter with a shady citizen in a hotel lobby. The hooded fellow asks Orr “in a very low voice, ‘Do you want me to take care of Pat Quinn?’” Orr responds coolly, “No thanks … I’ll take care of him myself.”
Such instances are few and far between, though. They’re lodged in pages and pages of summary. If I sound like I’m being too harsh, I don’t mean to be. It’s Orr’s autobiography, and he can frame it as he pleases. However, I have a concern that readers who approach Orr for the first time might read through the book and then check the statistics and wonder, “How is this the same person?”
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday