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Bobby Orr is widely regarded as the greatest hockey defenseman of all time, and arguably, according to many hockey authorities, the greatest hockey player of them all.

This debate has existed and evolved over the past years, from arguments over whether any other player from the past or present NHL roster can compare to the legendary Bobby Orr.

Here then, are factual critiques and statistical comparisons between Bobby Orr and other NHL players, and other sports personalities of the past and present.

The Greatest Ever

Bobby Orr has been called the most fluid skater ever to step onto a hockey rink.

Bobby Orr did more than re-define his position. By re-defining what it meant to be a defenseman, Orr was the torch-bearer for the modern era of the game, an era of speed, skating and skill over brute force. There have been many hockey players who excelled at playing the game, beyond the scope of normal men, and Orr certainly fit into that category. But he went beyond it as well, changing what “playing the game” meant on a very fundamental level.

Its true that Gretzky revolutionized the offensive game in the 80’s, and Lemieux in the 90’s. Phenoms like Temmu Selanne and Joe Sakic have taken their positions to new heights. Goalies like Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, and Grant Fuhr revolutionized the act of stopping a hockey puck.

But across the game, across positions, across the economic spectrum of the business of hockey, its hard to imagine another player with the impact of Bobby Orr. He revolutionized the position of defense … his impact on the future of other defensemen was never in doubt.
There are half a dozen stars, at least, who came after Orr, who owe their entire existence to Orr’s changing of the role of defenseman. Its hard to imagine Paul Coffey ever making it in a league where Bobby Orr never played, and even Ray Bourque, a star Bruin defenseman in his own right, was only doing what Bobby pioneered. Even less obvious stars like Al MacInnis were allowed an offensive component to their game that was unheard of before Orr showed it was possible to think about offence without ever sacrificing defense.

Orr’s display of end to end rushes and his mastery on the point of the power play changed the way offense was generated, and how defenses would cover them.

Orr  added dimensions to the game that are critical components of the game today. Goalies were forced to re-learn their games because of the increase of speedy skill, players like Orr. Orr was the first hockey phenom, the first packaged product for a new television era … the story of his young life is the blueprint for the stories of young Wayne, and young Mario and young Sydney.

Gordie Howe could do everything, but not at top speed. Bobby Hull went at top speed but couldn't do everything. The physical aspect is absent from Wayne Gretzky's game. Orr would do everything, and do it at top speed."

If there's one player that went beyond setting NHL records and changed the game itself, Bobby Orr was the pioneer and Gretzky was one of the many beneficiaries.

Stats are only an indicator, and mighty handy for those who don't understand the game well.

The Game Of Hockey Has Changed

The National Hockey League is considered to be far better today than it was in the era when Bobby Orr played. But that's just the evolution of the game. I wouldn't hold it against a guy like Orr, because he dominateed in those times. With today's equipment and ice, he'd still be the best now because he had the most raw natural talent. Equipment has a huge influence, however, what about the development and training that has made the NHL a more competitive and athletic professional sport.

In Bobby Orr's era, players could go out boozing the night before and play a day game the following day with a nagging hangover. Nowadays, players are on strict work out and diet regiments, and development (training and direction) for players begins at an earlier age.

Why is it that even with today's improved equipment, rigorous training, strict diets, personal trainers, multimedia game analysis, etc., no one has broken most of Bobby Orr's records?

There is only one thing left to admit: Bobby Orr is simply the BEST!




Bobby Orr vs. Wayne Gretzky

Orr and Gretzky weren’t just great players at their respective positions.  They challenged us to rethink what was possible in ways we never imagined.

With Orr it was the ability to control the offensive flow of a hockey game from the back end.  In Gretzky’s case, it was his innate ability to anticipate what was going on around him at all times, making the puck come to him almost magically.

They were each one of a kind when they arrived on the scene, and still are today.

Ever since Wayne Gretzky retired, there has been a great ongoing debate about who was greater: Orr or Gretzky?  If we are going to compare these two players, who played different positions in vastly different eras, then we begin our analysis with the most accurate measure of a player's overall strength: Plus/Minus Ratio. 

Plus/Minus Ratio is a number (positive/negative) that is added to, every time a player's team scores (at EVEN STRENGTH) and that player is on the ice. Conversely, if the player is on the ice (at EVEN STRENGTH) and the other team scores, a point is subtracted from the player in question.
Although not perfect, Plus/Minus (+/-) Ratio is the only statistic in Hockey that accounts for a players offensive AND defensive abilities.

Bear in mind that no defenceman's stats should stack up against a forward.
Bobby was on the ice in every key defensive situation the Bruins faced.
They didn't start to keep +/- until 1967-68, Bobby's second season.

Bobby's career +/- is 597
Wayne's career +/- is 518

Bobby's best year was +124, Wayne's was +98.  Bobby never had a minus season, Wayne had 7 minus seasons.

Bobby's +/- seasons

  1967-68   +30
  1968-69   +65
  1969-70   +54
  1970-71  +124  (all-time record)
  1971-72   +86
  1972-73   +56
  1973-74   +84
  1974-75   +80
  1975-76   +10  (10 games played)
  1976-77    +6  (20 games with Chicago)
  1977-78        (Did Not Play)
  1978-79    +2  (6 Games played with Chicago)


Gretzky needed over 200 points to register his high of something like +70, while Bobby Orr’s high was +122 (on around 146 points).
Remarkable when you consider powerplay goals don't count in the total.


I don't think Gretzky is the best player ever, not even close.  When you view his +/- stats over the length of his career, it's not all that good, and doesn't really compare with other forwards.  For instance, going into the 1999-2000 season, Wayne was at +541 in 1417 games, for an average of +0.38 per game.  Bobby was +0.91 per game, FAR AND AWAY THE BEST EVER.  Larry Robinson is next closest at something around 0.54 per game.  Wayne's numbers don't compare with a lot of very good scorers, who also happened to know there were two ends of the ice, players like Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, Rick Middleton for instance, who are around 0.45 per game.

Bobby's +124 in 1970-71 is an NHL record, and the .91 +/- per game is almost twice the nearest guy, Larry Robinson, so that is a record too.

There will be comparisons, but for the most part I believe most people who saw both players play agree that Bobby was the best.  Gretzky is a great player, but he's not Bobby Orr.  I don't even think he was Gordie Howe for that matter.  The game is different today, and Wayne had the advantage of playing when goals were scored at a rate twice as high as when Gordie played.  To give you an idea, Wayne retired at 38, having scored 12 goals this season.  Gordie Howe had three more seasons in which he scored over 30 goals after he turned 39.  I happen to believe that the most amazing "stat" in hockey is that Gordie Howe finished in the top five in scoring for 21 straight seasons.  Wayne did it for 8 seasons.  In Gordie Howe's final NHL season, at AGE 52, he scored 15 goals. 

I doubt anyone will ever have the effect on hockey that Bobby Orr had.
Proof is in Boston itself.  When Bobby came into the league there was one American playing, Tommie Williams, and he was from Minnesota.  Once Bobby started playing in Boston, rinks started cropping up all over Boston. Kids began playing hockey because of Bobby Orr.  Today the Boston area is the number one prime spawning grounds for NHL talent.  Before Bobby: NOBODY, after Bobby you have Keith Thachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Kevin Stevens, Tony Amonte, etc...  In 1998, when Bobby turned 50, Boston and surrounding area were the largest per capita producer of hockey players in the NHL.  Each and everyone one of those guys learned to play the game on rinks that were built because of Bobby Orr. 

If, in 10 years time, kids start coming into the NHL in massive numbers from L.A., then you can put Wayne's contributions in the same league as Bobby Orr's, but that isn't going to happen.

Wayne was a great player, no question. He gave great interviews, and he seems to be a really nice guy, but calling him the best ever is like calling a DH in baseball the best ever player.  Americans understand the game of baseball much better than hockey, and they realize that a DH is a one dimensional player.  When people talk about the best ever they talk about Babe Ruth, or Willie Mays, they don't talk about Hal McRae. Americans do understand point production, and there is no denying Wayne has amazing point totals.

Some more +/- analysis is provided below. These stats are through the end of the 1998-1999 season. Most guys I will mention are retired.

Player              All-Time +/-    +/- Per Game
Larry Robinson          730             .53
Bobby Orr               597             .91
Wayne Gretzky           541             .38
Ray Bourque             508             .36
Bobby Clarke            506             .44

No one else has a plus minus of over 500!

(In brackets I will list players career +/- that are not listed above)

Plus/Minus Per Game Career Leaders:

Player               +/- Per Game
Bobby Orr               .91
Larry Robinson          .53
Mike Bossy              .51 (381)
Bobby Clarke            .44
Serge Savard            .44 (460)
Denis Potvin            .43 (460)
Mark Howe               .43 (400)
Dallas Smith            .40 (355)
Guy Lafluer             .40 (453)

I also took a look at Points per Game + +/- per game to get a look at how a player contributed to a teams winning or losing.  Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy are the only players whose totals are greater than 2.00.

Player          PPG     +/-PG         Total
Gretzky        1.97      .38           2.35
Orr            1.39      .91           2.30
Lemieux        2.01      .18           2.19
Bossy          1.50      .51           2.01

To get an idea just how far ahead of other players those guys are, the next closest combined total for any player is Guy Lafluer (1.20 + .40 = 1.60). 


If you think Wayne didn't have the opportunity to play defense, you must have fallen asleep during some of those west coast games.
How many 7-6 games did they win? Look at the Oilers' goals against average during those years and compare them to Orr’s Bruins.
Did Orr get caught up ice on some of his rushes? Absolutely, they were calculated risks. But he was able to recover better than Wayne ever could.

Please don't compare the eighties to the six team era. There were more teams and less talent in the eighties (in terms of depth) than in the seventies. Also, by the time Gretzky was in his prime, there were roughly 1.5 more goals scored per game than in the early 1970’s.  In other words, Orr’s goals were harder to come by Gretzky or Coffey’s.

The Oilers played in a no-defence division were 7-5 playoff games were common. That was why it was easy for them to beat playoff-weary eastern teams. Wayne was very fortunate to play in an era of high scoring, weak defence and even weaker opposition. Look at the division the Oilers were in during the record breaking seasons. They got to beat up on Calgary, Vancouver, L.A., Winnipeg and the old Colorado Rockies almost nightly. With scores of 9-3 and 10-4 every night, how could he not get all those points?

Furthermore, in Bobby’s days, superstars were expected to defend themselves (ask Hull, Howe etc.) not hide behind their sisters (aka Semenko).  Bobby could stand up for himself.

Moreover, Gretzky was judged by many, to be the greatest player in the game for a much longer span in his career than Orr was.  I have a hard time not wondering what Orr might have been had knee injuries not hampered him throughout his career, eventually forcing him to retire at age 30.

When comparing players of different eras it can be tough but choosing Orr over Gretzky is a no-brainer. Just because Wayne has the most points does not make him the greatest of all time. We have to read between the lines here. Micheal Jackson sold the most records but that doesn't make hime the greatest musician of all time.

There are always intangibles at play and they all point to Orr.

At his best, no one was better or more fun to watch than Bobby Orr.  Not even Wayne Gretzky.



Bobby Orr vs. Other Players

Legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr belongs in any discussion of the greatest player in the NHL history.  Orr’s stats are nothing short of mind-boggling.

In 1966-67, Orr broke in with the Bruins as an 18-year-old and quickly made a name for himself with his fluid skating and exceptional puck skills. He scored 21 goals and 64 points in his third season, but no one could possibly imagine the offensive onslaught to come.


Orr erupted for 33 goals and 120 points in 1969-70, shattering all scoring records for defensemen. The following year, in 1970-71, Orr topped himself, pouring in 37 goals and 139 points. That lofty point total still stands as the NHL record for defensemen. But Orr wasn’t done by a long shot, following the record campaign with seasons of 117, 101, 122, and 135 points.
In the six seasons from 1969 to 1975, Orr produced a staggering 214 goals and 734 points in 447 games, averaging an incredible 1.64 points per game. He also led the league in plus-minus five times during the six-year stretch, accumulating an ungodly plus-484.


Orr’s scoring supremacy among defensemen wasn’t challenged until Paul Coffey arrived on the scene with the Edmonton Oilers in the early 1980s. Coffey, perhaps the only skater comparable to Orr in NHL history, was the perfect fit with Wayne Gretzky and the high-flying Oilers.
From 1983 to 1986, Coffey put up three straight 120-point seasons, going for 126, 121, and 138. Despite falling one point shy of Orr’s point-scoring record, Coffey did fire home 48 goals in that 1985-86 season, surpassing the 46 Orr scored in 1974-75.
Of course, the NHL was a far different league in the early 1980s than it was in the early 1970s. Goal-scoring was up dramatically. In 1985-86, when Coffey set the goal-scoring record for defensemen, the NHL averaged 7.94 goals per game. When Orr scored 46 in 1974-75, the NHL averaged 6.85 goals per contest, down 13.7 percent from Coffey’s record season. Adjust the stats, and Orr would have put up 52 goals and 154 points in 1985-86.
Orr’s greatest season, though, could have been in 1970-71 when he scored 37 goals and 139 points in a 78-game schedule. The NHL averaged a mere 6.24 goals per game that season, a full 21.4 percent less than 1985-86. Again, adjust Orr’s stats accordingly, and he would have produced 46 goals and 173 points in Coffey’s NHL.
To further illustrate Orr’s brilliance, consider his numbers in today’s low-scoring era, which averages roughly 5.82 goals per game. In 2008-09, Orr’s 139-point 1970-71 season would be worth 136 points over an 82-game schedule. His 46-goal 1974-75 season would be worth 40 goals over 82 games.


Interestingly enough, Mike Green of the Washington Capitals is enjoying a Bobby Orr-esque 2008-09 season in terms of goal scoring. Green has been limited to 62 games because of injuries, but he still leads NHL defensemen with 28 goals and 67 points. His 0.45 goals-per-game average would actually extrapolate to 37 goals over 82 games, just three goals shy of Orr’s hypothetical 2008-09 total.
Points, however, are a different story. Green’s 1.08 points-per-game average would produce 89 points over 82 games, a far cry from Orr’s 136. That’s just a small glimpse into Orr’s dominance.




Famous Athletes Comparison

Legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr belongs in any discussion of not just the greatest player in the NHL history, but also the greatest sports athlete ever. 

Respectfully to all the other great athletes in the competition, it is a foregone conclusion ... ORR is the BEST period!!!
No other athlete in the other major sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, PGA, FIFA, and certainly not the NHL) single handedly changed the game.

Orr stood out from age 12 -- Sorry Michael Jordan, we don't remember hearing about you at all until college and even then you never "changed" the game...

With regards to Gretzky, Wayne knows that if Orr's knees had held up, that he would still be out there skating chasing Orr's records and feats and he has admitted such ....

With regards to Tiger Woods, he never changed the game of golf, he just excelled at it. When you win the Masters with a 200 lb. plus oppenent charging you at full speed at about 20 MPH while you are trying for the final putt at the Masters and survive to make the putt from say 50 ft. "maybe" just "maybe"you may climb to Orr's level!





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