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Dissing St. Bobby

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Dick
Flavin

He said what???!!

He said the guy is overrated. Then, in case someone missed it, he said it again. Right out loud. On the radio. And simulcast on cable television.

He said that Bobby Orr is overrated.

If you ever want to get a full-blown, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later reaction from people, come to Boston and try telling them that Bobby Orr is overrated. It's akin to standing up in the Sistine Chapel and hollering at the top of your lungs, "There is no God!" You're going to get some pushback.

Radio and TV talk show host Michael Felger is the guy who made the charge that St. Bobby is overrated, and a lot of people are hopping mad about it. Does he regret having said it? No way.

I don't know Felger, but I know that he's a smart guy -- smart enough to know that success in the sports-talk-show world is not measured in terms of affection people may have for you, but instead in the reaction you get from the guys hanging around the water cooler the next morning. "Did you hear what that know-it-all bum said about Bobby Orr yesterday?" "No, but he better not try it again or he'll have me to deal with." That's because you'll be tuned in, which increases his ratings, which in turn makes it that much easier to cover the costs of that vacation home that he owns on Nantucket.

It's the same business model used by Howard Cosell half a century ago. For those too young to remember, Cosell was a self-important sports commentator who was convinced that he was the smartest boy in the room, and he wanted everyone else to know it. He never used a one-syllable word if a three-syllable one was available, particularly if it had an arcane meaning. He also had the good sense (luck?) to become an early defender of Muhammad Ali in the days before people realized that Ali's anti-Vietnam War stance was sincere. As a result, Cosell always had unprecedented access to Ali. In poll after poll, people insisted they didn't like Howard Cosell. Nobody liked him, it seemed. But, like him or not, they listened to him. He was for decades the highest-paid sports commentator in the country.

Getting back to the to-do over Bobby Orr, it all began when Felger -- ever the contrarian -- suggested that the Big, Bad Bruins of Orr's day back in the '70s were underachievers because they only won two Stanley Cups, which paled in comparison to the number run up by New York Islanders, who won four in a row a decade later. Therefore, argued Felger, Orr, as the Bruins' leader, must not have been that good; he must, claimed Felger, have been overrated.

It's an argument that even he would never have made had he ever seen Orr play. Felger is 52 years old, no longer a kid, but when the Bruins won that first Stanley Cup, he was only one year old; he was three when they won their second. Though he has spent his entire professional career in this market, Felger is not a Boston product. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has never even had an NHL team. Felger never experienced the electricity that went through a crowd when Orr swung around his own net and began a rush up the ice. He never saw the magical stick-handling ability, the wondrous passes Orr would make, and the way he'd control a game. If he had seen those things, he would never have uttered the words that Bobby Orr is overrated. Even if it was good for his ratings.

The Bruins of that era were probably the most beloved sports team in Boston history; more loved than the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics of the '80s; more than the Tom Brady-led Patriots, which dominated the first two decades of this century; even more loved than the the sainted Red Sox of 2004, who broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino. Those Bruins teams, and Bobby Orr was the most beloved of them all, were directly responsible for the explosion of hockey rinks that were constructed in this area in the early '70s. Those rinks were populated by pre-teens who wanted to be like Bobby and who, in 1980, formed the backbone of the U.S. Olympic team that defeated the vaunted Russians in the Upset of the Century.

Unfortunately for Orr, and for all of us, his years of greatness were cut short by his crippled knees. His time had essentially passed before he reached the age of 30, but even then we knew that we would never see him play like that again. It's been more than 50 years now since he flew through the air after scoring the goal that won the Bruins their first Stanley Cup since before World War II.

Felger, among other things, claimed that the "Flying Bobby" goal against the St. Louis Blues was also overblown. He'll get no argument from here on that. The Blues were an expansion team who were badly outclassed. They were swept in that series and were destined to lose it anyhow, but the goal was so colorful and the still photo of it so iconic that it has taken on a mythic life of its own as the most important goal in Bruins' history.

It wasn't then, and it isn't now.

All of that took place more than half a century ago, and Bobby Orr, the young hero of those glorious days of yesteryear, is 73 years old now, though he doesn't look it. Just about everyone who saw him play is collecting social security, and one assumes that most of the outraged text messages that were sent to Michael Felger when he dissed Orr the other day originated from homes for the elderly. But what he said got people's blood boiling and that's probably a good thing.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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