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ON HOCKEY

Better than Bobby? Believe it

TORONTO -- Back in Boston, where Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr both made their names, there probably isn't a puck-loving, Bruins-worshiping baby boomer who would consider Bourque the better player.

Well, time to consider it.

Better yet, with Bourque entering the Hockey Hall of Fame here tonight, it is finally time to believe it.

We could end this discussion right here on the numbers. By the stats alone, Bourque wins it skating away, backwards. He played 22 seasons to Orr's 12, averaged 73 games per season to Orr's 55, and finished as the No. 1 scoring defenseman of all time, leading in goals (410), assists (1,169) and points (1,579). Orr finished with 915 points, a total 664 fewer than Bourque.

If the issue at hand were simply to answer a different question -- Who had the better career? -- the total tonnage of Bourque's numbers would provide the answer.

But as for who's the better player, well, that encompasses so much more. And one thing Orr has going for him, beyond any doubt or argument, is the residual aura of his career. In that sense, he remains the John F. Kennedy of the Boston Bruins, a man forever cherished for his presence and accomplishments over what was, for most of us in Bruins Country, a regrettably short period of time.

Orr was the crown jewel of the Big, Bad Bruins, a team that turned New England into hockey's Camelot, and his daring dashes from the back end of the ice gave birth to a new breed of defenseman -- of whom Bourque was one, Denis Potvin another, and Paul Coffey (another inductee tonight) makes three.

The National Hockey League had never seen the likes of Orr, not only for how he controlled the puck and raced up the ice, but also for those dazzling, unbelievable moments when he rushed the puck daringly toward the blue line, then curled back with it into the neutral zone. He made penalty killing high art, or was it trick photography? The puck seemingly stuck to his stick blade, Orr sometimes even retreated to his end of the ice and crazily turned what shoud have been the opponent's power-play forward into a befuddled forechecker. It was wickedly outrageous, at times bordered on the absurd, and in today's chip-it-off-the-glass and dump-it-in-the-end NHL, the likes of Orr would be a lightning rod for a coach's ire.

Bourque was no fancy Dan. Although strong, fast, and iron-tough with the puck, and as ornery as a bull when in competition for it on the rear board or anywhere in the defensive zone, he did not have Orr's raw speed or agility to change direction.

Orr was a risk-taker at a time when the game not only allowed creativity but, get this, encouraged creativity.

By the time Bourque came down Causeway -- just a few months after Orr hoisted his No. 4 to the Garden's rafters -- the league had grown to 21 teams, and the Bruins still were reeling, on a personnel basis, from seeing their swashbuckling roster of the late '60s and early '70s stripped by the short-lived World Hockey Association. It didn't help that Orr bolted as a free agent to Chicago, but by then his career was essentially over, his knees never to recover.

For much of his time in the Hub of Hockey, though, Orr was surrounded by far better talent than ever accompanied Bourque. The best it got for Bourque was when trades brought Cam Neely and Adam Oates to town, and the Andy Moog-Reggie Lemelin tandem was in net, but in no way did he ever have the luxury of dancing with the likes of Messrs. Cheevers, Esposito, Sanderson, Bucyk, Hodge, Cashman, McKenzie, et al.

Oft-forgotten, too, is that Orr's first year, 1966-67, was the final season of the Original Six NHL. By his sophomore season, six teams had been added, and that 100 percent expansion delivered a six-pack of tomato cans that the likes of Orr and his teammates absolutely crushed. The living was easy, the land lush.

Go back and check some of Orr's mesmerizing highlights. Yes, he sometimes toyed with the opposition, to the point where you would sometimes cringe when seeing an opposing forward humiliated by one of his turnbacks or video-game-like bursts of speed. We never saw anything like that from Bourque. But again, they played in vastly different eras. The bet here is that Orr, even in a 21-, 26-, or 30-team NHL, wouldn't have found opponents' rosters as stacked with tomato cans as he did in the late '60s and early '70s. He would have been a great player, but working with far less in terms of teammates and faced with more worthy opponents.

Among Bruins fans, especially the boomers, to think of Bourque as better than Orr is nothing short of blasphemy. Just the other day, even Coffey called Orr the best defenseman who ever played. "Myself and Ray Bourque," he said, "were just followers."

Over the years, Harry Sinden, who coached Orr and was general manager when Bourque was drafted in 1979, has said he would opt for Orr if he needed a goal, but turn to Bourque if he had to protect a one-goal lead.

Orr was, without a doubt, a more sensational player, but it was an era of incredible hype. He was the shooting star in the clear night sky over Camelot.

The only things that compare with the Big, Bad Bruins era of the late '60s and early '70s, in terms of how they defined Boston sports culture, is the recent Red Sox win in the World Series and their Impossible Dream season of 1967. As successful as the Celtics, Patriots, and other Red Sox teams have been in the last 30 years, only this year's Sox accomplishment surpasses the Bruins' two Cups in the early '70s for how it influenced everything we talked about in Boston sports for a stretch. And when we talked about the Bruins, we first talked about Orr, and then got to everybody else.

For his 20 years with the "spoked B" on his chest, Bourque never knew that luxury. For many of those years, he was the prized member of a team that often ranked fourth in the Boston sports consciousness.

Along the way, though, Bourque somehow managed to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year (as did Orr), copped five Norris Trophies as best defenseman (compared with Orr's record eight in a row), and will stand tonight inside the Hall of Fame as the No. 1 scoring defenseman of all time.

It's not myth, what Orr did. He was magnificent. He remains the player I most liked to watch, and saying that, I only wish I could have seen Rocket Richard when he was the king of Montreal.

But consider that Bourque was bigger and stronger, vastly more durable, far more of a defensive presence, and no one, absolutely no one, played his position for as long as he did at such an elite level, right to that one last shake of the Stanley Cup over his head in career game No. 1,826 (postseason included).

It's hard to let go of the memories and the beliefs we hold most dear. But for all he did, and for as long as he did it, and for as well as he did it in the era he did it, Bourque was better. 

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