Why, Bobby? On the intense reaction to Orr’s bad call

When I first heard that Bobby Orr had taken out an ad in the New Hampshire Union-Leader supporting Donald Trump in Tuesday’s election, I was furious.

It felt like a betrayal. A profound act of faithlessness that called into question everything we thought Orr to be.

I wrote a blog and posted it, expecting the usual mixture of praise and obscenity.

Instead, the response was both overwhelming and positive. With a half-dozen exceptions, it seemed that everyone agreed with me.

That doesn’t happen. I could write that the sky is blue and someone, somewhere would be pissed off.

I was left to wonder. Why were so many other Canadians furious with Orr? How was it that he had hit a nerve and gone from national icon to national pain in a heartbeat?

First, the obvious: Canadians don’t like Trump. On the whole we understand, as too many Americans do not, that Trump is profoundly antidemocratic, that if he wins this election it may be the last free election in American history, that he is a man utterly without scruples, without ethics, without any values whatsoever except greed, power and worshipping the idol of himself.

We understand that Trump’s response to the pandemic has been incompetent and self-serving almost beyond belief, that he has shown no empathy whatsoever for the sick and dying even as the numbers approach 250,000 dead and 10 million cases of the coronavirus, that because he mocks those who wear a mask and ridicules Dr. Anthony Fauci, he is tragically the wrong man in the wrong place.

Because Justin Trudeau and most of our provincial premiers have done so much better, we see how poorly Americans have handled it.

But there’s more to the Canadian reaction, and it has nothing to do with Trump. It’s about Bobby Orr. It’s not that Orr belongs to us or that we feel we possess him in some way – it’s that we are Bobby Orr.

Like Jean Béliveau and Gordie Howe before him and Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux after, Orr embodied the way Canadiens see themselves. He played a fast and brutal game as well as anyone ever has, yet he remained the humble smalltown kid, the Bobby next door we all seem to know, even if we never met one. When Orr tore up his knee, we hurt for him. When he was fleeced by Alan Eagleson, we were furious for him.

Orr was loved even in Montreal and Toronto, where most fans hate the Bruins without reservation. Tens of thousands of Quebecers stubbornly remain Boston fans to this day for one reason – Bobby Orr. 

Even when he seemed far too close to the bigoted Don Cherry, we forgave him because – Bobby Orr. Even if you came to this country from Shanghai or Kinshasa or Scottsbluff, Nebraska, you could identify with Orr.

You might not be able to stand up on skates, you might live in the heart of Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but you are still that small-town Canadian kid, boy or girl, playing a little shinny on a frozen pond. The ponds now freeze less often because of climate change, yet somewhere in our hearts and minds we see a 10-year-old Bobby shooting pucks on a frozen pond.

There is an identity that comes with that view of ourselves as Canadians. It’s that we are kinder and gentler than Americans. Wiser. Less inclined to brag. More likely to listen to an opposing point of view. And far less likely to vote for a loud-mouthed braggart whose accomplishments don’t begin to equal his lies.

Walk into a bar with 20 tables of Canadians and one table of Americans and you can spot the Yanks in 30 seconds. They’re the noisy ones telling you how great they are. (I should know – I was born one.)

So when Orr came out with that ad in support of a monstrous president, it seemed far more than a dumb political act. Instead, it was a betrayal of our better selves. That honest, humble, pond-skating Canadian of our mythology might be a relic of the past, but it’s how we think of ourselves. When the player generally considered the greatest in the history of the sport decided to debase himself at the feet of a serial grifter and con man, we were all less because of it.

True, that aging fool Jack Nicklaus and the thoroughly unsavoury Brett Favre also threw their support to Trump at the same time, to far less outrage in Canada. But one is a white man in a white man’s sport, sealed off from reality for decades, the other a Mississippi redneck with a record of appalling behaviour off the field.

Bobby Orr? He’s us. Or he was.

I suspect that Orr eventually will be forgiven because he’s Bobby Orr. But we are all going to feel a little diminished by the foolish act of a hockey player who let Alan Eagleson fool him once and Donald Trump make it twice.

Now Go Joe, and make what Bobby Orr did matter a little less.

(The regular Monday Morning Quarterback will return next week. And Jeffrey Loria is still a zero.)

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