On this date in 1978, exactly 40 years ago today, Bobby Orr announced his retirement.
At the time, it was a stunning, though somewhat expected, announcement. Limited over the past four seasons to a mere 36 games and forced to miss the entire 1977-78 season, it came as little surprise that Orr’s days in the NHL were numbered. Having battled through repeated knee injuries, and repeated knee surgeries that left his knee with a roadmap of scars, Orr had managed to fight through the early season and produce two goals and four points with the Chicago Black Hawks, but it was evident that he could no longer be the player he once was. And, just like that, almost as soon as he had arrived in the NHL, Orr was gone.
Despite his limited career, of course, Orr left an indelible mark on the game.
The Calder Trophy winner in 1966-67 as an 18-year-old, Orr dazzled with 13 goals and 41 points, finishing fourth in Hart Trophy voting and very nearly capturing the Norris Trophy. That season’s winner of the best defenseman award, Harry Howell, would go on to famously quip that he was glad he won the award when he did, because he suspected, “it’s going to belong to Bobby Orr for the next 10 years.” And it turned out Howell couldn’t have been more on the money.
In each of the next eight seasons, Orr captured the Norris, as well as winning three Hart Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies and, in his final full season, winning the Lester B. Pearson Award and Art Ross Trophy, the former the player-voted MVP award and the latter the NHL’s scoring crown. It was the second time Orr had led the league in scoring and it was the second-highest scoring season of his entire career: a 46-goal, 135-point campaign.
It’s not Orr’s overflowing trophy case that is entirely responsible for a legacy that continues to grow four decades later, however. It’s the way he played. Orr, as it’s often said, revolutionized what it meant to be a defenseman. While he could be rough and tumble, while his single-season plus-124 mark will never be bested and while he was as skilled on the defensive side of the puck as he was on the attack, it was indeed his offensive prowess that bred a new generation of defenseman. Orr smoothly skated the puck out of trouble, his end-to-end rushes were, are and will continue to be a thing of legend and he was the first modern defenseman to score 40 goals or crack the 100-point plateau. Orr’s totals throughout his career were inconceivable for a rearguard before he entered the league.
Orr’s legend hasn’t fallen by the wayside, either, because with each passing season, the next great offensive defenseman inevitably draws comparisons, in some way, shape or form, to the Hall of Famer.
If they can skate circles around opponents, it’s Orr’s name that comes up. If they have game-breaking ability, there’s an Orr comparison to be made. Even if they have a bit of nastiness, a mean streak to go with an abundance of talent, there’s a parallel that can be drawn to Orr. It’s been that way as we’ve watched the likes of Denis Potvin, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mike Green, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have taken up the mantle as the creme de la creme of offensive defensemen. And it will continue as John Klingberg, Zach Werenski, Thomas Chabot, Rasmus Dahlin and others make their marks at both ends of the ice.
As it concerns Orr, the only real question that remains about his brilliant career is how much larger his legend could have grown had he not been forced to retire due to injury. He almost certainly would have been the first 1,000-point defenseman and, had he been able to continue playing for another six or seven seasons, it’s reasonable to assert he could have still been the highest scoring defenseman in NHL history all these years later. (Orr held the record until he was surpassed by Denis Potvin in 1985.)
Orr isn’t the only player whose legendary career was cut short by injury, however. Here are five notable Hall of Famers who had their greatness limited by injuries:
Arguably the greatest “What If…” in NHL history is what would have become of Lemieux and his pursuit of some of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time marks were it not for the time ‘Super Mario’ was forced to miss. Yes, Lemieux’s career spanned more than 900 games and he ranks eighth in all-time scoring with 1,723 points, but consider the how outrageous his point totals would have been if he didn’t miss time during his prime.
For instance, Lemieux was limited to 59 games during the 1989-90 season, a campaign in which he scored 45 goals and 123 points. If he had played at least 75 games that season, he was on-pace totals to add another dozen goals and 33 points. That alone would vault him up a spot on the all-time list. Say he played another 50 games during the 1990-91 season, too, instead of being limited to 26 outings. His on-pace numbers would give him another 87 points. That would bring Lemieux to 1,843 points. Then there’s the 22-game season in 1993-94, which could have been another 120-point season, easily, if Lemieux was healthy. That would bring Lemieux to 1,927 points, the second-most all-time.
Lemieux, as we know, also retired at 31 following an Art Ross-winning campaign. He was still the best scorer in the game and had been for the better part of a decade. If back problems hadn’t forced him out for three seasons, he would have easily crossed the 2,000-point plateau and may have genuinely had a shot at eclipsing Gretzky’s all-time mark of 2,857 points.
Bossy ranks 22nd all-time in goal scoring, but to think of him as anything other than one of the single-greatest natural scorers in NHL history would be a crime. When he broke into the NHL as a 21-year-old with the New York Islanders, Bossy scored 50 goals. And Bossy scoring 50 goals should have been up there with death and taxes as two things that we could count on. From his sophomore campaign in 1978-79 through to his penultimate campaign in 1985-86, Bossy scored 50 goals per season and more goals than any other players. Remember, too, that Gretzky’s 92-goal and 87-goal campaigns fell between those years. (Although, Bossy did have one full campaign on ‘The Great One.’)
Back injuries forced the end to Bossy’s career following the 1986-87 season. He was 30. And while he had slowed down considerably in his final season, in large part due to injury, it’s conceivable that he could have been a 50-goal scorer for at least a few more seasons, steadily declining as he entered his mid-30s. But another four seasons at a conservatively estimated 50 goals per year would have put Bossy near the 800-goal plateau. It’s likely, had he remained healthy and able to play into his late-30s, that Bossy would be the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Before Eric Lindros — who isn’t on this list but could very well be among this group of players — LaFontaine was the unfortunate poster boy for a promising career derailed by concussions. Through to the prime years of his career, LaFontaine had quietly transformed into one of the best point producers in the league, highlighted by years of 92, 93, 105 and a whopping 148 points. He was either in or on the periphery of the Hart conversation throughout his mid-20s, he was consistently an all-star and he had a devastating combination of speed and skill. A snapshot of LaFontaine’s talent? From his sophomore campaign in 1984-85 through to 1992-93, only eight players compiled more points than LaFontaine, and it appeared he was about to take his start turn heading into the 1993-94 season.
And then the concussions started to come with gut-wrenching frequency. He played 16 games during the 1993-94 campaign. He played 22 during the 1994-95 season. A full season in 1995-96 was followed by a mere 13-game campaign in 1996-97. And during the 1997-98 campaign, LaFontaine’s career was essentially ended when, in a March game against the Ottawa Senators, he suffered a sixth documented concussion.
In 865 games, LaFontaine scored 1,013 points, but he was robbed of several prime seasons and retired as a 34-year-old after missing the entire 1998-99 season. If he avoided the concussions, there’s a fair chance he could have been one of the 20-best scorers in NHL history. His career 1.17 points per game ranks 15th in league history.
Talk about burning bright over a short span. Excluding Sergei Makarov and Slava Fetisov, who had brilliant careers in Russia before becoming NHL stars, there is no modern player to earn Hall of Fame induction while playing fewer games. Bure skated in only 702 NHL games and played only three full 82-game campaigns during his 12 years in the league, yet he remains one of the greatest goal scorers and most thrilling on-ice talents the league has ever seen. In 1992-92 and 1993-94, Bure had twin 60-goal campaigns and again flirted with the 60-goal plateau in consecutive seasons in 1999-00 and 2000-01 during the height of the Dead Puck Era.
So, what was lost in Bure sitting out considerable time with knee injuries? Most likely one of the greatest goal-scoring careers in NHL history. By the time of his retirement, and while playing the bulk of his career on bad knees, Bure managed to score .623 goals per game, which is the third-highest rate of any modern NHLer behind only Lemieux and Bossy. (To put it into perspective, Alex Ovechkin ranks fourth at .609 goals per game. Gretzky is fifth at .601 goals per game.)
Had Bure’s career gone 1,000 games, at least, he would likely have a place among the 13 players to have scored 650 goals. Unfortunately, he played his final NHL game in March 2003. He was 31.
Ironically, it’s the other superstar in the infamous Lindros trade that finds his way onto the list. Because while Lindros did see his career limited to 760 games across 13 seasons in the NHL, eventually retiring as a 33-year-old, Forsberg’s career had more bumps in the road and arguably would have been the higher scoring of the two.
Forsberg’s list of injuries is stunning. There’s a spleen injury, hip ailment, groin injuries and chronic foot problems that dot his entire career, and Forsberg lost one of his prime years — the entire 2001-02 season, which came the season after he won the Art Ross, Hart and nearly captured the Selke Trophy, too. Forsberg was dangerous no matter where he picked up the puck. Only once in Forsberg’s career was he less than a point per game player (four times for Lindros), and he did all that while boasting tremendous two-way skills.
Where would Forsberg rank all-time if he was able to stay healthy for his entire career? Well, a 1,000-game career at his 1.25 points per game would have given him 1,250 points. Given he didn’t hang ‘em up for good until he was 37, though, he likely would have surpassed the 1,000-game mark. Instead, he has played the second-fewest games — 708, just six more than Bure — of any modern Hall of Famer.