Scotty Bowman is the greatest NHL coach ever. He knew long before Mother’s Day 1970 when he watched Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring the overtime winner to win the 1970 Stanley Cup over Bowman’s St. Louis Blues that Orr would be arguably the greatest player ever.
Sunday is 50 years since Bobby Orr scored the most iconic goal in NHL history.
“Oh sure, because in those days, defenseman played defense,” Bowman replied on the latest Bruins Craic podcast when asked if he knew how great Orr was going to be. “Bobby Orr was average size by the time he got to the NHL. He had got a lot bigger after his growth spurt after he was 14. I could see it in Junior.”
“I mean we never saw players like that before. …accelerate, and when he first came into the league, people were wondering ‘He’s an offensive player, he’s not going to be able to do everything he did in Junior’. Well, he did more. He had the puck all the time anyways but he could defend. I think even with Boston when he went to training camp in London, Ontario the first year he made the Bruins, they had him up on forward, they looked at him a few times because there were hardly any forwards that could skate like he could.”
In a two-part, 80-minute interview with Kevin Flanagan and yours truly, the former Blues, Canadiens, Sabres, Penguins and Red Wings head coach and 14-time Stanley Cup champion recalled scouting a 14-year-old Orr in Gananoque, Ontario for the Montreal Canadiens in what became a string of not just scouting the Bruins hall of famer but coaching against him in juniors and the NHL and then finally coaching him in the 1976 Canada Cup.
“I did see Bobby Orr play in that famous game in Gananoque, Ontario,” Bowman recalled. “He was 14, had just turned 14 because it was in late March (Orr’s birthday is March 20), that would be just before he went down to Oshawa (OHA). All the Boston people were there, [Bruins Owner] Weston Adams and a guy by the name of Wren Blair. He was probably the one instrumental that saw Bobby when he was 13, I think.”
At the time, Bowman had been living in Ottawa with some CFL players from the Ottawa Rough Riders and brought one of them down with him to scout Gananoque and Orr’s team Parry Sound. Like most teams, the Habs had sent Bowman to scout two other players and he wasn’t focused on this small 14-year-old defenseman from Parry Sound before his friend, who didn’t really know hockey, pointed him out.
“We had kind of lost out on Bobby because Boston was really after him for about two years before that,” Bowman acknowledged. “I told him, look at these two players on Gananoque – it was number 8 and 17, I’ll never forget their names, Doug Higgins and Ricky Eaton – so after five minutes of watching this game, this was a novice that had no interest, not much knowledge [in hockey] he said ‘why don’t you forget about those two and look at No. 2?’ and I said ‘he’s gonna go’ (to the NHL).
The Bruins, who via community donations to Gananoque owned the rights to any player from there, and through the diligent work of Blair, would sign Orr and in effect prevent the hated Habs from potentially having a blue line that would’ve had Orr, and fellow hall of famers Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe who Bowman was instrumental in bringing to Montreal. Two years later, Bowman would leave scouting to go behind the bench for the Junior Canadiens. Just prior to Orr turning pro with the Bruins in 1966, Bowman and the Junior Habs played a round-robin with the Bruins two farm teams the Oshawa Generals and Niagara Falls Flyers, the latter of whom Orr’s future Bruins teammate and the man that fed him the pass to beat Glenn Hall for the winning goal in Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final played for.
“So I then experienced him playing junior and I would have a first-hand look watching him play and what’s this guy going to be like,” Bowman said. “Then in his last year in Oshawa, Montreal and Boston for whatever reason, the manager in Montreal was Sam Pollock and I don’t know if he had a relationship at one time but they made a lot of little trades but [Bruins former coach] Lynn Patrick had been with Boston. So they invited our team and Niagara Falls – with Derek Sanderson – and Oshawa go to Boston and we had a three-game round-robin and they had about 8-9,000 that came to the Boston Garden to watch Bobby play. People don’t realize that and they said here’s the future of our team! Nobody knew who he was before that but then the rest is history!”
After Sanderson and Orr combined on that iconic play 50 years ago this Sunday to beat Bowman and the Blues, Bowman got his chance to finally coach Orr six years later in the 1976 Canada Cup. Bowman recalled how Orr – who would retire shortly after that tournament due to bad knees – was basically playing on one leg and willed himself to help Canada win and become the tournament MVP.
“In ‘76, he played in that tournament, he was the MVP, and basically he had bad knees at that time and that was the year before he left,” Bowman recalled. “He was so determined, he won the MVP because he missed that ‘72 series.”
For more of Part 1 of Scotty Bowman on the Bruins Craic click here.