The Wall Street Journal: October 10, 2013
My childhood house in Parry Sound, Ontario, was so cold in the winter you had to flick bits of ice off the light switches in the morning before turning them on. The outdoors was a big part of my life growing up the late '50s and '60s and it toughened me up.
My parents weren't well-off and we didn't own a car, which meant we had to walk everywhere. Wind cut through the house in cold weather and water ran through it during spring thaws. But my parents made coming home special.
Frost King Bobby Orr, shown in 2009 at Boston's Fenway Park before a Winter Classic hockey game.
Our house was built in 1908, and we moved there when I was 10 in 1958. The two-story house was gray and was built into a hill. You entered the house through an enclosed porch and then went up a few stairs to a front room where we spent all our family time. Upstairs we had three bedrooms. My two sisters slept in one and I slept in another with my two brothers. We had to pass through my parents' bedroom to get to ours.
All the floors were uneven, and everyone had to share one bathroom and one tub—there wasn't a shower. There was no central heating—we depended on one oil-burning stove in the front room to warm the house.
When I began to take an interest in hockey, I'd spend hours firing pucks through the open garage door and into the massive exposed granite rock that formed the back wall. That spared me from ruining the garage door or the side of the house with those shots.
Both of my parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, but someone was always home. Dad worked at an explosives packing company, he drove a cab, was a bartender and worked for a beer company. Mom was a waitress in a couple of local coffee shops and worked at the grocery story. You couldn't go far in Parry Sound, so my parents were always around.
Mr. Orr with the Bruins circa 1973
Hockey was a big part of our culture. Everyone played, and families watched games together on TV. My friends and I played on the streets in warmer weather and on the river and lakes when they froze over. My skates were hand-me-downs, and I didn't have new ones until I was 12, when a family friend bought me a pair. My dad never put any pressure on me. He'd say, "Just go out there and have fun. If things work out, we'll see what happens."
We didn't view our home life as tough because we didn't know anything else. What we did have in our house was love and support. My parents weren't overly strict—we were simply taught to be respectful. If you forgot to take off your hat at the table or used a bad word, you got a swat.
Mr. Orr's childhood home
My dad was a happy-go-lucky guy with a great sense of humor. He wasn't perfect but everyone loved him. My mother was the rock and disciplinarian.
My parents groomed us to be responsible people. They insisted we work. I cleaned, swept and waxed floors after school, I picked night crawlers and sold them as bait to fishermen and I was a bellhop. But because I was small, guests wouldn't let me carry their bags and I'd get in trouble when the manager saw me trailing them empty-handed. I was a butcher in my uncle's store. I also worked in a men's clothing store.
Work slowed as my passion for hockey grew. When I was 14, I began playing junior hockey for a Boston Bruins-owned team in Oshawa for $10 a week. My mother thought I was too young to move away from home and go to school there, so I commuted my first year. Close friends drove me 2½ hours each way to Oshawa and Toronto so I could play in games Friday night, Saturday and Sunday before returning home for school on Mondays.
My mom didn't often come to see me play. She was proud of me but she didn't like big crowds and fans yelling at her son during games. Years later when I was famous, a guy came into the coffee shop where she worked and asked, "How's your son?" She said, "Which one, I have three." That's how mom was. We were all equal to her, no matter how famous I got.
The happiest day of my life was in 1966, when I signed with the Bruins and soon could afford to build my parents a house on the other side of town. To me, that old gray house wasn't about doing without but about the people inside who gave me love, support and character. It turned out that's all I needed to do my best.
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Peter Mansbridge 2013 interview with Bobby Orr:
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