The story behind the story of ‘Searching for Bobby Orr’ (A conversation with Stephen Brunt – part four)

The great Bobby Orr loving it
Bobby Orr at the 2010 NHL Winter Classic          FLICKR / VIA CC BY 2.0

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 1, 2018)
Fourth in a series

Despite all of his success as a newspaper columnist, book author and long-form essayist for documentaries, Stephen Brunt won’t force himself to start writing another book anytime soon.

The Canadian sports media icon says he’ll take his time and pursue future projects in a way that makes sense to him.

“No, I’ve got a couple things that have kind of been offered to me, but I’m not in a hurry to do one right now,” Brunt said in a recent phone interview from his home in Hamilton, Ontario. “I’m only going to do it if it’s something I really want to do, and it’s a big commitment.

He went on: “I’m kind of happy with the rhythm of my life right now. My kids are grown up, and I’m not as desperate for money as I might’ve been at some points of my life, so I’m kind of waiting. I’m sure I’ll do something.

“People come to me every once in a while with an idea … but it must be something that I’m invested in one way or another. I’m not just doing it to do it.”

Our conversation then shifted to one of Brunt’s most enduring success stories: his terrific book about legendary NHL defenseman Bobby Orr, “Searching for Bobby Orr.” (https://www.amazon.com/SEARCHING-BOBBY-Stephen-Bobby-Brunt/dp/B00M0OL5I0)

Publisher Vintage Canada introduced the book this way in May 2007: “The book that hockey fans have been waiting for: the definitive, unauthorized account of the man many say was the greatest player the game has ever seen. The legend of Bobby Orr is one of the most enduring in all of sports. Even those who have never played the game of hockey know the mystique and tradition surrounding Boston’s immortal defenseman. In the glory years of the Original Six, he and Gordy (sic) Howe were the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio of their sport with equally as rabid a following. In Searching for Bobby Orr, Canada’s premier sportswriter gives us a compelling and graceful look at the life and time of Bobby Orr that is also a revealing portrait of the game and a county in transition.”

More than a decade later, Brunt was asked if he sought an opportunity to interview Orr for the book, and if so, did he make himself available. Was he standoffish?

Brunt didn’t interview Orr for the project.

“I asked him,” Brunt pointed out, “and he was famously asked by a million people over the years, and he finally did a ghost-written book with Vern Stenlund (https://www.amazon.com/Orr-My-Story-Bobby/dp/0399161759) a couple of years ago, which didn’t have anything much in it…”

For Brunt, writing about Orr was a serious, important endeavor. He described the undertaking as “kind of the Holy Grail of sports books in this country. No one had ever done the Orr book.”

He added: “And I went and talked to him and said, ‘look I want to do this,’ and Orr is pretty good at kind of patting you on the back and saying, ‘sure, maybe we’ll talk one of these days,’ but it was clear he wasn’t going to do it.”

At first, Brunt doubted that he would be able to write the book without access to Orr.

He thought about it more and more, though, and realized that no wasn’t the correct answer — nor was it the attitude he wanted to have.

“Maybe I can do it,” he remembered thinking. “I ‘m going to just set out and try and do this, and it’s a different book than it would’ve been.

“Look, if I had had his full cooperation and he’d been fully forthright with me, there’s questions I couldn’t answer that he would’ve answered. But you are definitely not going to get that in an authorized book, right? Because then he gets the last call on it.

“To write an independent book about him was super challenging, but I think it made it a better book. I had to think about things in a different way. I talked to a lot of people.”

That diligence and effort paid off for Brunt. To those who weren’t already convinced he was one of the premier sports scribes and authors of the 21st century, this was a bold reminder that he was one the best in the biz.

A generation after Orr, Wayne Gretzky left an indelible mark on pro hockey. In his 2009 book “Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, America and the Day Everything Changed,” Brunt captured the essence of Gretzky’s career before and after The Trade in August 1988, when he was sent from the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It was a trade that permanently changed the landscape of the NHL.

“It’s pretty well regarded here,” Brunt said of his Orr book, a No. 1 bestseller in Canada. “It comes right before the Gretzky book, and really I think of them as two parts of the same whole. They almost connect, those two books, but yeah, it was a challenge. But it also kind of liberated me as a writer. I was liberated from his version of events, and I thought I could interpret things and see things independently.

“And really … I was worried about it when I started and it was challenging in places. There’s some people who wouldn’t talk to me because he didn’t talk to me, but it allowed me to be way more creative. It’s a more writerly book than anything I’ve ever done.”

Brunt couldn’t pinpoint an exact number when he was asked how many people he interviewed for the Orr book.

Instead, he offered a vivid explanation, saying, “Lots, everybody I could get from his life and his childhood and everybody who would speak to me. But the thing at the end, what you do with all of that information is you still at a certain point put it over to one side, and you write the book.

“That’s where it’s very different than writing a newspaper story. The voice that’s going to carry the book is yours, and as I say, it kind of liberated me to tell the story with the knowledge I had accumulated … and allowing me to think and write more artistically than I had done before.

“Liberated is the word I keep coming back to,” he continued, “because I felt free to write the book, and I think you can tell when you read the book it’s different than anything I’d done before that certainly, and I think people reacted to it that way.”

For Brunt, the satisfaction of completing the project was enhanced by the aforementioned success of the book.

“You don’t know how people are going to react when you write a book,” he admitted, “you are off by yourself working on it for months, and you get the galleys and you talk to your editor and everybody seems happy, and then it shows up and you kind of wait, and not so much for reviews. Reviews are reviews, right? You can’t live and die on reviews, but you want to see if people get what you were trying to do.

“I’m happy to accept criticism if people kind of take things on their own terms, and that was the tricky one with that, because I don’t really think there was a hockey book like that. But happily, it was very well received. It was a No. 1 bestseller in Canada for about 12 weeks in a row that fall. It did incredibly well commercially, too.”

To prove the lasting power of the book, Brunt noted that “again, not to put too much into stuff like this, but when you see a list of the top 10 hockey books ever written, it’s generally on them.”

With dedication and a never-waving commitment to his craft, Brunt penned a masterpiece about the one-of-a-kind Boston Bruins superstar.

“Searching for Bobby Orr (is) not only one of the best hockey books ever, but a book that transcends hockey…. Some, then, might consider Orr’s story to be ultimately a sad one: all-too-brief brilliance followed by an extended anticlimax. Brunt’s eloquent study, admiring but never sycophantic, indicates that he isn’t one of them, and he makes a convincing case,” Edmonton Journal declared in its review of the book.

***

Here are the previous installments in this series:

Part 1: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/memories-and-influences-a-conversation-with-canadian-sports-journalism-icon-stephen-brunt-part-1/

Part 2: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/stephen-brunt-weighs-in-on-the-pros-and-cons-of-the-athletic/

Part 3: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/stephen-brunts-twitter-free-existence/

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