Kevin Keyes barely knew Bobby Orr, the hockey god of his youth, when he pulled into Orr’s driveway on a midsummer day, believing he was welcome.
Keyes remembers “jumping out of my skin’’ with excitement as he led his four children to Orr’s door. He knocked. No one answered.
His children knocked. No answer.
What happened next may not have struck Keyes as exceptional had he known about the innumerable acts of kindness Orr has quietly committed since he arrived in Boston 47 years ago as a peach-fuzzed prodigy on skates.
No one had told Keyes that Orr once turned his home into a hospice for the final months of a dying friend’s life.
Keyes never knew about Orr’s singular effort to save a former Bruins teammate who was wasting away from drugs and drink.
Or that, for decades, Orr has privately counseled and comforted the sick and dying, the disabled and disenfranchised, the poor and grieving.
He is 65 now and still considered by many the greatest hockey player who ever lived, an indelible revelation on ice. During his 12 years in the NHL from 1966-78, he twice led the Bruins to Stanley Cup titles, in 1970 and 1972, and accumulated nearly every honor the NHL grants, including early entry to the Hall of Fame.
But if the true measure of character is found in the deeds done when no one is looking, then Orr has forged a transcendent legacy in the decades since he first wielded a wooden hockey stick on Causeway Street.
His effortless speed, power, and scoring touch, unrivaled in the history of NHL defensemen, revolutionized the sport he loves and turned New England into a hub of hockey fanatics.
His work changing lives is much less known, for a simple reason: He won’t talk about it and loathes anyone else talking about it. The idea of receiving credit — or worse, appearing to seek credit — for doing what a good person does repulses Bobby Orr. This article, which touches on some of those quiet acts of kindness was, in a real sense, written against his wishes.
“I don’t do things to get ink,’’ he said in an interview last week. “I just sneak along and do my thing and meet wonderful people, some people I’ve never met, new friends.’’
Few dare cross him
He is old enough now for Medicare, his boyish face wrinkling, his chestnut hair graying, his mangled knees remade with titanium, and he has not played professional hockey since 1978, seven years before current Bruins star Patrice Bergeron drew his first breath.
But “Number 4, Bobby Orr,’’ as he was known generations ago by children who ate from Bobby Orr lunch boxes and skated in Bobby Orr gear on dozens of new rinks that opened amid Orr Fever, reigns as one of the most admired athletes in North America both for his transformative hockey career and personal grace.
“No one does superstar like Bobby Orr,’’ said Derek Sanderson, a former Bruins teammate who credits Orr with rescuing him from a potentially deadly addiction to cocaine, Quaaludes, and alcohol.
Orr is no saint, of course. He can be tough, stubborn, sometimes loyal to a fault, and can hold grudges for years. “He has had a temper all his life,’’ said Harry Sinden, his friend and former coach.
For decades, Orr has controlled his public image so tenaciously that few have dared cross him, or intrude on his treasured privacy.
“I know some of the incredible things Bobby has done for people, but he would hit me over the head if I ever mentioned them,’’ said Nate Greenberg, a former Bruins public relations chief who has been Orr’s friend for 40 years.
A prominent research physician has never forgotten Orr’s anger. In 1976, Dr. Murray Feingold asked the hockey legend to visit a gravely ill boy at a Boston hospital. Orr agreed on the condition the visit remain private.
The encounter went well until Orr departed and was engulfed by reporters.
“ ‘Oh my God, Bobby, I had nothing to do with this,’ ’’ Feingold recalled saying.
Seething, Orr glared at the doctor.
“Bobby was visibly upset, mainly at me,’’ said Feingold, who later learned the boy’s mother alerted the media.
Orr divulges almost nothing about his acts of charity in his autobiography, “Orr: My Story,’’ due out Oct. 15. He wrote the book, a copy of which the Globe received in advance, as if he were coaching both his sport and society, delivering lessons in honor and responsibility while he examines hockey at its best and worst.
He said he is most disturbed about what he considers the corroding culture in youth sports.
“Some coaches act as if the mortgage were at stake if their Pee Wee team doesn’t win a game, which is outrageous,’’ Orr said. “We’ve got to do a better job with our kids. Teach good values, teach the fundamentals.’’
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