A legend to most, a mentor to all young journalists, the Professional Hockey Writers Association mourns the passing of legendary member William “Frank” Orr on Feb. 13, 2021.
Orr, a titan at the Toronto Star for more than four decades, was the 1989 recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Award as a media honouree in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was 84.
Orr was the PHWA’s No. 3 card holder at the time of his passing, the organization’s second-longest living lifetime member. In 2003, he received a lifetime achievement award from Sports Media Canada and was inducted into the Etobicoke (Ont.) Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Tributes poured in from around the hockey world on Saturday as news of Orr’s passing spread.
Past PHWA president Mark Spector recalled his time as a young Oilers beat writer, once phoning Orr for information the day before a game.
“He was somebody. I was nobody,” Spector tweeted. “Graciously, he emptied his notebook. He taught us all about decency and enjoying the job. And restaurants.”
Orr was famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of the finest restaurants in any city on any continent. He was equally remembered for his brilliantly funny one-liners.
“I didn’t know we broke any windows,” was often Orr’s response when big bill arrived at the table. Then he’d wrestle the cheque away from his dining companions.
A few other Orr favourites: “I’m not saying the Leafs are bad, but is f***-up hyphenated?” Or: “I’ve bet on horses smaller than that [Eric] Lindros kid.”
During a particularly conservative Ducks-Red Wings game, Elliott Teaford recalled Orr quipping: “It’s the dump without the chase.”
Orr’s legend spanned the ocean. Longtime PHWA member Lance Hornby shared a story of over-served Finnish writers spotting Orr at a bar during the 1989 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.
“Oooor! Ooooor! They kept yelling at our table, then came over to pepper him with a million questions,” Hornby tweeted. “It was like traveling with a rock star.”
Orr’s career began as a radio announcer in Chatham and Sault Ste Marie, Ont. He then served as sports editor with the Guelph Mercury and Cornwall Standard-Freeholder before joining the Toronto Star in 1961. At the Star, Orr covered everything from college football to horse racing, while his major beat was hockey – from junior to the National Hockey League and world championships.
Orr wrote more than 30 sports books and contributed to more than 60 additional titles. He also covered the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, as well as auto racing and figure skating – including 12 World and Olympic championships.
“As an American hockey writer in the 1970s, before social media, when I walked into a Canadian rink and saw a Frank Orr, a Red Fisher, I felt real awe: ‘Whoa. These guys write hockey IN CANADA!’,” tweeted fellow Elmer Ferguson winner Frank Brown. “They were the iconic print voices of hockey where it is the official winter sport.”
Scores of kids across Canada read the Star wanting to emulate Orr. Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons tweeted: “Growing up, everyone on my street wanted to be Bobby Orr. I wanted to be Frank Orr.”
Fellow Elmer Ferguson Award winner and TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie tweeted: “During the 1967 Stanley Cup playoffs, 11-year-old me kept a scrapbook of all the articles written in The Star and The Telegram about the Leafs run to the Cup. I was as enamoured with the bylines of the reporters as the players they wrote about.”
When McKenzie, Simmons and others finally made it to the press box and rubbed elbows with Orr, they were treated like equals.
Former PHWA member Mike Zeisberger tweeted: “Sometimes your heroes disappoint. Not Frank.”
That’s why beyond his enormous accomplishments as a journalist, he was immediately remembered for his generosity and compassion toward young aspiring writers.
“The Man. Generous to young writers, great dinner companion, king of one-liners, with a soft spot for the everyday producers of prose on the hockey beat,” the Hall of Famer Cam Cole wrote. “Frank had a weak heart but a very big one. All his old media buddies can quote a few of his one-liners.”
Simmons tweeted that “one of the most important influences of my life has passed. … Thanks for all the laughs, the stories, the advice, the restaurant touts, the recipes, the emails.”
Cole also remembered being sick with food poisoning in Detroit, delirious while covering an Edmonton Oilers playoff game. Orr would wake his media colleague long enough to describe goals – “Kurri, one-timer, great setup by Gretz” – and Cole would write them down before passing out again.
“Every great man is unique, and there is no question that Frank Orr was one of a kind,” PHWA president Frank Seravalli said. “Reading all of the tributes come in from every corner of the hockey universe not only cemented his legend as a giant in hockey journalism, but showed that he meant so much to so many.”
Orr was preceded in death by Shirley, his wife of 57 years. The Professional Hockey Writers Association sends its sincere condolences to the Orr family.