TORONTO – He was almost unrecognizable stalking the ice for the Toronto Marlies late last year. Still sporting the familiar #28, Colton Orr was in the midst of a transformation, a transformation desperately required of a player whose stock in the NHL had plummeted, a fighter whose career hung in the balance.
"Even though it was probably a great disappointment for him to be sent to the American League, it was almost a necessary thing to happen for him because it let us basically pull down that reset button for 10 seconds and this hockey player restarted himself and a new guy popped out," Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins told TSN.ca.
His hair now trim and proper, his body and game redefined, Orr is attempting a return to the Maple Leafs this season.
It was about a year ago that the now former Toronto president and GM Brian Burke famously decried the rise of "rats" as the back-drop to Orr's AHL assignment. The Manitoba product had sparsely dressed for Ron Wilson's Leafs up until that point, playing in only five games for an ice-time that totaled slightly more than 22 minutes.
The more the game seemed to learn about concussions, the more fighting was decried, the more earth-shattering hits went unpunished, the more players of Orr's skill-set were viewed as less and less needed in the game. Burke spewed that "rats will take this game over...I see guys that run around and start stuff and won't back it up and it makes me sick to my stomach."
After exactly 100 regular season scraps in the National Hockey League, it was painfully clear that Colton Orr would have to change or face likely extinction.
When Orr joined the Marlies last January, Eakins told him bluntly that he would have to trim down, "lighten so that he could move better on the ice". "I was a lot bigger to try and fight more," Orr conceded to TSN.ca, noting a previously beefed-up top half, "but now I know you've got to be able play and the game's changing a bit so I leaned out, put on a lot of muscle and really worked on my skating and my conditioning."
"He looked really heavy to me without even putting him on a scale or anything like that," Eakins recalled of Orr's physique. "[Fighters are] really concerned about their weight and how much they weigh because when push comes to shove in a fight they want to be as strong as they can.
"For me it goes like this," Eakins continued, "if the toughest guy in the NHL, his name's Joe Blow and he's 240 pounds, he's the toughest guy in the NHL. And then three months later he's 225 pounds, do we fear him any less?"
A "non-negotiable" plan was laid out for Orr, one that would stress conditioning, much of it on the bike, a prominent and continued fabric of the Marlies training regiment. Not only had Orr become too big, however, he was also mired in an "almost in a semi-depressed state" according to Eakins – who endured such an experience in the pros himself – a player sapped of any and all confidence after a nightly string of press box visits. "We really had to instill the belief in him that he could go be that player that he had been before, in recent years," Eakins said. "I wanted him to erase what he had done in Toronto as a player."
An assistant coach with the Leafs for two seasons under Paul Maurice, Eakins remembered Orr well from his more impactful days in New York, one-third of a Rangers checking line that also featured Blair Betts and Ryan Hollweg."
"That line was a pain in our ass," Eakins noted. "They were out there checking and creating havoc with their forecheck. That's where I wanted Colton to go. That's how I really remembered him at his best, not so much with the Leafs.
"He had played his best hockey and I mean he was playing hockey."
As the weight came off last spring, Eakins saw Orr's effectiveness in such a role gradually return. Moving with greater ease and fluidity on the ice, Orr evolved into a depth contributor for the Marlies, a player Eakins could trust in defensive situations at the end of close games.
The redefinition process continued in the offseason. Working with Connecticut-based trainer Ben Prentiss, Orr continued to shed weight and subsequent body fat, while also looking to add muscle in his legs, better balancing the make-up of his body.
In the coming days, he'll attempt to reboot his NHL career at Leafs training camp.
"I know I've got a lot to prove right off the bat," said the 30-year-old, who enters the final year of his contract in Toronto. "I've got to get back to playing a strong checking game and look after my teammates as well."
While the Leafs are crowded up front – especially in the bottom six – they are probably still short on toughness, a trait favoured by Randy Carlyle. Orr could inject himself into a role on the fourth line, but must prove quickly that he can contribute in ways not solely limited to fighting.
"I think he's ready," said Eakins. "I still believe every team needs toughness and some toughness that can play. And I think if [Orr]'s able to pick up where he left off last year he's going to be able to challenge for a spot.
"He turned himself into a guy that you cheer for because he was able to reset himself."