Brooks Laich has encountered plenty of enthralled fans during his NHL career, the ones with wide eyes and quickened heartbeats, the ones who can’t believe they’re actually in the presence of their heroes.
Last weekend, Laich became one of those fans himself. A friend had arranged for the injured Caps forward to finally meet Brooks Robinson, the man he was somewhat improbably named after. Laich had previously bought Robinson memorabilia – including a signed baseball and a framed photograph — for his father, a huge fan of the Orioles Hall of Fame third baseman. But now Laich was at an autograph show in Chantilly, face to face with his namesake.
“A lot of times we see fans who are sort of awestruck meeting us; for me, that was the reverse side of it,” Laich said this week. “It blew me away. I called my dad right away and said, ‘You’ll never guess who I just met.’”
The elder Laich became a fan of Robinson as a youngster in Saskatchewan; “He seemed to have just a great approach to the game,” Harold Laich recently told the National Post. “So he always stuck in my mind as a great competitor — and I said if we ever had a son, we were going to name him Brooks.”
His son wound up with “Brooks” as a middle name, but has virtually always been known by it, and has thus felt a kinship with Robinson. To prepare for his meeting, he studied up on Robinson, watching old YouTube clips, reading what others said about him, and going over the highlights of Robinson’s career. And when he told Robinson who he was, the third baseman had a surprise of his own.
“I told him, ‘I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but I actually was named after you,’” Laich recalled. “He said his wife watches all our games and is a big Caps fan, and she told him, ‘Brooks, I guarantee you he’s named after you.’ So I said, ‘Well, yeah, your wife’s a smart lady.’”
Laich’s dad – a baseball catcher — had been drawn to both Robinson’s approach to the game and his defensive wizardry. The forward thinks that might have impacted his own playing style; “seeing that he idolized Brooks and the way Brooks played, I think that influenced my dad a lot,” Laich told me. “Ultimately dad would have passed that on to me, that you always have to play away from the puck, that what you do away from the puck is as important or more than what you do with it.”
Meeting Robinson, Laich said, “was on my bucket list,” which is why he was so excited when it finally happened. The two men chatted for a few minutes. Robinson said he had never been to a Caps game; Laich gave him his phone number and encouraged the Hall of Famer to call any time he wants to go. The hockey player had brought a bat for Robinson to sign without knowing whether he’d pass it on to his father; that decision was made for him when Robinson signed it with a personal inscription, along with “HOF ’83,” which happens to be the year Laich was born.
Several fans suggested Laich should throw out a first pitch at Camden Yards; “if somebody from the Orioles contacted me for sure I would do it,” Laich said. “If I was able to do it, I would hope they would have Brooks there as well. I’d fly my dad in for sure. I think that would be an incredible moment.”
Laich said he hopes to meet with Robinson again and have a longer conversation. But his expectations for their first encounter were already far exceeded.
“He turned out to be the most humble, genuine, nicest guy,” Laich said. “I can’t say enough about how impressed I was. You hear stories, people telling you their kid met you once, he wears your jersey, he’s your biggest fan. And as players, you never want to take that for granted. I learned so much from my meeting with Brooks… It was a life-changing moment for me. I will never, ever forget it.”