It began with a dull ache that stretched along the outside of Brooks Orpik’s left hand, noticeable enough that the Washington Capitals defenseman began receiving treatment during the middle of last season. Even when the pain grew sharper last spring, Orpik received several cortisone shots and shrugged the issue aside. Just one more bump, although Orpik wasn’t sure when, where or how it happened. Eventually, he figured, rest, treatment and rehabilitation would fix the issue.
“As it went on,” he said, “[it] just progressively got worse.”
By the time Orpik began his usual summer training regimen, the wrist still felt fine, rested and relaxed after the Capitals exited the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But soon even menial tasks – chores around the house, paddle boarding on the water – became difficult. An MRI soon revealed the issue: The extensor carpi unlaris (ECU) muscle had pulled off the bone and the sheath that usually held the tendon in place had torn. He needed surgery.
“Sometimes when you can’t do simple things like that, it’s getting to that point where if you need to address it you need to address it,” Orpik said.
Seven weeks to the day after Orpik had the operation outside Boston, performed by a doctor who worked with the Boston Bruins and hence understood Orpik’s timetable for recovery, a surgical scar and modestly sized bump were still visible below his pinky. He still wears a cast while skating, working out and sleeping, only started using a grip ball to strengthen the muscle last week, and hopes to start shooting and lifting heavier weights next week, after the Capitals open training camp.
Like center Nicklas Backstrom, whose late-May hip surgery put his status for the season opener in jeopardy, Orpik held little desire to rush back. Even when asked if he hoped to appear in one of Washington’s seven exhibitions, Orpik hedged. Pain ceased to be an issue, but range of motion and tightness are still problems.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a big gap, 8 to 12 weeks is a big gap. Obviously you hope as a player that you’re at the right side of that, not the wrong side.
“I think at the beginning of the season too, it’s smarter to be a little more patient. Not trying to get back as fast as possible for, like, the playoffs or something like that. I think sometimes if you try to push it a little bit more, any type of surgery you want to let it heal completely so you don’t set yourself back. It’s been a long seven weeks. Definitely wouldn’t want to re-injure it and go through that again.”
Entering his 12th NHL season and second with Washington after signing a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer, Orpik is expected to resume his top-pair role beside John Carlson, while also remaining active on the penalty kill. He scrimmaged Tuesday afternoon, the last unofficial workout before camp formally begins, and stayed late for extra conditioning, capable of passing pucks without issue but still unable to unload slap shots. Since forward Tom Wilson and defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer also had similar operations in their careers, Orpik also sought their advice, even though his recovery was nearing its end.
“It’s good to get it taken care of,” Orpik said. “It’s never fun having surgery. People always ask you, oh why’d you wait so long? Well, I think people think we’re robots. Fix it, fix it. People don’t understand surgery’s always your last option, you always try to avoid it at all costs. But sometimes there’s no other way to fix it.”
NOTE: Responding to Coach Barry Trotz’s belief that he would not be ready for any exhibition games, Backstrom said, “We’ll see. I said before, we’ll take it day by day and week by week. It’s progressing. It’s slow, but at the same time feeling good. I’m not in a rush.” According to the center, weakness in his hip remains the biggest issue.