Before Brooks Orpik thought about how late he’d play into his career or how old he’d be when he finally hung up his skates, he just thought about making it to that first NHL game. That was before the league even had a salary cap, so teams were especially patient with their prospects. Orpik, playing in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., after being picked in the first round of the 2000 draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, was just trying not to get discouraged. Then, coming off an American Hockey League road trip, he finally made his NHL debut on three hours of sleep in a loss against Toronto on Dec. 12, 2002.
“The first game, you just get there and you’re so excited,” Orpik said, “and it’s over before you know it.”
As Orpik was telling that story at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility Sunday, center Nic Dowd chimed in from a few dressing room stalls over that, “He’s going to play until he’s 45!”
Orpik isn’t even sure if he’ll play next season; at 38 years old, his contract with the Capitals runs out at the end of this year. And while Orpik has largely shrugged off the milestone, he will play the 1,000th game of his career Monday night, a testament to how he has endured despite how physical, stay-at-home defensemen like him have become an endangered species in today’s NHL.
In Washington, his legacy will be more about what he did for the organization off the ice than on it, signed as a free agent five years ago to not only help shore up the blue line but also improve the locker-room culture. As Orpik has had to adapt his game to hockey’s shift toward mobility and puck-moving, the effect he has on teammates has been what has stayed constant.
“He’s been the biggest reason, in terms of players, that we’ve been able to change the culture here into a championship level culture and team,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He pushed our guys the right way. He’s the guy that has the respect of everyone, very intelligent and not afraid to speak up when he knows what’s best for the team. . . .
“That’s just his off-ice. His on-ice, the way he plays, he plays so hard and pushes our other guys to play that hard style of game because you’re seeing him do it at his age and what he’s had to go through with his body. It’s pretty inspiring.”
Columbus Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella joked that Orpik is “a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits — and there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game,” adding that he “loves” the way he plays. When Todd Reirden first met Orpik at a Penguins training camp a decade ago, he never imagined he’d make it to 1,000 games because of that bruising brand of hockey. He said he wasn’t confident Orpik’s body could withstand “that type of beating” for that long.
Especially in recent seasons, Orpik has had to weather a slew of injuries. He has already missed 27 games this season because of a right knee injury that required an arthroscopic procedure, and though Orpik isn’t normally superstitious, he has been hesitant to talk to reporters about approaching the 1,000-game mark after he had to miss two months while just eight games shy.
Reirden coached Orpik for four seasons with the Penguins, and when he was hired to be an assistant on Barry Trotz’s coaching staff in Washington, he was the one who vouched for Orpik to General Manager Brian MacLellan. MacLellan signed him to a five-year, $25.5 million deal, one of his first moves on the job and the contract he has received the most criticism for in his five-season tenure.
“The defensive defenseman, people just don’t like those players anymore because of the new hockey, but he’s stayed relevant in it,” MacLellan said. “Down the stretch and in the playoffs, he played great for us. He’s a good penalty killer, played great in our own end, played physical. He provided leadership to young guys throughout the playoffs.””
Orpik’s discipline in his practice habits, training regimen and diet served as a model example for Capitals young and old to follow. When he first entered the league, he encountered veterans who were threatened by him, so he has worked to help Washington’s young defensemen improve even though that could lead to them replacing him in the lineup. MacLellan got out of Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit when he traded him to the Colorado Avalanche this summer in a cap-clearing move to re-sign John Carlson. But when the Avalanche then bought out Orpik’s contract, making him a free agent, MacLellan wanted him back on the team — albeit at a lower cost — even at 38 years old and with a strong pipeline of blue-line prospects in the organization.
“He holds guys accountable," Holtby said. “Young, old, middle — it doesn’t matter. You’re on this team to help it succeed, and that’s his mind-set. To be that guy, you can’t be grumpy and yelling all the time, or too positive all the time. He’s that perfect mixture where he can see where the team’s going, individuals, and know how to get the best out of them. Because he’s been on our team, he’s made every guy better and not many guys can do that. He’s invaluable.”
Getting to 1,000 games wasn’t something Orpik thought much about when he was considering options this summer — If I didn’t feel good, I’d stop playing," he said — but he remembers being in Nashville when forward Jason Arnott was honored for skating in his 1,000th game. It’s a feat Orpik can appreciate for himself, though he’d rather skip all the fanfare that he knows is coming his way. The Capitals, however, are looking forward to Orpik getting his due after all that he’s done for them behind the scenes.
“I’m not one for surprise parties or anything individual, a lot of attention,” Orpik said. “That doesn’t really go with my personality, but I know for one day I’m just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. But it is something pretty cool.”
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