His entire NHL career, now entering its second decade, had been spent in a city famous for heaping French fries onto salads, so among Brooks Orpik’s first tasks in Washington was finding a reliable organic market. The defenseman has developed a strict nutritional regimen in recent years, charged by the hope it could prolong his time in the league. And on this day, on the umpteenth grocery trip during his first training camp with the Capitals, he drove past the roadside temptations of what seemed like a life left long ago.
“Loved Frostys,” Orpik said as he passed a Wendy’s. “Used to be a staple of mine.”
So were milkshakes, frozen pizza and late-night street-meat from some dude named Cheech over three seasons at Boston College, before Orpik knew the difference between good weight and bad weight. So were soda, frozen waffles and boxed macaroni and cheese during his early, skinnier days with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So were chicken wings, burgers and Italian food, heavy with cream and white flour, old favorites on road trips.
“And that’s the stuff you eat after a couple beers,” he said, pulling into the same parking spot he found when shopping here the previous afternoon. “Looking back, it was pretty gross.”
That was before Orpik, now 34 and Washington’s second-oldest player, became one of the NHL’s most fervent advocates of healthy eating, desperate to stretch his career past its prime, reconciling the body’s inevitable wear by controlling what goes into it. In Pittsburgh, he learned from veteran Gary Roberts, who attributed playing into his 40s to the obsessed routine he passed on to Orpik.
“His vehicle for making a living is his body,” said Capitals assistant Todd Reirden, who also coached Orpik in Pittsburgh, “and I think he treats his car well.”
It’s why, for breakfast, Orpik devoured three eggs, pan-fried in olive oil, mixed berries, granola and a “green smoothie” — banana, kale, spinach, coconut water, shredded coconut, non-fat Greek yogurt and wheatgrass; occasionally spinach, sprouts and beets. It’s why he recovers by slugging tart cherry juice and slipping into air-filled compression pants. It’s why he started bringing a single duffel bag stuffed only with supplements and all-natural energy bars on road trips, and why over summers he and his wife live on an eight-acre organic farm outside Boston.
Five years ago, Orpik said, he would’ve called this version of himself crazy. And yet, as he walked through the aisles of MOM’s Organic Market in Merrifield for the second straight afternoon, he rattled off favorite brands of bison meat, protein shakes and hemp powder as if introducing a reporter to old friends.
“You have to find certain ways to combat other things that are unavoidable,” Orpik said. “Certain things slow down. If you don’t make certain changes, it can go downhill a lot quicker than you want.”
To critics, Orpik has already reached that point. On July 1, when he inked a five-year, $27.5 million deal with Washington, the contract was widely panned. “After signing Brooks Orpik, what are the Capitals doing?” read a headline on SBNation. “Brooks Orpik was a bad signing for the Capitals and here’s why,” read another, from this very newspaper. Several NHL Network analysts agreed: Orpik’s was the worst signing of this free agency period.
Years ago, he swore off social media and articles after watching younger Penguins climb onto the team bus, flip on their phones and sink into sadness upon reading comments and criticism. This might explain Orpik’s confused reply to a teleconference question, shortly after the deal was announced, about why he was worth $5.5 million per season.
“Why am I worth that?” he repeated. “Uhh…that’s probably a better question for the people who give out the contracts.”
General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz answered this by pointing to Orpik’s work ethic and leadership, which they hoped he could impart upon the younger members of their blue line. Orpik had never been the evangelical type with his nutritional habits, but recalled watching inexperienced teammates blame low energy on hard workouts, when their pre-practice bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches were bigger culprits.
“The older you get, you really start to feel the grind of the season and if you take care of yourself, you feel better later in the season,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, also a former Penguin. “I think he’s figured that out, what works for him.”
So instead of preaching himself, Reirden and Niskanen steered rookies to watch Orpik’s routine, like his prolonged stretching after games, or his dinner plates that resemble a backyard garden, or how he finds locally sourced, organic restaurants in every road city.
“I did understand the importance of making some sacrifices in terms of the things you’re eating, the choices you’re making,” said Reirden, who played 183 NHL games with four teams. “Certainly not to the extent he has. Maybe I would’ve been able to play a little longer if I had.”
On the drive home, a massive jar of protein powder riding in the back seat, Orpik stopped for a Perrier and two bottles of water, substitutes for soda. He took a swig and recalled what Capitals management told him during negotiations. “We didn’t bring you here to live up to certain dollar figures,” he remembered them saying. “We signed you for who you are, not for who we think you’ll become.”
A Wendy’s passed on the right. A combination Taco Bell/KFC, and a McDonald’s too. Friends ask whether he misses fast food, or even bread and cheese. Not anymore, he replies . This was the player he needed to become, self-aware enough to reinvent his habits, feeling a responsibility to pass them on.
“Don’t need anything else,” he said, glancing at the cars lined up at the drive-thru windows. “It’s not as boring as people think.”