Brooks Orpik: Man. Myth. Legend. Villain?
Brooks Orpik retired this week as a Washington Capital fan favorite, but he wasn’t always celebrated as such. In fact, during his 11 seasons as a Pittsburgh Penguin, I despised Brooks Orpik. It wasn’t just that he was wearing a sweater with the silly Penguin on its crest. It wasn’t just the integral role he played in defending against Alex Ovechkin during epic division battles. It certainly wasn’t the teeth-rattling hits he delivered on opposing forwards; I love the physical game. No, I hated Brooks Orpik because I was convinced he was a dirty player. Not just dirty, filthy. A cheap shot artist, an enemy with no conscience, a hack devoid of remorse.
Like any big hitter, there was much debate about just how dirty Penguin Orpik actually played. To me, he was a guy that always got his elbows up. There is ample evidence to support my contention that Orpik didn’t just walk the line, but instead left it in the rearview mirror.
A dangerous knee on knee hit on Derek Stepan. Being suspended for fracturing a vertebrae in Erik Cole’s neck on a boarding penalty. A questionable high hit on Jonathan Toews. I dismissed Orpik as a headhunter I could lump in with all the other Penguins I loathed.
Then in the summer of 2014 Brooks traded in his black and gold for a red sweater, signing a 5-year, $27.5 million contract with Washington. With the Alex Ovechkin-Nick Backstrom Era teetering on the brink of complete failure, new general manager Brian MacLellan was trying to remake a roster whose window was quickly closing.
By bringing in coach Barry Trotz, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik, MacLellan was seeking the leadership and accountability severely missing at the end of George McPhee’s tenure. But, man, why did it have to be Brooks Orpik?
It wasn’t just that he was a dirty, headhunting Penguin. It was that he appeared to be an aging, slowing defenseman that would hamstring the salary cap for years. By the end of the contract, heck, by the end of year 3, would he be more Brooks Or-pylon than Brooks Or-pik?
I understood Brian MacLellan’s motive; he needed to bring stability and respectability to a defensive unit that saw Mike Green post a -16 +/- rating the previous season. A defensive unit that saw Steve Oleksy play 33 games the previous season. A defensive unit threatening to waste the Great 8’s remaining years. MacLellan was willing to overpay a veteran defender and leader to signal to his team and the league the Ovechkin Caps weren’t done yet. But, come on, Brooks Orpik?
As it turns out, yes, of course it had to be Brooks Orpik. He was the perfect fit. As a stay-at-home defenseman, Brooks helped anchor Barry Trotz’s transition to a style of play predicated on offense springing from being sound in your own end first. As a mature leader, he was a role model for the captain and other veterans. As a bruiser who still sometimes struggled to find the proper edge of play ( just ask Olli Maatta),
Brooks made it harder to play against the Capitals. Orpik’s on-ice play wasn’t always consistent and his role changed as he sometimes struggled defensively. Reduced minutes and an eventual move to the third D pairing benefitted him and the team.
Arguably, Brooks Orpik’s greatest contributions to the organization were made off the ice. As a workout warrior and disciplined health nut, Brooks demonstrated what it takes to win. His leadership in the locker room helped Trotz instill a culture change. It is obvious from the outpouring of well wishes from former teammates that he was a mentor to Capitals players, young and old. Brian MacLellan understood you can’t always put a price on those things.
It would be easy to whitewash my feelings for Brooks Orpik but it was not simply a matter of suddenly rooting for a guy because he is now on “my” team. I stand by my disdain for the signing at the time it occurred. However, Brooks won me over. My distaste grew into respect and admiration. His professionalism, his leadership, and his presence, both on the ice and in the locker room, were clearly major contributions to the Caps finally winning a Cup. For that alone, I’ll always be grateful to Brooks Orpik. Having part of a pinkie finger slashed off during a Stanley Cup Final game and catching AND chugging a beer while atop a Cup Parade bus? Well, those moments simply cement the Orpik legend.
By Bryan Hailey