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After spending 16 years in the National Hockey League and winning two Stanley Cup Championships, very little surprises Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik anymore, whether that’s forwards, formations, or fans.
The 38-year-old, who played in his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 14, is known throughout the league for his tough, all-business demeanor. His steadfast commitment to fitness and nutrition has helped him withstand the concussive impact of 3,078 hits and 1,744 blocked shots, the second and fourth-most in the NHL over that time span, respectively. He’s officially fought 14 times in his career, most recently in Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, and has amassed a 9-5 record according to HockeyFights.com, an outcome good enough to win you a belt in some weight divisions.
“He’s so, like, serious with his job,” 22-year-old Capitals forward Jakub Vrana tells City Paper. “He comes in here and he works hard.”
“He’s very serious,” says Caps defenseman Madison Bowey with a reverent shake of his head. “He always comes ready to compete.”
Based on that level of professionalism, some hockey fans may assume that Orpik can’t take a joke. They’d be wrong.
“I always think it’s funny that people just equate the way you play to what your personality must be,” Orpik says, reclining at his locker after practice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. “I guess it’s just human nature. I’m probably guilty of it.”
If you ask his Capitals teammates, one thing they consistently mention about Orpik is his jovial nature.
Bowey chuckles and crosses his arms over his chest when asked about the team’s alternate captain.
“When a guy like him laughs, it just kind of brings joy to everyone,” he says. “I think that’s the cool thing about Brooksy … Everyone sees how passionate he is. But at the same time, being a leader, you have to keep things light. He knows the right times to do that.”
“He might be one of the funniest guys on the team,” says Vrana. “And he knows how to make guys laugh. He always comes in and jokes around, which is a great example for the younger guys. He shows them how they should take care of their bodies and stuff, but he can also throw in a couple jokes.”
For Orpik, those lighter moments serve a purpose.
“It’s too long a year. We’ve got a [seven-game] losing streak going right now, and it’s easy to come in and pout and be angry,” he says. “But that negative energy doesn’t solve anything. I think keeping it positive reminds guys that we’re pretty lucky to do the job we do.”
And Orpik uses that balance of good-natured ribbing and leadership by example to help keep his younger teammates in line, even if that means embarrassing them.
Jayson Megna, a forward currently playing for the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, first played with Orpik on the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013, Megna’s rookie season.
“I remember one time, I was in the food line [after practice] and I was going to sneak a cookie,” Megna says. “Right as I was about to take a bite of it, [Orpik] came up behind me, pointed at it, and said, ‘You don’t want to put that shit in your body.’ So what could I do? I had a salad instead.”
Orpik frequently teases teammates about their eating habits in the cafeteria.
“It was my fifth ever NHL game one night in Buffalo,” Vrana recounts with a laugh. “[Earlier that day], we’re eating a pre-game meal, and we always have ice cream after lunch. Not many guys take it, it’s usually for the coaches and staff. Well, I finish my meal and I get, like, three scoops of ice cream and a bunch of chocolate sauce. I sit down, and I look at Brooksy, and Brooksy is staring at me. And I’m like, ‘What does he want,’ you know? It’s my fifth game in the NHL! I’m a really new guy! So I offer him some. Like, ‘Brooksy, you want some?’
And he goes, ‘No thanks, I can’t. I’ve got a game tonight.’
And I’m like, ‘Aw, shit!’” Vrana says.
“That’s obviously a joke,” Orpik explains. “I was probably a lot worse with my nutrition at this point than these younger guys are.”
Certain players are easier targets than others. “Burky [Andre Burakovsky] takes a lot of heat. Now, this wasn’t me …” Orpik says, flashing a mischievous smile, “but guys will come out and their tie’s been cut in half before TV spots, so they have to go on camera like that. Or spray-painted shoes on road trips—I’m talking bright blue—so you have to walk around with them for the whole trip.”
Orpik frequently uses lighthearted humor as a way to bond with younger teammates, especially those who are new to the U.S. and for whom English may not be a first language.
“When [Capitals center] Evgeny Kuznetsov first got here, Brooks is one of the guys that would sit with him and watch Family Feud,” says Al Koken, a Capitals television broadcaster for 35 years. “He had something similar with [Evgeni] Malkin in Pittsburgh; he would teach Malkin curse words in English, and Malkin would teach Orpik curse words in Russian.”
These moments of joking help Orpik build a trust with his teammates that just may take their careers to the next level.
“Everybody always tells you that your career goes by quickly, and it does. I remember my first training camp, just staring at Mario [Lemieux]. Now, I’m not Mario by any means, but you can’t be naïve,” Orpik explains with earnest, focused eyes. “The younger guys watch everything you do, how you carry yourself. That can have a big influence on how you conduct yourself as a younger guy.”
His relationship with 23-year-old Bowey is a prime example.
“I probably wouldn’t be here in this spot if it wasn’t for Brooksy. He really helped me out a lot, helped build up my confidence,” Bowey says. “That passion never leaves him. When you’re in the locker room and you really need help, he’s always there for you.”
Koken has often seen the two walk out of the weight room together and believes that’s no coincidence. To Koken, the value of Orpik’s influence in the locker room can’t be measured on the score sheet.
“Orpik has asked himself why he’s here,” Koken says. “He’s asked himself, ‘Is it just to cash a check, play defense, and go home?’ Or is it to be a good guy, and to instruct the young players who are going to take his place one day?”
Orpik’s choice is clear, and with another practice complete, he tosses the last of his pads in the team laundry and takes a meaningful look around the locker room.
“There’s always younger guys watching,” he finally says. “How you carry yourself, how you treat people around you, at the rink, and the bus, and the restaurants. You can have an impact on them.”
Orpik then stands, and laughs.
“I think that’s the important thing.”