Caps’ Or­pik is still a hit on cusp of mile­stone

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY IS­ABELLE KHUR­SHUDYAN

Be­fore Brooks Or­pik thought about how late he would play into his ca­reer or how old he would be when he fi­nally hung up his skates, he just thought about mak­ing it to his 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 whether he will 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 not only to 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 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 would 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 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 MacLel- lan. MacLel­lan signed him to a five-year, $25.5 mil­lion deal, one of his first moves on the job and the con­tract for which he has re­ceived the most crit­i­cism 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 prac- tice habits, train­ing reg­i­men and diet served as a model for Capi­tals young and old to fol­low. When he 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 cap­clear­ing 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 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.”

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“He holds guys ac­count­able,” Wash­ing­ton goalie Braden Holtby said of de­fense­man Brooks Or­pik, 38. “He’s made ev­ery guy bet­ter.”

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