Monday, May 13, 2013

Orpik, defensive minded, but never one for the ages

By Larry Wigge

Block shots, hit people and play good defense. Never in the world would Brooks Orpik be asked to be a goal-scorer or score the game-winning goal in overtime.

The Pittsburgh Penguins stay-at-home defenseman fired a high sizzler that leaked over the right shoulder of New York Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov as the tension was getting serious with each passing shift. When Orpik scored at 7:49 of overtime, you could feel a sign of relief even in an old barn such as the Nassau Veterans Coliseum -- sight of so many Islanders victory of the past.

This time it was the Penguins carrying away the triumph 4-3.   

Orpik never had scored in 77 previous playoff games and didn't have one in the past 106 contests of any kind since his last goal, also against the Islanders, on November 21, 2011.

All he could say is: "Any shot's a good shot in overtime. Even one of mine. Hey, I don't score too many."

The 33-year-old has won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, an Olympic silver medal with the United States and an NCAA championship with Boston College. Orpik is a key member of arguably the top penalty-killing team the past couple of seasons.

He often can be found over a crossword puzzle. Earlier in the day, there were still a few words vacant.

"If I can't find a word," he said, laughing, "I just stuff something in there to show I'm finished with it."

There were no shortcuts on this day. 

Said Orpik, "The way I look at it is it's OK to be afraid to lose, but it's not OK to let it affect the way you play."

Such was the case Saturday night May 11 as the Penguins clinched the East Conference Semifinal Series.

Ultra competitive. Mobile. Bold.

"A lot of teams are looking for that element in their defensive corps," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Orpik's grit and mobility. "A guy who can skate well and punish the other team's skilled players in the offensive zone ... and he does that repeatedly.

"He's a physical presence. Guys know when he's out there. As his game has improved last year and this year with his positioning, he's being more patient and letting the game come to him. He's still getting those hits. He combines that physical element with a guy who can skate with the best the opposition has to offer. That's a huge asset."

The Penguins and Orpik, in particular, know that the benchmark for passionate comebacks came at Lake Placid in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. And no one has to be reminded of that gold-medal winning trek less than Brooks. He's a hockey player first, but, in case you've never heard the story, he was named after gold-medal winning coach Herb Brooks.

The story gets more intriguing.

Hockey was strange to Orpik since he was brought up in San Francisco. In fact, he saw more baseball when he was young, walking through the locker rooms of the Giants and A's with his dad, Rick, who was an equipment rep for Mizuno's baseball sales team. Brooks said he will always remember how friendly Pete Rose was to him when Cincinnati came to town -- and then there were his local favorites ... Vida Blue and Chili Davis.

"My dad grew up in Boston. My mom grew up in California. She never had the same passion for hockey," Orpik laughed. "When I was born in September of 1980, my dad wanted to name me Herb, after Herb Brooks following the gold medal in Lake Placid. My mom said, 'Absolutely not.' Eventually my mom gave in a little ... and I was named Brooks."

Late bloomer? Well, he is, if you consider that he never skated until his dad switched companies from Mizuno baseball to Bauer hockey and moved his family to Buffalo when Brooks was seven. That's when the youngster first put on a pair of skates and tried to find a path on a slippery surface in hockey.

"Other than my name, the only contact I had with hockey until we moved to Buffalo was a hockey game I once saw at the Cow Palace, when I was very, very young," Orpik said, taking us back to the days of the Seals playing in Oakland. "My dad wouldn't give up on me. He'd take me out to the rink to skate. I hated to skate ... but I loved hockey. I loved the action, the hitting, the competition. I was hooked."

This competitively aggressive defenseman grew up admiring the hits dished out regularly by New Jersey's Scott Stevens. But there was a lot more growing and maturing for Orpik when he was playing at Nichols High School in Buffalo.

"I remember my coach there, Jack Foley, was always pushing my comfort level, prodding me to work harder and one day he told me, 'Don't be comfortable with being average ... average is as close to the bottom as it is to the top,' " he recalled, and added, "Wow! Those words. They seemed so powerful. They just stayed with me."

The driven and determined Orpik went from Nichols to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., for a better brand of hockey. From there, he went on to Boston College, where he rarely lost or struggled. He helped that team to the NCAA Frozen Four three straight years -- 1999, 2000 and 2001, losing to North Dakota, 4-2, in the finals in 2000, before coming back to beat the same Fighting Sioux the next year, 3-2, in overtime.

After his sophomore season at BC, Brooks was selected in the first round, 18th overall, in the 2000 Entry Draft. It was at that point he had the pleasure of meeting Herb Brooks. 

"He was working in the Penguins' scouting staff and was the first one to come up to me when they brought me to the team's table after I was drafted. He told me he knew my whole story, the name, everything, which made me feel great," Orpik added, saying that he also had a chance to pick Herb's brains whenever he visited the Penguins farm club at Wilkes Barre-Scranton in the American Hockey League.

From those days at the Cow Palace as a fan, to prep school, to Boston College to this second straight trip to the Final, it's been along journey for Brooks.

"We've all been in situations where it's lose and you're out," Orpik said. "You use everything from your past to drive you. Every win. Every loss."

And now, every word of encouragement drives you. And the words Brooks Orpik needs to finish off his real-life crossword puzzle? The final two words might be ... golden and moment.

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