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Orpik's Latest Development

Brooks Orpik shares his views as he embarks upon a new career in player development

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Late last week, Caps senior vice president and general manager Brian MacLellan announced that Brooks Orpik would be joining the team's hockey operations staff in the player development department. On June 25, Orpik announced his retirement as an active NHL player after 16 seasons and two Stanley Cup championships.

At the time of his retirement, Orpik didn't commit to anything concrete in terms of post-career plans.

"I've been thinking about it for a while, yeah," he said at the time. "I've had a lot of people reach out and offer to give me opportunities - not really jobs - to help me decide what I might want to try. So there will be those opportunities, but like I said, I'm not in any rush."

The same week of his retirement, Orpik accepted an invitation from MacLellan and Caps director of player development Steve Richmond to help out at Washington's summer development camp at Capitals MedStar Iceplex. Slightly less than 10 weeks later, after a summer spent mulling his future options, Orpik is back in the fold with the Caps, working alongside Richmond and Olie Kolzig in player development.

Orpik spent his first days on his new job in Nashville, where the Caps participated in the 2019 Prospect Showcase tournament from Sept. 7-10. When the Caps prospects were on the ice for practice sessions, Orpik was out there with them. When the kids were on the ice in games agains Carolina, Nashville or Tampa Bay prospects, Orpik was watching intently from above along with his new co-workers and a bevy of assorted scouts from around the league.

After one of those practice sessions, we chatted in the lobby of a downtown Nashville hotel. Here's how it went.

 

First off, what went into your decision-making process? Obviously, you talked it over with your wife and family. But you mentioned that you had some other people who had reached out to you. Did you have other people that served as kind of a sounding board, or just take your time and make a decision?

"A little bit of both. I definitely didn't rush into it. I talked to enough people on both sides of the fence, people that told me, 'Whatever you do, don't take a year off, because we know how you are as a person. You'll get to November and you'll be pulling your hair out.' Sometimes, as well as you know yourself, other people that are around you know you just as well, if not better. They know what's best for you, and I got some good advice from those people. The other thing too was that I didn't want to completely overwhelm myself with something the first year out, because I was definitely excited to do a lot more stuff with my two girls.

"So this opportunity came up. Mac and Steve Richmond were nice enough to let me come down to development camp and let me see a couple of sides of the organization, and they came up with something that we thought might be of interest, would work time-wise and would line up with what I was interested in. So it was something that came up during development camp, and I had a pretty good feeling right away that it was something that I wasn't going to pass up. But Steve let me think about it for a month. I guess it has been kind of unofficial for a while, and we finally just made it official. We all kind of knew it was going to happen."

From the standpoint of the job and the work itself, what is most appealing to you?

"I think just having an impact on these kids. I've talked to enough people - at least in hockey - that have worked with younger guys. I think getting them at this age and seeing their progress and seeing them go on with their careers, you always feel a little bit rewarded that you made a difference in whatever direction - hopefully it's a positive direction. So a lot of coaches gave me some good feedback there. And then I think coming down to development camp and meeting this specific group of guys - especially the seven defensemen who are here at the rookie tournament - kind of sealed it. I wouldn't say I would have gone in a completely different direction if it was a different group of guys, but these kids are seven really nice kids that are very eager to learn and very receptive to constructive criticism or positive feedback. So I would say it was this group [of defensemen] that kind of sold itself, to be honest with you."

You've obviously been on the ice with those seven guys here at the tournament on those two practice days. What sort of things have you been looking to impart during those hourlong or hour-plus sessions?

"It's anything from just asking them how things are going off the ice, to how they are assimilating with the organization to how they're enjoying themselves as a group, obviously being in a pretty good city in Nashville.

"With the hockey stuff, you've got to remind yourself that this is the first time these guys have played a game in three or four months and it's a little bit scrambly, so it's not going to be perfect. But there are definitely a lot of little things where you can give them feedback. But you don't want to overwhelm them with information because you want them to just go out there an compete hard, and play and not overthink things, because that's when it slows you down. I think you try to pick your spots, but a lot of it is just detail stuff. They're all really, really good hockey players. I think as you go you can show video at the appropriate times, but this is a good opportunity for me to see more of how they play and maybe what specifically they need to work on, and what they're good at already. It's these guys and then most of the older guys in Hershey that have been in the organization a little bit longer that I know a little bit better."

The other side of the gig is watching them play games, which you've had a chance to do here over the weekend. What has that experience been like for you, sitting and watching games, and looking at it -- I'm guessing - probably differently than you've ever looked at game you've been watching?

"As a player, you watch a lot of video. But most of the time you're involved in it, so it's a little bit different. I think the most important thing for me - because I know it bugged me as a player - is that when you watch them from up top, you have a lot better sight lines, and everything looks a lot easier from up top or on video. I actually prefer to sit down near the glass where you can appreciate the speed and how little time guys have to make decisions. But it's a little different. For me, I was obviously ready to move on and do something different, so it's not bittersweet at all watching it. I enjoy watching these kids, but it is funny. I watch it, and obviously I'm done playing now, and I go all the way back to when people were telling me, 'Well, it goes by quick. You'll be doing something else pretty soon.' And you kind of laugh it off, but here it is. But it has been fun, and with the other organizations here, there are a lot of familiar faces around with past teammates and stuff, so that part is pretty cool, too."

Do you see this as maybe a springboard to something else that you want to do in the game, or is it too soon to think that way, and you just do this job, see if you enjoy it, do it as well as you can and see how it plays out?

"I know a lot of people who, right from wherever they start, they have a master plan in place. I think for me as a player, I was so focused on playing that I'm a little bit further behind similar people. Everybody works a little bit differently anyway. From talking to Mac and Steve, it was an opportunity for me to use it as almost an exploratory year to see [how it goes]. If I do like this, I could continue doing this. And if I don't like it, I could do something completely out of hockey. But at least it's a learning experience that will guide you in the right direction and tell you if this is something you're interested in, or maybe you're not interested in it and you want to do something completely different, like real estate or something.

"I was always pretty sure I wanted to do something in hockey. I didn't know exactly what capacity, but I think this year will definitely give me some more guidance in the right direction of what I might want to do. Whether that means staying in this same position or one day using it as a springboard to something else, I don't really know."

Obviously you knew right from the day you were drafted that the day would come eventually that you wouldn't be playing anymore, and you'd be doing something else, whether it was within hockey or outside the game. Now that that day is here and you are actually on the job, do you have any sense of how the feeling compares to how you thought it might feel when you were 19 or 20 and just getting started?

"No, but I think I was very mindful - especially as I got older - of having some sort of plan in place. I know enough guys and you hear enough stories where people don't have a plan in place. Most of them involve guys who were kind of pushed out of the game a little bit earlier than they expected. It can lead to some unfortunate things. So I think it's a responsible thing as a professional athlete just to make sure that you do have something in place. I don't care how much money you make, at the end of the day you need to be doing something with some type of purpose. It doesn't matter what it is, but I think it's very important and that's something I tried to concentrate on the last three or four years, to try and create some rough idea of the direction I wanted to go in. Like I said, I don't know exactly what it is. But I'm being steered in the right direction, I think."

What's it like now, navigating your relationships with people? Your relationships are different now. Mac is now essentially your boss, not that he wasn't before, and it's the same thing with [Steve Richmond]. Other people you've known are now your co-workers, and you'll still be seeing your former teammates a fair amount. Have you given any thought to that? Not that it's a difficult thing, but it's different.

"Oh, it's different, yeah. I flew to Washington on Thursday, right before this tournament, so I saw most of the Washington guys skating at MedStar there. We don't treat each other any differently and I don't think they talk to me any differently. I don't know if that changes; I doubt it, at least in this position, and I hope they don't view me any differently. But yeah, it's a little bit different now, especially with Mac and some of the other guys on the management side. When you're younger, you always hear the line that hockey is a business at the professional level. There are always business decisions that need to be made, and now even more so with the salary cap. As you get older you get a better understanding of that, and a lot of times you take the personal feelings of some of those decisions out of play. And now that I'm done [playing], I think that's one of the more intriguing and interesting things for me, is trying to see why some of those decisions are made. Then you can look back at past decisions that maybe you indirectly or directly were involved in, and you can have a much better understanding and appreciation for why they were done, and maybe sometimes why they had to be done."

You mentioned that you were excited because of the seven [defensemen] who are here [in Nashville], but there are obviously other defensemen in the system still working their way up the chain and still in the process of development. Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler are certainly further along than these guys, to name two, and it's a real area of strength in the organization, the number of promising young defensemen. I feel like at this time in this organization's evolution, it's a good time to have you here and embarking on this new career, because they have so many of these young defensemen and are trying to develop as many of them as possible into NHL players.

"Like you said, there is a lot here to work with. I don't think there are too many teams that have this amount of talent at that position, and it's a position that's obviously very important around the league and teams always seem to be looking for good defensemen, especially young ones. I think that's part of the goal with the position that I'll have, is to try to develop as many of these kids as well as possible, and obviously as quickly as possible. You don't want to rush them, but obviously the quicker the better. And like you said, it's not just the seven that are here. Jonas and Lucas and even Christian Djoos, he's not that old either. So there are a lot of guys. The guys in Washington, I won't have much of an impact on, but trying to get them to this stage or trying to get them to Washington or some NHL team as quickly as possible is obviously the goal, but that's definitely the feeling, yeah."

I know that in [Richmond's] role, he does a lot of globetrotting. He's traveling a lot, he is seeing players all over this continent and Europe as well. Are you going to be more focused on Hershey and possibly Charleston, or are you going to be checking in with the college and European guys as well?

"It will primarily be Hershey. There is definitely some of that extra stuff as well that will be available to me if I want to do it. And I think as the season plays out, I'll get a better feel for it. But I know me personally, I would like to get as much experience in different areas as possible. Going back to a previous question, I'm trying to steer myself in the right direction and get a feel for what I'm ultimately most interested in. So whether that's college kids or going to World Junior championships or stuff like that, I think the more things you can do like that, the better off you are. But definitely the primary focus will be the defensemen who are in Hershey."

And your focus is going to be primarily on the defensemen rather than all of the skaters?

"That will be the primary, yeah. But there will definitely be some crossover and I'll help out with those kids. Just getting to know some of those kids from the last few training camps, you feel like you already have relationships developed with those kids, so I think it will just be human nature. You're going to want to make an impact on those kids, whether it's hockey related or just how to improve off the ice. Like Garret Pilon I've been around quite a bit. I've played with [Shane] Gersich. So I feel like I know all of those guys pretty well. Riley Sutter, I know one of his cousins, and I got to know Kody Clark really well during development camp. He is a kid I'm sure people are going to take a liking to right away. He is a really, really likeable kid. So you see a kid in that position, and I think you want to help them as much as possible even though he plays a different position."

How different was this summer for you, compared to the last 18 or 20?

"It was different. Training-wise, it was a lot different. I didn't lift any weights. There was a lot of paddle-boarding, and still a lot of cardio stuff, but it was a lot different. And I think your timeline is a lot different, too. When you're playing, you usually have a set schedule, like, 'This is where I've got to be at this point of the summer, this is where I've got to be a week before training camp, and ramp it up.' So it was probably a little more relaxed, a little less stress, and there is no conditioning test next week that I've got to take part in. But at the same time, you miss that stuff. The competitive side of you misses that stuff, so you try to find other ways to kind of get that competitiveness out of you. So it was more relaxing, but at the same time, there were small parts of it that you miss."

When you did go back to MedStar and you saw the guys on the ice for captains' practice, did you feel anything that you weren't expecting to feel?

"No, no not at all. A lot of people have asked me that. I remember in the summer, people would say, 'Oh, this has got to be bittersweet.' And I said, 'No, it's not.' Whether it was this year, last year or a year from now, it has an expiration date on it. You've got to have a plan in place. Anyone who plays hockey that long, you're going to miss the game. But you've got to be realistic with it. It was the right time for me. I think the right time for every individual is a little bit different. But for my situation, I didn't have any second thoughts about it. I knew that for myself and my family it was completely the right decision. I think if anything, it just confirmed it more."

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