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Hard-nosed Orpik leads Pens' charge back

by Larry Wigge /

After dropping a pair of games in Detroit in which they were shutout in both contests, Brooks Orpik resilient Pittsburgh Penguins returned to the Steel City and proved that the Stanley Cup Final is anything but over with an impressive 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3.
PITTSBURGH -- We all know that no one gives up in hockey. With the speed, the skill, the staying power, these great athletes just won't let themselves quit.

The benchmark for passionate comebacks came at Lake Placid in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. But the Pittsburgh Penguins were not thinking about odds against them or miracles on ice after they fell behind the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final by scores of 4-0 and 3-0.

"We aren't looking at this as a miracle situation. Not in this room," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik told me before the Penguins responded for a 3-2 victory in Game 3 at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena Wednesday night.

Orpik had seven hits (including four on one shift midway through the third period when the Red Wings were really buzzing) and four blocked shots (including three key blocks on one shift in the final minute and a half).

Orpik is one of those defenders assigned to check the likes of Detroit's big line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom. Tough job? You bet.

"We want to keep pounding on them," Orpik said of the Wings. "We look over at their bench and they have a lot of older guys. It's going to be a long series."

Orpik gets this passionate look on his face in describing anything hockey.

"We found out that the best way to defend Holmstrom is to get to the net before he does, because once he gets there he's so strong you can't move him," Orpik said, barely taking a breath to stop in describing what he and the Penguins needed to do to neutralize this difficult-to-handle opponent. "Originally, Marc (Fleury) wanted to make sure we tied up his stick. But that just puts two bodies in front of our goaltender."

He continued talking with a rush: "Holmstrom is so good at what he does because he often can tie up two players in front of the net and that leaves skill guys like Zetterberg and Datsyuk – two really quick and skilled and dangerous players – swooping in from the wings for rebounds."

Orpik shakes his head at the daunting task. Then he kind of bites gently on his lip and gets this gung-ho, let's-do-it attitude. When Orpik gets that look on his face, you don't automatically wonder where that determined feeling came from. Hey, he's a hockey player, so he's going to passionate about the game, right?

Well, yes, but ...

Maybe not for a guy who admittedly spent more time thinking about players on baseball's Giants and A's when he was growing up in San Francisco, walking through the locker rooms of those teams with his dad, Rick, who was an equipment rep for Mizuno's baseball sales team. Brooks will always remember how friendly Pete Rose was to him when the Cincinnati Reds came to town – and then there were his favorites ... Vida Blue and Chili Davis of the Giants.

Brooks admits he always had one hockey item to fall back on: his name.

"My dad grew up in Boston and was a big hockey fan. My mom grew up in California, and she never had the same passion for hockey," Orpik smiled. "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. "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. That's where he got the best advice of his life.

"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 High School to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., for a better brand of hockey. That where he first met up with his current defensive teammate Ryan Whitney.

"The first thing that stands out to you about Brooks is that he's such a great skater, especially for his size (6-2, 219 pounds)," Whitney said. "Then, when you see him in a game, well, you see how really physical he can be. He's one of those guys who can become a physical presence and take over a game with his hitting."

From there Orpik went on to Boston College. There, he rarely lost or struggled and was known as a ferocious hitter with excellent defensive instincts. 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 Boston College, 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 said, again getting into another of those don't-take-a-breath, excited, passionate, hockey-talk moods.

After going to the NCAA finals and winning at Albany, N.Y., in 2001, he had a choice to make ... stay in school and continue to work on his communications degree and play one more season, or turn pro. As it turned out, the NHL was too difficult to turn down, although he plans to go back to BC and switch his degree to English so that he can eventually work with kids and perhaps coach after his playing career is over.

This is the part of the game where we find out what makes a player tick.

"It was a hard decision to leave BC early, because we made it to the Frozen Four all three years I was there," he said.

The decision, in retrospect, became even more difficult after he was cut on the last day of the Penguins training camp and had to go to the minors, and was down about that development.

"It was particularly tough because it was the first time I'd ever been cut by a team ..." he said, pausing for a little contemplation a few years after the fact. And that was compounded by the fact that, "I went down to Wilkes-Barre (American Hockey League) and we won just 20 games that year."

But there was no second-guessing.

"In the end, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I got a chance to play through that adversity and learn how to play with more consistency," Orpik added. "Consistency, to me, is the most difficult part of the professional game because we play so many games and it's difficult to be at your best every night ... but you have to learn to achieve that level nonetheless."

And what most people don't know is that Brooks Orpik got a better chance to know his namesake in the minors.

Brooks Orpik's superb work ethic and dedication to the game have helped turn him from a unknown former seventh round draft pick into a quality shutdown defenseman who is known to dish out a big hit from time to time.

"He was around all the time at Wilkes-Barre," Orpik said with a big smile. "We'd often go out to dinner with him and pick his brains ... and listen to those great stories he had from the long journey the U.S. team had all the way up to winning the gold medal at Lake Placid."

Still, in every player's life, no matter if it's Nicklas Lidstrom or Brooks Orpik, there's an obstacle to overcome. For Orpik it was the late introduction to skating, followed by that last-day cut in his first Penguins' training camp in 2001 as well as the losing at Wilkes-Barre and then with a rebuilding Pittsburgh team when he made it to the NHL after two years in the AHL.

"It's the fifth year here for Ryan Malone, Marc-Andre Fleury and myself, and we've seen what it's like to be at the bottom of the bottom of the standings and we've also seen the rebuilding plan at its best," Orpik explained, getting that passionate tone in his voice once again. "It's been an interesting learning curve to say the least."

Orpik's dad is still in the hockey business, while his mom, Liz, is still a legal secretary. Off the ice, Brooks says he's become a fitness freak since veteran Gary Roberts joined the Penguins at the trading deadline a year ago. And away from the rink his best friend works for the Boston Red Sox, allowing him to see a number of Sox games. But, he says, he's still a Giants fan.

Most important for Orpik is that hard-working example his mom and dad set for him and his brother Andrew, who is also in professional hockey after being selected in the seventh and final round, 227th overall out of 230, in the 2005 Entry Draft by the Orpiks' hometown Buffalo Sabres. The lifeblood thread, the hard work, the dedication of his parents has translated into Brooks being a strong skater, big hitter and very reliable as a shutdown defenseman.

In the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, Orpik has had seven, five and seven hits and six, two and one blocked shots. Those totals tie him for second in hits with 81 in 17 playoff games and first in hits with 45, after getting 239 hits and 125 blocked shots in the regular season.

And no one was talking about miracles.

But you could say Brooks Orpik and his father have had that do-you-believe-in-miracles attitude regarding a career in the NHL and perhaps another golden moment for a long, long time.

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