On the last snowy day of December – the Thursday before the Pittsburgh Penguins flew to Florida to face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 2 – defenseman Brooks Orpik
went out of his house to walk his dog and found a FedEx package wrapped in plastic hanging from his deck.
Although the 29-year-old defenseman had been busy playing games nearly every other night throughout the past few months in the National Hockey League, thoughts of the package’s content always lingered in the back of his mind.
So when he opened the package and read the letter congratulating him on making the roster for Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Orpik was more than excited to represent his country on the ice in February.
“I think playing against some of my teammates will be pretty fun,” he said. “But living in the Olympic village – even away from the hockey part – and just meeting some of the other athletes will be the most fun part.”
Orpik became even more captivated by the thought of the upcoming experience after checking out the site of the Olympics during the Penguins’ trek to Western Canada during the second week of January.
“We saw a lot of the setup in terms of the village and stuff like that,” he said. “Just being around the whole buzz of the city for the Olympics coming – it was pretty cool to go there a couple of weeks before we actually get up there just to get a feel for it.”
Although the team held an orientation camp during the summer, Orpik said that creating strong chemistry with other NHL talents on the ice is the key to securing the gold during the quick two-week tournament.
“There’s no adjustment time,” he said. “Some of these other smaller countries get the luxury of practicing together for about a month before the tournament, and they know their teammates a lot better. I think that’s the biggest thing – just whatever team kind of meshes the quickest.”
While Orpik said that playing in the Olympics will prove to be one of the most inspiring aspects of his career, he admitted that it is important to remember to play one’s usual game to ensure success during the competition.
“I think it’s one of those things where when you get there, there’s going to be a lot of energy and excitement – kind of similar to how the playoffs are here,” he said. “The biggest thing that you have to do when you get into that environment is to just kind of do the same thing that you’ve done up to this point.
“You don’t want to do anything differently. They’ve seen what you do here, and that’s what they’re expecting out of you. You don’t want to get too hyped up and energized by the emotions that are there. You want to just kind of keep doing what you’re doing.”
Fellow defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who is also competing in the Olympics for the Russian team, said that Orpik will quickly prove to be a valuable asset to Team USA in more ways than one.
“Obviously, he brings physical presence,” Gonchar said. “He’s skating well. We’re playing together, and I know his tendencies. When my team goes to play against him, I’ll tell them how physical he is, how good of a skater he is. He’s playing really well in the defensive zone, so you have to be ready when you’re on the ice with him, because he’ll try to step up and hit you.”
Although Orpik will be facing off against Gonchar and other teammates throughout the games, he said that all of the players understand the competitive nature that comes with playing in the Olympics and will return to Pittsburgh closer than ever.
“I think it will be a little bit different at first, but once you get in that competitive mode, you kind of forget about that,” Orpik said. “We were just laughing – Sid (Sidney Crosby
), Geno (Evgeni Malkin
) and the other people – and posed the question, ‘What if one of you guys hit each other or hurt each other? What’s the carryover or backlash?’
“There will never be a personal backlash as far as we’re concerned. We all know it’s just a competitive, professional thing. I think it’ll be an enjoyable time, and hopefully with some of the free time, I’ll be able to hang out with those guys anyway.”