Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik
may be named after the most iconic coach in USA Hockey history, but oddly enough, it wasn’t always the
sport for him.
His dad Rick grew up in Boston as a huge hockey fan while his mom Elizabeth is from southern California, the state that their son spent a large chunk of his childhood in.
“It was kind of weird,” Orpik said of his path to the game. “I was born in California, and growing up there hockey wasn’t very big then. I grew up in San Francisco, so I was just a huge 49ers and Giants fan and didn’t really pay much attention to hockey.
“It really didn’t mean too much to me until we moved to Buffalo in January of ‘87 and started with it then.”
But even once Orpik laced up his first pair of skates, he didn’t have a love-at-first-stride kind of relationship with the game.
“I remember hating it for a while,” Orpik said with a laugh.
So even with his dad’s love for the game, he and his wife didn’t want to force their son into a sport he didn’t like.
So they had him take some time off from hockey and try it again a year later – and it seems like a little time apart was all Orpik needed.
“From there on out, I started to love it,” he said. “Then being in Buffalo, you’ve got the Sabres there and you’re close to southern Ontario, so it’s a huge influence there with hockey.”
But although he enjoyed playing, he still hadn’t fully committed to seeing how far he could go with hockey until he was a teenager.
“I think all the way up till age 15, I was kind of in between with baseball and hockey,” he said. “Then you kind of had to make a decision and go one way or the other, and hockey kind of trumped that. I’m still a huge baseball fan, but I think I made the right decision there.”
That’s an understatement.
From there, Orpik went on to play three years at Boston College, one of the most respected Division I college hockey programs in the country, where he won a national championship in 2001.
While he was in school, Pittsburgh selected him in the first round (18th) overall of the 2000 NHL Draft – where he got to meet his namesake for the first time, as Herb Brooks was then working as director of player personnel and head scout for the Penguins.
“I got to meet him at the draft in Calgary, which was pretty cool,” Orpik said. “Then when I left BC and played my first year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Herbie Brooks was head of player development so we had some cool interaction with him, he was always around us. Got to pick his brain at dinner and he was really helpful on the ice, too.
“He was a guy who just kind of had the same attitude every day, just really enjoyed life. And obviously with hockey, he was just a really, really intelligent guy. We got to spend a lot of time with him a couple weeks at a time when he’d come down to Wilkes-Barre, so it was a lot of fun.”
Orpik has since gone on to become an established NHL defenseman and a physically imposing presence that regularly ranks among the league’s top hitters. He also wears an “A” on his Penguins sweater as a team leader, raised a Stanley Cup with the team in 2009 and last season, he became just the third blueliner in franchise history to play 500 games.
But that’s just his NHL career.
Orpik also earned the opportunity to represent the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he returned home with a silver medal after falling to Canada in overtime of the Gold Medal Game.
“The Olympics was a huge highlight of my career,” he said. “The experience was awesome. It’s something you grow up watching. I remember watching Team USA at the ’88 Olympics in Calgary and being a huge Brian Leetch fan, then watching all of the Olympics after that.”
Orpik was thankful he even got the opportunity, as he can attest to just how much the game has grown here in the States since he started playing.
“I was pretty lucky that I got selected there, because there are a lot of Americans,” he said. “There are a lot of good young guys, but that’s just a testament to USA Hockey developing kids from a lot of different places now. Before, it used to just be a couple regions like Minnesota and Massachusetts and New York. Now you see kids from Texas, Arizona and California, which is only a good thing for USA Hockey.”
And Orpik plans on doing his part to aid that development, as he knows many American kids can’t even try the sport due to financial limitations. That way even if, unlike Orpik, youth players decide not to stick with it, at least they'll have been given a chance to try it.
“You just try to help out as much as you can, because I think the one thing about hockey, unlike baseball or basketball, is that it’s a really, really expensive sport to play,” he said. “Through the NHLPA and the NHL, there are some programs where we can give back and donate equipment and stuff like that to try to make it more accessible for some kids who probably don’t have the funds or their parents don’t have the funds to get them involved in hockey.
“I think that’s the biggest obstacle right now in the U.S. I think the last few years, the exposure on NBC and some of the major networks is definitely good for the game so you definitely try to get it out there as much as you can. Then looking back now, being in a position where you can help out younger kids and grow it yourself, you just try to give back as much as you can.”