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Practicing Against the Best Helps Orpik be the Best

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
What's in a name? Plenty

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins and Brooks Orpik 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 Orpik.

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.

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 San Francisco Giants and Oakland 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," said a laughing Orpik. "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."

As a hockey player, Orpik is something of a late-bloomer. 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."

-- Larry Wigge
-- Brooks Orpik was scribbling away at a crossword puzzle Monday after practice. There were still a few words vacant. Orpik said he'd work at it more while riding on the stationary bike.

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

But on the ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman takes no shortcuts.

"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," he said.

Orpik, 28, leads all defensemen in hits in the playoffs with 93 -- 25 better than Chicago's Brent Seabrook. He's also developed a multi-faceted skill-set that is hard to acquire. Part of that is Orpik's drive and will to get better. Every day at the rink is a learning experience, and few defensemen have the opportunity to learn their trade any better than facing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at practice.

"It's no fun," Orpik explained, looking across the locker room at his ultra-skilled teammates. "I think it makes all of our defensemen a lot better, playing against those guys."

"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."

In this Stanley Cup Final series against the Red Wings, Orpik has another difficult one-on-one matchup against the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Company.

This aggressive defenseman grew up admiring the hits dished out regularly by former New Jersey blueliner 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.'

"Wow! Those words. They seemed so powerful. They just stayed with me."

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 by Pittsburgh in the first round, with the 18th pick 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, adding he also had a chance to pick the legendary coach's brains whenever he visited the Penguins farm club at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League.

From those days at prep school to Boston College to this second straight trip to the Final, it's been a long journey for Orpik.

"We've all been in situations where it's lose and you're out," he 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."

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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