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The Tenured Defenseman

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Thirteen years ago, Brooks Orpik – a teenager out of Boston College who played a mature, physical, aggressive game on the ice – was selected in the first round (18th overall) of the 2000 NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At that point, Orpik wasn’t thinking about winning a Stanley Cup(s) or having a long and successful professional career. Not yet, anyway. He didn’t know what kind of NHL player he would become, if he would even make it to the league at all. All he was hoping for was the opportunity to try.

Brooks Orpik with the 2009 Stanley Cup

“I remember when I got drafted, it was just hopefully I can play one game,” he said. “I think that’s all you really wish for is just a chance to play and see if you can actually achieve any success in the league. I don’t think when you’re young that you ever envision playing X amount of games. I think it’s just that first game, and just work as hard as you can to get an opportunity to play in the league.”

Well, Orpik played that first game on Dec. 10, 2002 in Toronto – and hundreds more after it. His career has a special place in the Penguins record books, as Orpik has now played the most games (631 and counting) of any defenseman in franchise history – moving into first place on the list April 2 vs. Buffalo at CONSOL Energy Center.

But what is most impressive – and what Orpik is most proud of – is that he has played every single one of his NHL games with Pittsburgh and is currently the longest-tenured Penguin on the roster. He’s the foundation; the first piece of Pittsburgh’s core group of drafted and developed players that includes Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang – and that won them the Stanley Cup in 2009.

“I think some of it’s just luck with how it all plays out,” the 32-year-old Orpik said of staying in Pittsburgh. “You have to have that desire to stay with that team. You have to like where you are. Obviously I like being here. I think every year we’ve really had such a great group of people, not just the players, but the organization. I think the biggest thing is people are, from the top of the organization all the way down to the last player, just guys who are fully committed to winning. I think that’s what draws people here.”

It’s not like Orpik hasn’t had opportunities to leave, the most recent coming the summer of 2008 – right after the Penguins advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to the Red Wings in six games. But a conversation with former Penguins Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts at a bonfire in Recchi’s backyard – two men he greatly respected – helped him realize how much he enjoyed it in Pittsburgh.

“Gary was pretty influential on me in a lot of different areas, but hearing it from a guy like that, obviously is a little bit louder than hearing it from someone else,” Orpik said. “I remember him telling me when he went from Toronto to Florida he thought everything would be great; he envisioned the beaches and warm weather. He said all that stuff was great, but at the end of the day they had a group that really didn’t care about winning and was just kind of out there collecting a paycheck. That was the one thing he stressed to me. He said if it comes down to $500,000 or whatever the number is – obviously that’s a lot of money – but in the big picture, is it really worth going down there and giving up being happy in the situation that you’re at? I guess the grass isn’t always greener.”

Orpik is a fan favorite, having endeared himself to Penguins fans from the start of his career with his punishing, gritty style of play. He’s recorded over 200 hits in six of his last eight seasons, with a countless number of them the types of bone crushing checks that engrain in the memory (for example, who could forget that shift in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final against the Red Wings when he threw four big hits in about a 15-second span?) Say the term “free candy” to any Penguins fan, and they’ll gleefully tell you that’s how Orpik hands out hits.

And Orpik, who serves as one of the team’s alternate captain, is also admired and respected by both the players and fans for his leadership qualities (first and foremost his honesty). Because of that, Orpik was voted by his teammates to receive his third straight Player’s Player Award – given to the player they feel exemplifies leadership for the team both on and off of the ice and who is dedicated to teamwork.

“If you ask guys in here, I think that’s the one thing guys probably say, (that) I am honest,” Orpik said. “But I think the one thing is that you just have to hold yourself accountable. And you have to hold each other accountable. I think we have a group here that knows even when you are critical of yourself or you’re critical of each other, guys know it’s for the good of everyone. It’s not a personal thing. I’ll say something to ‘Geno,’ Geno will say something to me, guys go at each other all the time in here. We probably get upset with one another when it initially happens, but I think we have a group here that all really, really respects each other and likes each other. And I think at the end of the day, we all know the reason we are being critical and honest of each other is because we all want to win and the commitment level we have here, I think that’s why we’ve had so much success here the last few years.”

That wisdom, Fleury said, is something that Orpik has had since he broke into the league.

“I remember he was really big and muscular for a young guy,” said Fleury, who has been teammates with Orpik since 2003. “He was young, but it already seemed like he’d been around for a long time. He was so mature.”

Orpik has been through a lot with this team. They didn’t qualify for the playoffs his first two NHL seasons (with a season lost to the lockout in between). He’s played for three different coaches (Eddie Olczyk, Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma) and under two general managers (Craig Patrick and Ray Shero). He’s been to the playoffs seven times, winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. And through it all, Orpik has been the rock of this organization.

Was he destined to be a Penguin, especially being named after the most iconic coach in American hockey history, Herb Brooks – who worked as director of player personnel and head scout for the Penguins and was part of the team that drafted him?

“I don’t know if I’d call it fate, but I definitely appreciate the way it played out,” he said. “I got to meet Herb Brooks at the draft in Calgary. I got to know him really well my first year down in Wilkes-Barre. He would come down to Wilkes-Barre for a couple of weeks at a time and I got to spend a lot of time with him and pick his brain. He was always willing to give up all his time and just try to better everyone around him and pass on his knowledge. So it was cool how it played out.”

“Obviously winning the Stanley Cup is everyone’s dream. That’s the ultimate goal and that’s obviously got to be No. 1.

“I think just being drafted way back in June of 2000 up in Calgary, that was a pretty cool day. It was actually one of my teammates and I, Krys Kolanos, he’s from Calgary, he played at BC with me and we went back-to-back in the draft. So that was pretty cool. Him being from Calgary, we had a big party at his house. So that one sticks out.

“And I guess I would say just my first game, I remember getting called up, I was on about four hours of sleep. We played in Toronto that night. I think we lost the game to Toronto, but that’s one game I think you’ll remember every single part of. I remember running over Tom Fitzgerald, who now works for the team. That was my one big memory from that game. I don’t know if he remembers it, but I’ve got the video of it, so I’ll have to show him someday.”

“I think just going back to the group of guys we have, I think it’s unique at the pro level to have guys that get along as well as we do. Obviously college level, high school, when you’re around each other, you always hear stories about that. But guys have families, and a lot of teams you hear of guys going in their own directions after practice and games. And we really have a team that really hangs out a lot and really cares about each other. I think just the people I play with and the people that work for the team overall.

“And then as a city, obviously we have great fans that really appreciate hard work and I think they appreciate the commitment we have. They’re committed fans and I think that goes both ways. We appreciate their commitment and they appreciate ours. I know the one thing I like about playing here is you have fans that are that passionate, but at the same time, they’re very, very respectful of your privacy.”

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