Brooks Orpik wanted to wait.
A few days after a brutal Game 7 Stanley Cup playoff loss was no time to decide if he was willing to continue his long, distinguished NHL career. It is one where he got to hoist the Stanley Cup twice, where he won an Olympic silver medal for the United States. A teammate to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a popular leader who could form relationships with the best player in the world or a teenage rookie.
Orpik’s remarkable career came to an end on Tuesday. He announced his retirement after 15 seasons. By the end, the minutes and hours and years on the ice had taken a toll. Orpik will be 39 next season. A right knee injury – a torn meniscus – limited him to just 53 games last season and even after he returned it was a grind to play to the level he expects of himself.
"That'll probably be the main factor, yeah,” Orpik said on April 26 when asked if the knee injury would factor into his decision to come back. “I think from a hockey and competitive standpoint, I'll want to play. But if I can't get to a certain level then I don't want to do what I did this year throughout the whole season."
Orpik played in 1,035 NHL games over those 15 seasons, a first-round pick – No. 18 overall in 2000 – who more than lived up to expectations. He was a hard defender, a player who always gave as good as he got. No one on the Capitals was more diligent about taking care of themselves in all the ways that matters to an NHL player. He had to if he wanted to play long into his 30s.
He had a flair for the dramatic even if contributing offensively wasn’t exactly his thing. He scored an overtime winner in the playoffs just this year in Game 2 of the Carolina series. He will always have the first game-winning goal in Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final history with the Game 2 winner last year against Vegas.
Orpik was often dinged late in his career by advanced metrics that said he didn’t contribute enough to shot suppression, that the game had passed him by as his skills eroded with age. His teammates were incredulous at those arguments.
Said former Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, a teammate in Pittsburgh and Washington: “He has so much integrity. And that’s what I admire most, what a good friend and leader, a good quality person he is. And I think that means something to a hockey team.”
Said Tom Wilson: “It’s hard to put into words what a guy like that means to a team. I mean you guys see it but you don’t really see it. It’s everything that that guy does has been good for the team.”
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan: “[Orpik] been great for us over the five years. He's done everything and more that we thought we'd get out of him.”
Alex Ovechkin: “Batya was a great leader in our locker room and was so important for us to win our first Stanley Cup. We will miss his presence in the room and on the ice. Not only was he a great leader and a player, but he was a better person. I’m so happy I had a chance to play with him and for our young guys to have had the chance to learn from him. I want to wish him, Erin and his kids the best. We will miss him and the Batya protein shakes!”
Nicklas Backstrom: “Brooks was one of the best leaders I’ve had the chance to play with in my career. It is difficult to find a better teammate, and a player who worked harder and enjoyed the game as much as Brooks. We all learned from Brooks and he made his teammates better every day. It was a pleasure playing with him and I wish him and his family all the best.”
T.J. Oshie: “Brooks was a great player, leader, warrior and an Olympic Silver Medalist – the type of guy that would always stick up for his teammates, sacrifice his body and do whatever it takes to win. More importantly, he is a terrific person and a friend. Congrats, Batya, on a long and successful career!”
Wilson: “Brooks was someone that I looked up to from the first day that he got to D.C. I don’t think he ever took a shift off his entire career, nor did he ever take a day off being a great leader. Brooks is truly one of the best in the game of hockey and we will miss having him in our room. Congrats, Orps, and thanks for everything. I’m wishing you, Erin and the girls all the best in the next chapter.”
John Carlson: “I had the great opportunity to see up close how impactful Brooks was for our team. Spending time as his defensive partner and playing alongside Brooks was something that I will always cherish. He showed his teammates the importance of hard work, accountability and always being there for your team every time he stepped on the ice. We all learned from Brooks; he was our role model and he made us better. I wish him and his family all the best!”
Lars Eller took to Instagram to congratulate Orpik on a spectacular career.
They called his Batya, a winking acknowledgment from the team’s Russian contingent that Orpik was the team’s father-figure, its guiding conscience. Ovechkin is the captain. Orpik was the one guiding the leadership group in the right direction. Ovechkin was always going to hand the Cup to Nicklas Backstrom, his long-time teammate, when the Capitals finally won the Cup in Vegas in 2018. But who got the next handoff? It was Orpik, to the delight of his teammates.
“You like to hear that from your teammates. I think being a good teammate is something that should be high on everybody's priority list,” Orpik said. “As you get older as a player you're not the same player you were when you were 27, so you gotta do things differently. I think when I was a younger player I had some really good older teammates and I had some other older teammates that I didn't really love. I think getting a taste of that, as you get older you reflect on that, and you're like, 'I hope guys view me in the same light that I viewed some of these guys, not the way I was treated by some of these other guys.'”
Orpik won an NCAA championship at Boston College. He played at World Juniors in 2000 and the IIHF World Championships in 2006. He represented the United States at the Winter Olympics in 2010, when he returned home from Vancouver with a silver medal, and 2014 and again in 2014.
In 2016, in the middle of a playoff series against the Penguins, his old team, a late hit against Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta led to a three-game suspension at the worst possible time. Orpik stood up and took responsibility. He even said he hoped other players would learn from his suspension. He called it “fair.” That’s not a common reaction from an NHL player suspended in the playoffs. It’s part of who Brooks Orpik was, though.
He was brought to Washington to help change the culture of a team that could never seem to get over the hump in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals gave him a five-year contract. After three more devastating playoff losses to the New York Rangers and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, his old team, the Capitals finally broke through last year with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
That remarkable career has come to an end now. Orpik said he assumed he’d want to play as the summer went on and return for a 16thseason. In the end, his body wouldn’t let that happen. He didn’t want to go through the things he had to play another full season and contribute the way he always has.
And so he will move on. First comes finishing that degree at Boston College. Then maybe a career in coaching. Who knows?
“I’ve been extremely lucky to have the best job in the world for many years, but my body is telling me it is time to move on to something new,” said Orpik in a statement on Tuesday. “I’m excited for more family time and to experience a lot of the things that being a professional athlete forces you to miss out on. Thank you to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for giving me the opportunity to play against the best athletes in the world. I’ll be forever grateful for the memories and relationships that hockey has given me.”
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