It takes a lot to play a single season in the National Hockey League, let alone 16.
Following his years at the Nichols School and Thayer Academy, plus three seasons at Boston College, however, that’s exactly what former NHL defenseman Brooks Orpik did — to the tune of two Stanley Cup championships and more than 1,000 games played.
After setting foot in the National Hockey League in 2002, the San Francisco, Calif., native, who grew up and played his youth hockey on the outskirts of Buffalo, N.Y., won his first Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that drafted him 18th overall nine years earlier. Nine years later, Orpik won his second Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
Before he had the chance to play alongside two of the NHL’s all-time greats in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, though, he had to work to achieve the highest level of the game, and he did so after getting a late start — first lacing up the skates at 7 years old before jumping into the youth hockey scene in western New York at the age of 8.
On the latest session of New England Hockey Journal’s The Rink Shrinks podcast, Orpik joins co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau to discuss his road to the show and winning a pair of Cups, as well as to impart advice to the next generation of players, much like he does in his current gig as a first-year assistant coach at his alma mater, BC.
After two years at Nichols School, just outside of his hometown in Amherst, N.Y., Orpik played his junior and senior seasons of high school in Braintree, Mass., at Thayer Academy, where he suited up under longtime prep coach Jack Foley.
It was in those years that Orpik, now 40, began to define himself as the defensive-minded player who became a mainstay in the NHL for the next two decades.
“I think a lot of it is probably the people that coach you. They probably have a big impact on that, and then I think a lot of is probably the guys in the NHL that you watch, and you try to kind of do some of the things they do,” Orpik told the Shrinks. “Scott Stevens was a guy I watched a lot of growing up. He was offensive, too, but probably more of the defensive side, and the physical side he had, I think that was something I tried to incorporate into my game and learn from that. So I think probably a combination of the people that coach you, how much detail and emphasis they have on the defensive side, and the players you look up to and try to emulate.”
As a former player and current youth coach, Yandle agreed it’s important for younger players to pay attention to the intricacies of today’s NHL best — not just their highlights.
“That’s something we’ve really tried to push,” Yandle said. “Watching the game and trying to pick out, whether it’s Patrice Bergeron if you’re a center or Charlie McAvoy, a guy like that, somebody you can really focus on and kind of dial in on their shifts. A lot of guys they just turn on the highlights on NHL Network. They obviously do a great job, but you don’t watch Brooks Orpik shutting a guy down in the defensive zone. You watch, maybe, Ovechkin go toe drag somebody. So, it’s one point that we want to stress is watching the game, watching the full 60 minutes and watch players.”
As anybody who has climbed the ranks of any sport knows, if a player is dominating one level of play, it’s not always going to be the same at the next. Orpik has seen it firsthand. He knows how important it is to remember that each level is a part of a larger journey, and that each player has his or her own role to fill. It’s all about identifying that role and perfecting it.
“Every level that kids move up now, everybody goes from being the best player and then all of a sudden everybody’s good,” he said. “So, how’s your play away from the puck? That’s a big thing at the levels when you get higher and higher up.
“Everybody’s used to playing with the puck, so they’re not great at playing without the puck, and that’s something that gets exposed at the higher levels because there’s only one puck. You might be elite in high school or college, but then a lot of times you’re not going to be able to do that at the next level, so you’ve got to find your niche, and sometimes finding your niche is by refining some parts of the games that aren’t as flashy or sexy. Some guys are willing to do that and some guys aren’t.”
In his new coaching role at BC, the team with which he won a Hockey East title and national championship in 2001, Orpik shares a lot of the same messages he’s shared with the Shrinks. Above all, he emphasized, the devil lies in the details.
“When you think about kids, just the younger generation, kids want everything right away,” Orpik said. “They want results right away, and a lot of kids don’t realize the importance of going through the process of learning and getting better, especially the small details of the game that really matter when you move up to higher levels. So I think trying to just get kids to slow down and appreciate what they’re doing and what they’re working on … they might not see the impact it has today, but just trying to convince them that it will have a big impact on them at some point in the future.”
Even with all of his advice, Orpik knows that every player is different and has a unique path to getting to where they want to go. Like anything in life, he said, things change, and that’s not always a bad thing.
“People ask me questions now and I look back and I say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t always like this,’ ” he said. “I mean, what I thought was the right thing at 25 is far different from what I know now, and that’s just the way life goes. You educate yourself as you go through experiences and — most of the time — through failure and errors. That’s usually when you learn. If you don’t, you don’t get any better.”
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