After 15 seasons in the National Hockey League, Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik announced his retirement Tuesday night.
Orpik had been an unrestricted free agent to that point; however, with the Capitals’ recent trade for fellow defenseman Radko Gudas, combined with the lingering effects of a knee injury suffered last October, it became clear that the 38-year-old’s time in Washington had passed.
“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, through the NHL Players’ Association.
Orpik: A Bruising Defender
A native of San Francisco and graduate of Boston College, Orpik spent the first 10 seasons of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, an unheralded component of the lineup that would eventually win the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Orpik broke into the first-team lineup in the 2003-04 season after playing most of the prior year with the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. Two seasons later, fresh off the lockout and with Sidney Crosby in tow, Orpik’s career – and his reputation – really got off the ground.
As the rest of the Penguins’ superstar lineup gelled around Orpik, he established himself as a bruising, hard-working, and physical defenseman who wasn’t afraid to play dirty, and the statistics proved it. In fact, his 764 penalty minutes over his ten-year stretch with the Penguins were more than all but eight other defensemen during that same timeframe.
On one occasion, he stepped over the line and incurred the wrath of the commissioner’s office. In a 2006 game, Orpik delivered a massive hit to Carolina Hurricanes forward Erik Cole, fracturing a vertebra in Cole’s neck and earning himself a three-game suspension.
In 2009, he lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time, as the Penguins overcame the Detroit Red Wings in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final. Eight months later, Orpik was selected to the United States men’s national hockey team for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he once again participated in the final of a major tournament. This time, his team was not so lucky, as the Americans fell to Canada in the gold medal game.
After 2013-14, the Penguins dealt Orpik to their bitter divisional rivals in the nation’s capital. Proving that bad habits die hard, he once again added to his “dirty player” reputation during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoff series against none other than his former team, the Penguins. In the second game of those Eastern Conference Semifinals, Orpik delivered an illegal hit to the head of Olli Määttä, which earned him another costly three-game suspension and helped turn the tide of a series that the Capitals were leading 1-0 at the time. Without Orpik’s physical play to back them up, Washington lost to Pittsburgh in six games.
Coming Through in the Clutch
However, Orpik was not all fire and brimstone, and his skill at distributing the puck in addition to his hard-nosed defense earned him a career plus/minus rating of plus-79. He wasn’t a frequent threat to light the lamp himself, which made the few times he did all the sweeter.
His career may be defined by three game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, then-Penguin Orpik sent the New York Islanders home with his first career postseason goal, a one-timer slapshot that bounced off the crossbar and past Evgeni Nabokov for the series-winner in a 4-3 victory.
Five years later, Orpik would shine on an even more important stage, in an even more unexpected way. In the second game of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final versus the Vegas Golden Knights, Orpik snuck a slapshot past his former Penguins teammate Marc-Andre Fleury for his first goal in over two years. Washington would go on to win the game 3-2.
The following year, in a season where Orpik fought through knee pain since October, he delivered one last dramatic moment with what turned out to be his final NHL goal. In the second game of the Capitals’ first-round series with the Carolina Hurricanes, which the Capitals would eventually lose in seven games, Orpik scored the overtime, game-winner.
Orpik Becoming “Batya”
While Orpik’s physical style of play may not have won over any opposing teams’ fanbases – in fact, the Määttä incident lost him much of the ten seasons worth of respect he had garnered with the Penguins faithful – his Capitals teammates took to him as a locker-room inspiration during their 2018 Stanley Cup run.
At 37-years-old by the 2017-18 season, by far the oldest member of the Stanley Cup champion roster, Orpik emerged as a father figure for the Capitals – so much so that he earned the nickname “Batya”, Russian for “father” or “dad”. Teammates such as Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey attest to Orpik’s sense of humor, which kept the team afloat in dire situations such as the Capitals’ seven-game losing streak in January 2019 which threatened to derail their hopes of even making the postseason.
Despite this, and the championship he helped bring to Washington, it was clear Orpik was on his last legs. The Capitals traded him to the Colorado Avalanche less than three weeks after the season, only for the Avs to buy him out. Washington re-signed him on July 25th, but the grizzled defender was never at full strength for the 2018-19 season following a knee injury in October which required surgery. At its lowest point, according to NBC Sports’ Rob Carlin, Orpik was forced to “use the elevator at [Capital One Arena] to go up and down cause [he] couldn’t go up and down stairs.”
Ultimately, the pain in his knee convinced Orpik that he would not play another NHL season. He retires with two Stanley Cups, an Olympic silver medal, and a reputation as a jovial, hard-working team leader beloved by all who played with him.