Brooks Orpik called it a career Tuesday after 15 bruising NHL seasons in which he established himself as a big-hitting, shutdown defenceman and won the Stanley Cup twice.
The 38-year-old played 1,171 regular-season and playoff games for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. He won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 and Washington in 2018.
“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,” Orpik said. “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.”
Orpik was more known for his physicality and defence than his offence. He put up 194 regular-season and 26 playoff points but also scored the Game 2-winning goal for Washington in the 2018 final on the way to the franchise’s first title.
“We wouldn’t have a Stanley Cup if it wasn’t for him,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said at the end of this season. “The impact he’s had on our team is probably second to none, the way he’s changed the culture and pushed guys to make them better. One of the true leaders in our game.”
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Orpik became a respected alternate captain and leader during his five seasons in Washington. Teammates nicknamed him “Batya” — Russian for “Dad.”
“Batya was a great leader in our locker room and was so important for us to win our first Stanley Cup,” captain Alex Ovechkin said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Orpik implied throughout this season it could be his last in the NHL. He had surgery in November to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
“Trying to maintain that level, efficiency was tough,” Orpik said. “So I think there were times of the year, I was frustrated just that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.”
Orpik was back to his vintage self in the playoffs, emptying the tank for 18 minutes a night during the Capitals’ seven-game series against Carolina. After the first-round exit in late April, the San Francisco native conceded he thought he may have played his final NHL game but didn’t want to make a rash decision.
“You got to be 100% committed to it,” Orpik said of potentially playing another season. “If you’re not, then it’s unfair to your teammates and other people that are trying to help you out. In terms of like wanting to play or being committed to play, I think that’s something that, I think when stuff doesn’t go your way after the season you got to take a lot of time off to let things settle down.”
Orpik came to that decision and will now turn his attention to finishing his communications degree at Boston College. He said he wished he had a better post-playing career plan in place but will see where the degree takes him.
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He will be remembered for being the muscle behind two Cup champions — Sidney Crosby’s first and Ovechkin’s first. He often toed the line on hits and was suspended three games during the 2016 playoffs for a late, high hit that injured Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta.
“He’s a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits and there’s not a lot of hitting in this game,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella, who knows Orpik well from U.S. teams in international play. “A lot of people think he might hit hard. I think he plays the game hard. I think he plays the game the right way.”
Orpik’s ability to play on the edge and defend other players made him beloved in Washington. The Capitals prepared for his departure by trading for big-hitting defenceman Radko Gudas, but teammates know there’s no replacing Orpik and what he meant on and off the ice.
“He’s been a force for all of us to gain knowledge from — how to better understand certain parts of the game, what it takes, the mental side of it,” Capitals defenceman John Carlson said. “He’s just a really aware person that can help anybody at any part of their career at any level of play. He’s just been so important to us.”