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Starkey: Orpik an iconic Penguin

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brooks Orpik has provided a physical presence since the team drafted him.

The moment passed quickly — so quickly that it really must be revisited.

All kinds of things were happening April 2 at Consol Energy Center. The Buffalo Sabres were in the midst of snapping the Penguins' 15-game winning streak. Sidney Crosby had broken his jaw in the previous game. The city was buzzing about the acquisition of Jarome Iginla.

So it was easy to overlook the brief dedication that occurred early in the game, when the Penguins honored one of their iconic players — Brooks Orpik — for playing his 622nd game. That was one more than any defenseman in franchise history and certainly the most for a defenseman who once was switched to left wing against his will by Michel Therrien.

I'm not sure Orpik will ever be able to laugh about that one.

The crowd cheered as a montage of thunderous hits played on the video screen. It was enough to get Orpik to smile (though certainly not enough to get him to blink; nothing could do that).

And then he wanted it to end.

“I don't really love the personal recognition,” he said Tuesday after practice. “But it was definitely cool from the crowd. I had to acknowledge it.”

He did, but only after teammate Deryk Engelland implored him.

“It was a big moment,” Engelland recalled. “That's a guy I look up to. It wasn't just me trying to make him give a little wave, either. Everyone wanted to see it.”

There's a lot of hockey left in the 32-year-old Orpik, who entered Wednesday's game leading the team in hits and blocks. He also was plus-17, a figure topped by only four defensemen in the league.

But this seemed like a good time to take stock of a special career. Asked to identify his three favorite NHL moments, Orpik chose these:

1. Winning the Cup.

2. Getting drafted back-to-back with former Boston College teammate Krys Kolanos.

3. Playing his first NHL game — Dec. 10, 2002, against Toronto.

Orpik wore No. 29 that night. He suited up with one very legendary Penguin in Mario Lemieux and several not-so-legendary ones — including Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek and Alexandre Daigle.

“I remember running over Tom Fitzgerald, who now works for us,” Orpik said. “I've got a video of it. I'll have to show it to him sometime.”

Orpik has run over plenty of people since, though never in such memorable fashion as on “The Shift” against Detroit in the 2008 final, when he started knocking Red Wings around like they were pinballs.

“The only time I get reminded of it is when people ask when I'm going to do it again,” he said.

From this vantage point, Orpik's career has been defined by one word: timing. He has an impeccable sense of it, whether delivering a hard hit or a brutally honest quote.

“That's probably gotten me into trouble a few times,” he conceded.

For many GMs and ex-GMs, I'd imagine their seminal Orpik moment was the draft of 2000, when teams surprisingly kept passing on him. Ten of the 13 players drafted directly in front of Orpik, who went 18th, did not play even two full seasons.

Orpik's hometown Sabres passed on him at No. 15, opting for somebody named Artem Kryukov, who has played precisely 628 fewer NHL games than Orpik. Which is to say, zero.

Orpik endured the bad years — he was part of the ill-fated Generation X — but that only made the good ones sweeter. He now is the Penguins' longest-tenured player and a hugely respected presence in the room.

“You always knew what kind of leader he was on the ice,” defenseman Douglas Murray said. “But now I see. He is what you call a true professional. Nobody's going to outwork him.”

Orpik could have gone to Los Angeles or New York for more money after the '08 final, but he remembers getting some superb advice from Gary Roberts, at a bonfire in Mark Recchi's backyard.

Roberts asked a question: Is a slightly bigger contract worth it if you're not happy?

Orpik answered that question for himself — and won a Cup the very next season.

Did I mention his impeccable sense of timing?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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