If things had worked out a little differently last summer, Brooks Orpik could be playing his hockey at the Staples Center in Los Angeles instead of Mellon Arena. Well, actually, he wouldn't be playing now because the Kings had a lousy season and didn't make the Stanley Cup playoffs. But he could be cashing a bigger check and enjoying that wonderful California weather and kick-back lifestyle.
No thanks, Orpik said yesterday.
Give him Pittsburgh any day.
"A guy like [former Penguins teammate] Ryan Malone, if he had to do it all over again, he'd take a lot less to stay here," Orpik said. "I know at the trade deadline, he was begging to come back here.
"A lot of the guys who have left feel that way. The older guys -- Gary Roberts, Darryl Sydor, Mark Recchi -- used to tell me we have something special here. I think the commitment level -- the camaraderie level -- that this group of guys has is unique in sports."
Orpik grinned, his electric blue eyes dancing even more than usual.
"As stupid and cheesy as that sounds, I really believe it's one of the reasons we are where we are right now."
Where the Penguins are is getting ready for the second round of the playoffs later this week, a year after they made it all the way to the final. The chance to get back and maybe even win the Cup is worth a lot more to Orpik than a few extra dollars in his pay and all of that California cool.
That isn't to say Orpik isn't fabulously compensated with the Penguins. Don't get the wrong idea about that. The six-year deal he signed as a free-agent defenseman after last season pays him $3.75 million per year.
The point is Orpik could have grabbed for more, if not from the Kings, than from the New York Rangers, the other team that intrigued him when he was going through the free-agent process. Human nature is to go for as much as you can get. That Orpik didn't doesn't make him any kind of a hero. It just makes him unusual in an era where athletes use their paychecks to keep score among themselves.
"As much as you hate to say it, there are guys who only play for the checks," Orpik said. "If they have to be at practice at 9:15, they show up at 9:15. Then, as soon as practice is over, they're gone.
"That's what I mean when I say it's different here. Guys want to come early and they stay late. The trainers get mad because we stay so long. They have to kick us out so they can go home."
The winning is a big part of it. Sure, it is. Orpik is prominent in that. Going into the games last night, he led all NHL players with 31 hits in the playoffs even if the stats crew in Philadelphia didn't bother crediting him with a single one in Game 3 of the series against the Flyers. He said the number isn't important. What matters is that he feels he's doing something to wear down the opponent over a long series.
"I don't think anyone likes to get hit," Orpik said. "But there are some guys, you can get them off their game. Maybe they don't come through the neutral zone with the same speed. Or maybe they take their eye off the puck and turn it over looking for you instead of worrying about making a play."
Orpik tormented a number of Flyers, especially getting Joffrey Lupul's and Claude Giroux's attention with brutal hits. Those hits didn't get the same airtime on SportsCenter that his four hits during an amazing 15-second sequence against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the Cup final last season did, but they and his 29 others were a factor in the Penguins surviving and advancing in six games. They outhit the notoriously physical Philadelphia bunch, 143-142.
"The stats don't matter to me. What matters to me is what the guys on the other team are thinking," Orpik said.
"You want to go ask them, 'Was that guy fun to play against?' Obviously, you want that answer to be 'no.' "
Flyers center Daniel Briere certainly would say "no" about Orpik. It's fair to think he's one of the guys Orpik took off his game. He got so frustrated with him late in Game 3 that he took a double-minor penalty for high-sticking him, breaking his nose and leaving it gushing blood all over the Wachovia Center ice.
Orpik figured it was a small price to pay for Briere's dismay.
"He apologized to me in the handshake line," Orpik said, all but giggling. "If I had more time right then, I would have told him that I expected that from him a lot earlier in the series, as much as I've ran him over the years."
Orpik will renew a lot of acquaintances and maybe even make new friends in the next series.
That much is certain.
So is this:
They won't be having nearly as much fun in L.A.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .