PITTSBURGH -- Brooks Orpik is a guy you want on your team. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave him their highest honor each of the past two seasons, voting him their Players' Player award. It's the ultimate sign of their respect for his professionalism and leadership.
It turns out the "You Can Play" people saw the same qualities in Orpik. They reached out to him to be a part of their campaign to promote tolerance in hockey locker rooms. He quickly agreed. The result is a powerful video that could be life-changing for a lot of young people.
"If we can change even one person's view on this issue, we will have reached our goal," Orpik said over the weekend.
Here's the message Orpik delivered in his 30-second spot. It's on YouTube and will be on television soon as a public-service announcement. It is more impressive than any of the hard hits he has delivered in his Penguins career.
"What matters to me and my teammates? A player with a hard slap shot. A player with awesome puck-handling skills. A player who can shoot. A guy who can help our team win ... You know what doesn't matter to me? If a player is straight or gay. Sports should be open to anyone who loves the game and will play hard ... My teammates are my friends and we're all playing to win. I'm Brooks Orpik. If you can play, you can play."
The project was the idea of Patrick Burke -- a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke -- as a way to honor his late brother, Brendan, who was killed at 21 in a car crash in February 2010. Only a few months earlier, Brendan Burke -- a student-manager on the Miami University of Ohio hockey team -- had revealed publicly that he was gay. He continued to be accepted by the Miami players and was widely hailed as a pioneer in the sports world.
Orpik got to know the Burke family through his high school pal, Jared Porter, who married Brian Burke's daughter, Katie. He was in the wedding party.
"When they asked me to do it, there was no way I was going to say no," Orpik said. "It was something I jumped on right away."
It didn't hurt that Orpik believes strongly in the message. Although the project targets homophobia in hockey, he is convinced it will help a lot of other people. Kids everywhere are bullied merely because they are different. They often lead shame-filled lives and can't understand why. Some commit suicide.
It is a horrible cycle that must be stopped.
"The bigger picture here is to encourage people not to be afraid of who they are," Orpik said. "It's also to encourage others to be a little more accepting of those who are different than they are."
Nearly 30 NHL players, including stars Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, have done PSAs similar to Orpik's. "Their goal was to get at least one guy from every team," Orpik said.
Orpik said he has never played with a teammate he knew was gay. "But I think we as players are being completely naive and kidding ourselves if we don't think we've had a gay teammate. Look at the percentages of adult males who are gay. We've probably had a lot more than one gay teammate."
Orpik said he thinks most -- but not all -- players would accept a gay player in the room. "I would assume a player the guys knew and had a friendship with, that wouldn't change it. But a new guy coming in? I don't know. I'm not saying that's right or the way it should be. But in the current environment, I think it might be hard for that player. That's just my opinion."
Orpik said the reaction he has received since his video was released last week "has been nothing but positive." But he knows negative reaction might be coming from those fans that have no idea what the words "tolerant" and "accepting" mean. "If I do hear anything negative, it'll probably be from people who have a problem with themselves and don't like who they are."
Orpik gets it. He realizes he has a platform because of his prowess in his sport. He's not afraid to use it to bring awareness for something good.
This is a terrific video.
It brings a much-needed message.
(Contact Ron Cook at rcook(at)post-gazette.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)