Porter's path rooted by hockey, friendship

December 18th, 2020

Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., is known as a New England hockey powerhouse. U.S. Hockey Hall of Famers Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte are alumni, along with Mike Mottau, who won the 2000 Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top college player.

For two seasons in the late 1990s, the Thayer Tigers featured a pair of defensemen who grew up outside of Massachusetts. Brooks Orpik was born in San Francisco and started playing hockey after his family relocated to Western New York. Jared Porter, the oldest of four children, was steeped in the game’s traditions as a kid in Wayzata, Minn.

“When I got there, he was still relatively new to the school, too,” Orpik recalled this week in a telephone conversation. “We were both hockey and baseball players, so that connected us right away. We were a good match to become friends pretty quickly.”

Orpik and Porter remain best friends today, after crisscrossing North America for the past two decades through different roles in the sports world. Orpik, 40, is one of the preeminent American hockey players of his generation, winning two Stanley Cups and playing on two Olympic teams before retiring in 2019. Porter, 41, is the new Mets general manager, universally respected in the sport for his authenticity, work ethic, and four World Series rings between his tenures with the Red Sox and Cubs.

Porter’s playing career ended after he captained the baseball and hockey teams at Bowdoin College. Now, he and Orpik have the same job description -- sports executive -- for the first time since their days as student-athletes. Orpik works in player development for the Washington Capitals, in addition to volunteering as an assistant coach for his alma mater, Boston College.

Orpik was with the Eagles on a road trip to Connecticut when news broke last weekend that the Mets had hired Porter. Orpik’s phone was buzzing with excitement as he picked it up after the game.

“With all the text messages I had on my phone, my first thought was, ‘Oh no, I hope there’s nothing going on at home,’” Orpik said. “Then I saw that every single one was, ‘Hey, did you see what happened with the Mets?’

“I was even hearing from people I don’t talk to that often. It was crazy to see how excited everyone was, and that’s because Jared is one person who you never hear a bad word about. If you’re saying something bad about Jared Porter, you have to look in the mirror.”

Orpik described Porter succinctly as “very detailed and very passionate.” Orpik, an NCAA champion at Boston College in 2001, observed those traits up close while the two were roommates in Brookline, Mass., early in Porter’s tenure with the Red Sox.

Orpik spent some summer nights at Fenway Park during the apex of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in 2004. The young Red Sox executive often left his buddy a ticket. Orpik even attended Boston's home games in the ’04 World Series, due to the NHL lockout that fall.

But even as Porter won the first of his four championship rings, the strain of a long baseball season was evident to Orpik.

“When they play 162 games, you would have thought after some of the losses that he was the losing pitcher, with the way he reacted,” Orpik said, laughing. “It might’ve been Game 90 of a season that long, and you could tell how much every day mattered to him. It was easy to poke fun at him for it back then, but that’s what tells you he has the drive to succeed.”

Related

Brooks Orpik won the second of his two Stanley Cup championships with the 2017-18 Capitals.

Porter continues to follow the NHL closely, because he loves hockey and remains curious about the sport’s inner workings. During his tenure as the D-backs assistant general manager, Porter developed a close friendship with John Chayka, then the Arizona Coyotes' GM.

Chayka, 31, is known within hockey circles for utilizing analytics in his decision-making, to an extent that is less common in the NHL than MLB. When Chayka and Porter meet for coffee, Porter asks hockey questions. Chayka volleys back with baseball topics.

Chayka chuckled during an interview this week while noting that Porter had called him recently with the bulletin that he’d seen Auston Matthews, the Scottsdale-raised NHL star, skating at a local rink. “I personally feel like he could have been successful as a hockey manager -- or any other sport -- and that goes to the type of person he is,” Chayka said.

The Porter-Chayka summits can turn serious, including their conversations leading up to the Coyotes’ blockbuster acquisition of Taylor Hall last December. Chayka leaned on Porter’s experience with the D-backs’ trade for J.D. Martinez -- like Hall, a pending free agent -- before the 2017 MLB Trade Deadline.

“He’s a very knowledgeable hockey guy, and I bounce a lot of stuff off him,” Chayka said. “He’s had a lot of success in sports. He’s won championships. That’s valuable experience, and it’s nice to have someone outside of your sport to rely on.

“With the Taylor Hall trade, I wanted to understand, in depth, how they decided to trade for J.D. Martinez to get them into the playoffs and really put them over the top. I wanted to get his take and thought process on how they executed the trade, and he gave me some really good insight.

“If we’re making a structural change, like with our player development plans, I’ll bounce ideas off him. I’d like to think that, vice versa, I’m here as a resource whenever he needs me, too.”

Porter’s wisdom transcends his capacity as a sports executive. Before joining the Red Sox, he worked for the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League in 2002 and '03. Since a good scout never stops thinking about potential matchups, Porter alerted Orpik that he may want to make the drive to Brewster and meet a Whitecaps coworker.

Great tip: Brooks and Erin Orpik are married with two amazing daughters.

Erin, a New York native, is among the lifelong Mets fans thrilled with the Porter hire. “She’s all excited,” her husband said. “She has two or three Mets hats and one of those shiny bullpen jackets from when she was a kid. I don’t even think she believed me when I told her Jared got the job.”

Orpik’s baseball loyalties are a little more complicated. His father, Rick, worked in the sports equipment industry for Majestic and Mizuno while the family lived in the Bay Area, which meant young Brooks spent a lot of time with his father at Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum. Brooks fell in love with the Giants and still has a bat autographed by Will Clark.

After Orpik won his second Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, a stop at Nationals Park was part of the team’s ambling, days-long bacchanal. The Giants happened to be that day’s opponent. So after Orpik, Alexander Ovechkin and friends shared the Cup with the Nationals in the home clubhouse, Orpik quietly brought it to the visitors’ side, so the likes of Bruce Bochy and Evan Longoria could see hockey’s holy grail.

Orpik’s Giants met Porter’s Cubs in the National League Division Series two years earlier. Orpik could feel content with Chicago’s victory, given the Cubs’ drought and Giants’ three World Series titles earlier in the decade.

But that wasn’t even the most complex Porter-Orpik matchup of 2016.

Orpik’s Capitals met the Pittsburgh Penguins in that year’s Eastern Conference playoffs. Yes, Orpik was facing the team with which he’d spent over a decade. Even more intriguingly, the Penguins were (and still are) coached by Porter’s first cousin, Mike Sullivan.

That’s right: Best friend vs. cousin. Tough decision. The Penguins won -- and went on to hoist the Stanley Cup. Orpik laughed when asked if he knows which team Porter favored. He’s honestly not sure.

Porter, showing the coyness of a veteran GM, won’t divulge the details.

So perhaps he is ideally suited for the New York market.

“He wants the pressure,” Chayka said. “He is a wonderful person. He’s a great leader. I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of executives in sports. Even among that group, he stands out as a great communicator. His staff loves working for him. He’s a collaborative thinker who really empowers the people around him.

“His competitive fire is elite. It’s what drives him, what motivates him. If he’s not winning, he’s not happy. He understands the pressure of working in a big market, for a new owner with high expectations. When the possibility came up to take that on, he didn’t flinch.”

And if Porter delivers the World Series title that Steve Cohen so desperately wants, Orpik is convinced his friend will continue calling him as often as he does right now -- to wonder why he hasn’t requested any tickets lately.

“I can say, with 100 percent certainty, that he can go there, win the World Series, and it’s not going to change him,” Orpik said. “He’s not interested in doing things to inflate his ego. That’s something I really admire about him. He’s stayed true to who he is. He’s exactly the same guy as when I met him.”