Despite success, the Capitals forward stays grounded
Despite success, the Capitals forward stays grounded
By Hemal Jhaveri / Photography by Mitchell Layton
On the ice, Brooks Laich is your classic NHL tough guy—throwing body checks, aggressively handling the puck and looking like he’ll have no problem bulldozing anything that gets in his way. The versatile Washington Capitals forward—who has, as of press time, scored 11 goals, playing in 41 games, and is on track to make or break his outstanding record from last year of 23 goals playing in all 82 games of the regular season—is fast, focused and efficient. Look at his player profile on the Caps website, and his photo is enough to send a chill down your spine. Mouth frozen in a thin tight line, with no hint of a smile at the corners. His eyes are a cold, icy blue that conveys a harshness in his undeniably handsome features. In short, he looks downright mean.
But that illusion is handily destroyed when the in-season 26-year-old Arlington resident takes the stage for a panel during the Capitals first-ever fan convention. Before the panel starts, Laich (pronounced li-ek), who arrived early, is sitting patiently at his seat, chin resting in folded hands, a lopsided smile on his lips, looking for all the world like a bored school kid. Before the rising NHL star has a chance to get restless, a girl about 6 years old shyly approaches him for an autograph. Within minutes, Laich is mobbed by an eager army of Lilliputian-sized fans. Even sitting down, he towers over them.
Once the panel starts, the kids fire off questions at a rapid clip. What’s your favorite cereal? Cheerios. Ice cream? Cookies and cream. How old were you when you had your first girlfriend? Third grade. Favorite band? AC/DC. Favorite food? Steak and sushi. Finally, a toddler haltingly asks, “Do you wear Iron Man undroos?” Laich, in all seriousness, answers. “Actually, we all wear the same Under Armor underwear, under our uniforms, so no, no Iron Man ones.” The questioner smiles, immensely satisfied.
Face to face, it seems, Laich is something else entirely.
Laich is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, all sharp angles, strong cheekbones, piercing eyes and aggressively healthy handsomeness. In person, he’s quick to smile, easygoing and endearingly genuine. He’s wearing a red Caps jersey and loose-fitting dark jeans that do nothing to hide the solid bulk of his frame. Regular Joes who walk alongside of him are like minions to his finely crafted Colossus. If the first thing that hits you about Laich are the good looks, the second comes as soon as he opens his mouth. “One of the first things people say when they meet me is, ‘You have [an] accent,’” he says as he shakes his head. There’s quite a bit of disbelief in his voice. “Five years of living here, and I haven’t managed to pick up the local dialect.” His speech is tinged with the long “oo” sound, apparent in his “out” and “about,” that is distinctly Canadian.
Laich may not yet command the star power of fellow teammates Alex Ovechkin or Mike Green, but with his solid performance on the ice and leadership in the locker room he has long been considered future captain material. Laich came out with an impressive performance in the first game of the season, banking two power-play goals and an assist against the Boston Bruins. His first goal gave the Caps control late in the first period, and his third-period goal was crucial to a Caps win. And yet, speaking with reporters after the game, Laich was quick to deflect attention away from himself and toward goalie Jose Thoeder. “The power play was good, but Jose Theodore, I thought, was excellent tonight,” Laich said. “He played so well. In the first 10 minutes, he held us in there and was a key to victory tonight.” He dismisses his own goals as “lucky.” For all the praise heaped on him, Laich stubbornly insists on remaining a regular guy.
Head in the Game, Not in the Clouds Even as a crucial part of a team that’s expected to be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup, you won’t find much or any of the cocky attitude that seems so prevalent in many pro athletes. Resisting the trappings that come with the life of an NHL pro, Laich maintains a low-key approach, and blames it all on his “country” roots. There’s more than a little bit of pride in his voice when he admits that he still does his own yard work, buys his furniture at Macy’s and prefers a beer on his deck to a night out on the town. He refuses to indulge in the glittery trappings that come with a pro NHL career, a trait he attributes to his upbringing in Canada. “I have good parents and friends who always keep me grounded,” is all he’ll say on the matter.
He also still drives the same Cadillac Escalade he bought when he signed his first NHL contract six years ago. “I have what I refer to as the No. 1 rated all-purpose vehicle on the team. It has the speed, the style, the agility. Not so good on gas though. … I can’t drive any of those fancy cars down some of those roads in Saskatchewan.”
For Laich, these are badges of honor, a visual commitment to the family and friends, that despite the hefty bump in pay, he’ll never get too big for his britches. When a kid asks if he’s ever ridden in a limo, he jokingly fires back, “Well, Mike Green is a friend of mine, so yes.” Limo rides and fancy cars, he implies, may be the purview of other stars, but are nothing he sets stock by. He thrives on hard work, dedication and discipline.
It’s taken Laich a long time to get to this point in his career, which started, for all practical purposes, as a toddler. “In Canada, they start you early,” he says. “I started playing organized hockey at 5, but was on the ice at 2 years old.” By the time Laich was 14, it was a forgone conclusion that he’d try to make his living as a pro hockey player. “There was nothing else I wanted to do,” he says. And he fully admits that the university route wasn’t for him.
Since having gone pro, Laich has managed to cover a fair bit of territory across the U.S. After leaving home at 16 to further his career, he shuttled between Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Maine; Binghamton, N.Y.; and Hershey, Penn., where he played on the Caps farm team. He finally landed in the District five years ago by way of the Ottawa Senators.
A New Home
About a year ago, Laich bought a house on the north side of Arlington, just off of Glebe Road, right by Interstate 66. The sprawling single-family home is like many others on his block, with brick front, spacious bay windows and a chandelier that hangs from the cathedral ceiling. It is, Laich insists, more than enough space for a single guy. “I added a hot tub yesterday, but there are a lot of rooms that are empty that won’t have anything in them for awhile,” he says. After a pause, he continues. “I’m a man of necessity. I don’t need a whole lot, living by myself. I have what I need,” he finishes.
If you want to make him blush, just bring up his love life (which he remains frustratingly tight-lipped on), or point out his reputation as a ladies’ man. “It is a great town to be single in,” is all Laich allows. “There’s a lot of people around. It’s very easy to meet new people in this town. It’s not a big city like New York, where everything is rush, rush, and you can’t identify with anyone. It’s pretty grounded and down to earth here.” Does that mean he’s single? Laich backpedals and allows that Mate, near the Georgetown waterfront, is a great spot for a date night.
When asked why he bought a house out in Arlington, after years of renting in the city, he simply shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders and quietly says, “I’m a country boy. I don’t like the concrete jungle and the sirens and all that. So, I bought a house out in Arlington where at least I have a yard and a deck and trees.” His voice trails off a bit. “And I really enjoy it out there. It’s peaceful out there,” he emphasizes. “Back home, the running joke is that you can see your dog run away for three days,” he laughs.
“Back home” is Wawota, Saskatchewan, with a population hovering around 600. The town is nestled in the southeastern corner of its province, a bleak expanse of flat prairie land. “People come down here, and you can see the leaves change color in the fall. Stuff like that, we don’t really have back at home,” Laich says.
There’s another reason he chose Arlington, as well. “The people. I compare it to back home because you can go around Arlington and Ballston, and you can see people you know,” he says. “The community has been very good to myself and my family when they come down. People really embrace them, and it’s nice for me to see that [they feel] comfortable here.”
“The flip side of that is, I really like the trees and how nice it is, but back home you can see the sky for days. Everywhere you look, just the panoramic view. … Sometimes down here, when you’re mixed in with the trees, I look up and think, OK, where’s the sky? I want to see the sky.” His voice takes on a wistful urgency. “Like I said, I’m a country boy. I like the wide open spaces, you don’t get much of that down here,” he concedes, before quickly veering the conversation back toward the positives. “The other good thing is that the winters aren’t as harsh here as they are in Canada,” he finishes gamely.
If there’s anything Laich sets stock by, it’s staying normal, no matter how successful he becomes in the NHL. “Something I think what people fail to realize is that we’re just regular human beings. We might be able to play a sport well but other than that…” He shrugs his hulking shoulders once. “We like going to movies, we like being outside, sitting on a patio, having a beer. … And we’re down-to-earth, regular people. Sometimes I think people, because of your status, being a professional hockey player, they sometimes look at you like you’re something in a museum, where you can look but can’t touch.”
Back at the panel, Laich is accosted once again as he comes off the makeshift stage. A media handler politely ushers him away from a smattering of giggly young women, a few who are single but one who’s come with kids attached. Laich takes a few steps toward the exit, mentally wrestles with his desire to escape the scrum, and changes his mind. He trots back to the kids, gestures he’ll be just a second more. “OK, this is the last one, guys,” he says.