There’s a railing on the left side of the second floor at Yost Ice Arena, overlooking the ice. It’s in the corner, tucked away just off the staircase and next to the stands on the short side.
It’s where Nick Blankenburg stands before every practice and every home game.
Every single one of Michigan’s players has a particular spot for his pregame routine, whether it’s Jack Summers — who wears No. 6 — sitting on the sixth seat in the stands or Jake Slaker laying in the back hallway by the locker room with his legs up the wall.
But for Blankenburg, this railing is his spot.
When the sophomore defenseman played his first game at Yost last October, he wasn’t sure where he was going to stand to stretch and visualize before the game. He gravitated toward the left side of the building, and he found the railing over there.
And then he looked down and realized his grandfather — Richard Orkisz, better known as Pops — had the seats just below the railing, in the corner, on the glass.
Blankenburg could wave hello or send a wink down to his grandfather before each game. He knew then that he’d found his place.
For as long as Blankenburg’s mom, Karin — Orkisz’s daughter — can remember, her dad was the definition of a rink rat.
Any time one of his grandchildren had a hockey game or even a practice, they could count on Pops to be there. As Blankenburg got older and progressed from AAA hockey to high school hockey, his grandfather was a constant presence at the rink. Romeo High School was only about five minutes from Orkisz’s house.
Sometimes, he’d get to the games even before Blankenburg did. When Blankenburg would pull into the parking lot, he’d see Orkisz’s car parked in the handicapped spot. Both Blankenburg and Karin are quick to clarify that Orkisz wasn’t handicapped in the traditional sense, but his heart wasn’t the best and walking long distances was difficult for him.
“My dad would just be sitting at a table eating a hot dog and a bag of chips and a pop,” Karin said. “Waiting for Nick.”
When Blankenburg moved from playing for metro Detroit-based Victory Honda to playing for the Okotoks Oilers in Alberta, Canada, Orkisz could no longer attend every practice and every game.
But that didn’t stop him from keeping up with his grandson every time he stepped onto the ice.
Orkisz kept the Oilers’ 2017-18 schedule at his house, painstakingly filled out after every game with the score and whether Blankenburg got any points in the game. Finding that schedule showed Karin everything she needed to know about her dad’s relationship with her son.
“I don’t think I had anyone that was a bigger fan than him,” Blankenburg said.
When Blankenburg came to Ann Arbor on a visit, Karin decided to tell her dad the secret that they weren’t sharing with many people — that Nick was visiting Michigan and may play hockey for the Wolverines.
Orkisz’s jaw dropped.
No one in the family ever expected Blankenburg to end up at Michigan, and it was a dream come true for the whole family when it happened — especially Orkisz.
“He couldn’t get tickets fast enough,” Karin said. “And he was, I don’t want to say handicapped, but he was older, so it was harder for him to get up and down the stairs. So, when those glass seats were available, considered handicapped seats, that was perfect because we dropped him off right by the door, he got his hot dog, used the bathroom and then was cozy in his seat for the next three hours.”
And when Blankenburg realized his grandfather sat right below the railing on the left side, he decided to stand there before each game and give Orkisz a wink or say hi.
When Karin came to her first Michigan game, a few weeks into the season, her dad couldn’t wait to tell her all about their pregame moments.
And in warmups, Blankenburg always made eye contact with his biggest fan — a brief shared moment for grandfather and grandson among the chaos before a game.
Blankenburg was at the Mall of America on a Thursday morning in March when he got a call from his mother. He instantly knew it was about his Pops.
Orkisz’s health had begun to decline in January after heart surgery and ensuing complications, and the family knew the end was coming — but Blankenburg didn’t expect to get the call so soon.
Orkisz had been suffering from the flu and Karin took him to the hospital. It looked as though things were trending in a positive direction, and Karin was preparing to quit her job and move in with her dad to take care of him as he regained his strength.
“The day that he died, I saw him,” Karin said. “I was there from like — I went there after work. I stayed with him from like three to five, I brought him some soup, and then I just went home. I had something to do.
“And like two hours after I got home, my phone rang, and it was the hospital. I thought like, ‘Oh! They’re releasing him.’ … They told me that he was in cardiac arrest for like 45 minutes and they were trying to revive him and what did they want me to do.”
Both Nick and his older brother Alex — then a goaltender for the University of Nebraska-Omaha — were on the road with their respective teams. After Orkisz passed on the Wednesday night, Karin didn’t want to call her sons and distract them. But then their oldest sister found out, and Karin knew she had to tell them before someone else did.
So, standing in the middle of Nordstrom with four of his teammates, Blankenburg answered the phone and heard Karin at the other end of the connection. He told her he was at the Mall of America, hanging out with his friends.
“Yeah, don’t really have good news for you,” Karin said.
“What? Is it Pops?” Blankenburg replied, and his mom told him what had happened.
“Pops would have never wanted you to come home or stop playing hockey or whatever,” Karin said. “Just stay where you’re at. Pops would want you to play.”
The Great Lakes Invitational Tournament last December was the last time Orkisz saw Blankenburg play hockey in person.
When Michigan’s first home series rolled around last January, Blankenburg looked down at the spot his grandfather always occupied and found it empty. His health wasn’t good enough for him to travel to see his grandson play.
But Blankenburg stood at the railing anyway, just as he always had.
And when he took the ice for warmups, he looked again at that seat in the left corner. Instead of making eye contact or throwing Orkisz a wink, he skated over and touched his knuckles to the glass in front of where his grandfather always sat.
When he returned to Yost this fall for the first game of this season, Blankenburg continued his usual routine at the railing. It’s a part of his pregame preparation now, and he has no intention of changing it just because his Pops doesn’t sit underneath it anymore.
“I feel like it was nice knowing that he was up in heaven with my grandma and they were both looking down on me, watching over me,” Blankenburg said. “I was happy to know that he was in a better place, and he had the best seat in the house.”
Blankenburg still gives Orkisz a knuckle touch through the glass before every game. It’s his way of remaining connected to the man that was always his biggest fan and strongest supporter.
Orkisz was at every game, every practice, everything he could be for Blankenburg’s entire hockey career.
And Blankenburg knows he’s still there every day.