The story of Steve Oleksy and his climb from no-name minor league defenseman to a piece of the Washington Capitals’ playoff lineup is a substantial and impressive one. I did my best to try to document it in this story, which appears in Monday’s edition of The Washington Times.
Plenty didn’t make it into that 2,000 word story. Here’s a lot more on Oleksy, without a doubt the most fascinating character on the Caps this season.
When Oleksy signed with the Caps on March 4 and was recalled from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, his family had to be there. His father, Andy, mother, Sue, brother, Daniel and Daniel’s girlfriend, Nikki, got into Nikki’s car and began the drive from Michigan to Washington at about 12:30 a.m.
“I went to the doctor and then I come back and then I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ You couldn’t get a flight and it was like unreal the price to fly out that quick,” Andy said. “So then I called his brother and everybody was in agreement: we were going to go. … It was a long trip.”
Sue and Nikki split the drive and arrived at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 5. “I slept most of the time,” Andy said. “They don’t like me driving because they said I drive too slow.”
Steve Oleksy was used to his parents attending his games. Until he played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL (a 33-hour drive from their home in Michigan) they saw a lot.
“[His mother has] probably more of them than I did because I’m self-employed, so there was some times on weekends where I couldn’t,” said Andy, a self-employed electrical contractor. “She’d go up to Traverse City when he played and a few times in college when he played Notre Dame and all that different things. She would get a little bit more opportunity than me. She’d take her mom, who loves going to see her grandson play, so that was kind of good for me and good for her. I support everything he does a thousand percent. I’ve got his back, he knows that.”
After he played 697 NHL games, Mike Stapleton coached Oleksy for the Traverse City North Stars in the North American Hockey League. Oleksy considers Stapleton one of this top influences on the road to the NHL, and the ex-center was thrilled to know that the 27-year-old’s parents made it to his Caps debut.
“The funniest story I can remember about his parents is they would come on the road and they would bring a little deep fryer in the hotel and they’d cook a little chicken for you,” Stapleton said. “They’d cook a bunch of chicken for the players and us. That’s what I said to him, when his parents drove all night, I said, ‘Did they bring the chicken fryer and put it out in the parking lot and cook chicken for everybody?’ ”
Hold the chicken, but Oleksy had an assist in his debut, an overtime victory against the Bruins. Sue said it was “incredible” to be there in person.
“I wasn’t real surprised because I knew they wouldn’t miss it,” Steve Oleksy said. “Those are the people that matter, that see you go through everything. Not that everybody doesn’t matter, but those are the people that see how hard you work and how hard you battle every day. To have them at the game was definitely a nice, little payback for them and to share the experience with them was a great feeling.”
Oleksy said his family members made the drive not even knowing where they would stay. They wound up sleeping for a couple of hours at his two-bedroom apartment in Arlington.
“[They] got a couple hours of shut-eye and then took off at 3:30 in the morning to drive back,” he said.
Sue said it took a while to recover from 20-plus hours of driving, but it was worth it.
“I’m proud of him,” Andy said. “I keep it real low-key, but I’m pretty proud of him. He works hard at what he does. He just gives it all and he wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s just the way he’s always been his whole life.”
EVERY NIGHT’S ALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING
Oleksy fought 11 times for the Bears before getting the call to join the Caps. He only had three in 28 regular-season games for Washington, but fighting was important to the defenseman’s climb up the ranks of the minor leagues.
“For a guy like me who doesn’t jump off the paper or offensively, I try to put a good defensive role and can contribute offensively once in a while,” Oleksy said. “Fighting was just an added element of my game that I picked up to try to stand out from everybody else and to incorporate that. A lot of people noticed that. Not exactly how well you’re doing them but that you’re willing to show up and willing to go to battle for your team.”
Oleksy had 140 penalty minutes in 57 games playing for Stapleton and Scotty Gardiner in Traverse City.
“If somebody’s in trouble, he’s coming in to help out,” Stapleton said. “And he knows when to try to turn the tide.”
Oleksy recalled fighting a 6-foot-7, 245-pound opponent in an exhibition game while playing for the Toledo Walleye in 2009, and how that helped him land a spot for the season’s first month.
Three fights in preseason for Hershey this past fall made a difference in his mind, too.
“It’s hard to go into a new place where obviously they hadn’t seen me play a lot and they knew of me kind of what I could do,” Oleksy said. “At camp, you’ve got to do what it takes to land a job and then you’ve got to do what it takes to stay there, and I think my three fights in preseason this year really helped me stay in Hershey and not start the year in Reading.”
FOR THE LOVE OF WHICH GAME
Once Steve Oleksy had a year of baseball at Macomb Community College in Clinton, Mich., under his belt, he locked up a scholarship to play at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. He had played hockey and baseball to that point and didn’t want to give it up.
“College ball I wasn’t supposed to really play hockey at all, to be honest. The GM of my junior B team [the Metro Jets] would wait back on a Saturday, he’d wait for me to get done with baseball practice and then drive me to wherever we played,” Oleksy said. “I think I might’ve played maybe 15 games that year or something. But I didn’t play a lot; I just played when it worked.”
Oleksy signed on to play for Oakland, but Gardiner and Stapleton invited him to skate with them in Traverse City.
“I went up there for a weekend and fell in love with the city. I stayed up there for three, four days practicing and finally they’re like, ‘We need to know if you’re going to play here or no,’ ” Oleksy said. “So I called my dad and I was 19 at the time and I asked him, I need to make a decision, ‘What are you thinking?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you decide; you do what you want.’ So me, excited as [hell], I can do what I want, I went and I told the coach, ‘Yeah, I’d love to play here.’ and then when my dad caught wind of it, he was pretty upset with the decision.”
Andy Oleksy thought it wasn’t the right direction for his son, foregoing a college scholarship to play junior hockey.
“I kind of thought he wasn’t doing the right thing at that point because he was already 18, 19 years old and he had an opportunity to get an education and that’s what I kind of thought he should’ve done,” Andy said.
Steve Oleksy turned his year with the North Stars of the NAHL into a hockey scholarship at Lake Superior State University. That’s when his father realized he was wrong.
“I made the decision just for the love of the game,” Oleksy said. “I loved hockey and at that point and especially growing up there and skating in Traverse City and being in that area and being in that situation with a couple great coaches and surrounded by a good group of guys, I just had a great feeling and decided I was going to take a year and try to do something with the sport of hockey. And fortunately I was able to.”
WHY IS HE HERE?
Caps coach Adam Oates needed a right-handed defenseman in early March. Oleksy would not have gotten signed and recalled if he were a left.
“Correct,” Oates said. “Weird, huh?”
Oates likes having a lefty and righty on each pair, something that has helped Tomas Kundratek and Oleksy and not Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz.
“I think that all comes back to everything happens for a reason,” Oleksy said. “Even down in Hershey the left-right combo, if we would’ve maybe had another righty or two, you never know. Maybe I start the year in Reading or maybe I don’t get an opportunity in Hershey. But things fell into place. I’m just going to tell you I’m very happy and very lucky that I picked up that right-handed stick when I was younger.”
Oates said he and assistant coach Calle Johansson liked what they saw in Oleksy while in Hershey during the NHL lockout. That played a major role in Oleksy joining the Caps.
“The physical presence he brings to the game and the grit has been huge because now we’ve got a couple guys back there that, you know what, we’re a little bit more formidable back there,” Oates said. “With a couple injuries, he’s got a chance to play and he hasn’t lost his spot.”
General manager George McPhee didn’t know much about Oleksy, but he liked what he saw one night in December.
“The game that the team played here, the AHL game we had in this building, I was really impressed with him,” McPhee said. “I was keeping an eye on Kundratek because Adam said he’s going to play, so we watched him. But Oleksy kept standing out as well. And I said, I wouldn’t be afraid to try that kid at some point. And we tried him, and he’s still here. Good for him. Great teammate. Competes.”
Oleksy is only 27 but he was only 22 when he became business owner. Not Jet’s Pizza, which he considered opening a few shops for, but Eastside Elite Hockey, a summer camp for pro, college and junior players in the Detroit area.
“This will be the sixth summer. It started out as a summer league, non-contact, no fighting all that stuff, for all the pro, college and junior guys in my area,” Oleksy said. “I got guys that drive two hours each way for games. It’s pretty crazy. It started out with that for the guys and then I got into kids camps a little bit and kind of backed away from that. But last summer I had a girls league, same kind of thing. I had some college girls involved and some up and coming girls which some unbelievable talent, which was a huge surprise. And then some tournaments and things like that to keep busy in the offseason.”
Oleksy runs the camp, which allows him to network with a lot of hockey players at different levels.
“Through dealing with those guys, you run into so many guys,” Oleksy said. “We played Tampa Bay and a guy who plays on my summer team was playing on Tampa Bay – Matt Taormina – so to be D-partners in the summer and then be playing against each other in the NHL is absolutely crazy. We got guys from all over the place and college level and pro, top junior A guys.
“It’s cool and it’s kind of a melting pot. For the junior A guys to play with the college guys and the college guys to play with the pro guys and the pro guys to play with the top college guys, it’s a benefit to everybody, especially in the summer where you can skate and train all you want, but it’s not like game situations.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby became tight with Oleksy from playing golf together. They had a mutual acquaintance in ex-Bears and Caps defenseman Sean Collins, a Michigan native. Holtby grew to appreciate Oleksy as much more than a hockey player and teammate.
“It’s pretty cool,” Holtby said. “It’s nice to see someone who doesn’t rely totally on hockey for their life. You know he’s got it together pretty well.”
Oleksy signed a three-year deal worth $1.625 million, which even at the AHL level would pay him $225,000 over the next two seasons. But long ago he realized as a minor leaguer making less than six figures that there will be life after his playing days.
“Absolutely. And I think my first couple years gave me a lot of time to do that because obviously the uncertainly of the business and things like that, you always have to plan for a future outside of it,” he said. “I’ve made some good connections throughout the last few years from hockey and outside of hockey. Hopefully something along those lines work out. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset and have been big on that and the business side of things. Just kind of focus in on hockey and then kind of see where we go as that time gets closer.”