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From pizza crust to fisticuffs

Oleksy leaned on his family, Stapleton and Gardiner along the way, but support didn’t pay the bills while he was toiling in the minors. After two games for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers didn’t get him anywhere, the gritty young player introduced more fighting to his game during his first training camp with the Toledo Walleye.

“I knew I had to do something to stick out amongst the 16 defensemen, so I fought a guy 6-7, 245,” recalled the 6-foot, 190-pound Oleksy. “I did pretty good. And then a couple shifts later ended up fighting another guy. … It really set the tone for the rest of my career.”

The winding road of minor league hockey took him to the Port Huron Icehawks of the International Hockey League, but another league and adventure caused Oleksy to question his direction. He obtained a degree in business management at Lake Superior State and interviewed with Jet’s Pizza.

Oleksy’s first job was as a pizza boy for several Jet’s locations in Michigan, but this was different.

“I was going to own a couple of pizza stores and get into that side of business,” he said. “I was going to try to join the corporate forces with them. … Luckily everything worked out and I ended up going out to Idaho and having a good end of the year there.”

Coach Derek Laxdal of the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads convinced Oleksy to venture out west to continue his career. A 33-hour drive from his home in Michigan, it was the first time neither of his parents was able to attend his games. But Oleksy parlayed parts of three seasons in Idaho into a promotion to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League.

“He got better and better in the minors and … he got rewarded with Hershey,” Stapleton said. “I remember talking to him on the phone saying, ‘Now your next goal is to play in the NHL.’”

All Oleksy and agent Peter R. Cooney wanted was an AHL deal for this season, and they got it with the Caps’ affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Three preseason fights in Hershey and the chance to work with Oates and Caps assistant Calle Johansson during the NHL lockout changed everything.

“I just remember like first day, [Johansson] goes, ‘Man, I’d really like to see the Oleksy kid,’” Oates said. “We both took a liking to him, and he was a sponge. Everything Calle said, he did it the next day.”

Oleksy caught general manager George McPhee’s attention during Hershey’s game at Verizon Center on Dec. 6. Three months later, when Oates needed a right-handed shot on the blue line, the career minor leaguer got a three-year, two-way deal worth $1.63 million at the NHL level.

A long road trip

Oleksy was watching “Jack the Giant Slayer” with Hershey roommate Mike Carman when just about everyone was trying to deliver the message he made it to the NHL. Oleksy then called his dad to give him the good news.

Andy Oleksy, a self-employed electrical contractor, was on the way to a doctor’s appointment when Steve told him, “You might as well keep driving.”

“I was kind of shocked and kind of not,” Andy Oleksy said. “And then I called his ma and then she didn’t believe me. I hung up on her and said, ‘Well, then, you talk to him.’”

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