Steve Oleksy took his equipment off and sat back down in the Washington Capitals’ locker room after practice. He had all the time in the world to talk about his six weeks in the NHL and years in the minors trying to get there.
“Where do you want to start?” he said. “I’ve been everywhere.”
Everywhere and back, from baseball to hockey and Idaho to Hershey, Pa., to signing his first NHL deal March 4 at the age of 27. Along the way, he had countless opportunities to give up hockey.
Twenty-eight regular-season games with the Caps complete, Oleksy will play his first in the Stanley Cup Playoffs Thursday against the New York Rangers. It’s fair to say no one saw this coming.
“It’s quite a story,” said ex-NHL forward Mike Stapleton, who coached Oleksy in the North American Hockey League. “You can tell kids that think that the light of the day is not going to show for them, and you can tell them about Stevie’s story.”
‘It takes bounces’
Oleksy’s story is far from a glamorous one. It includes playing for eight minor league teams in four different leagues before finally getting his chance because Caps coach Adam Oates needed a right-handed defenseman.
“I’m very happy and very lucky that I picked up that right-handed stick when I was younger,” Oleksy said. “And it takes bounces to go your way, and that’s one of them.”
Oleksy went from career minor leaguer to at one point playing 28 minutes for a team that just capped an improbable run to the playoffs.
“I don’t know if I still quite realize it,” his father, Andy Oleksy, said. “Every day it gets a little more real.”
Andy Oleksy figured Steve would be better off playing baseball, not hockey. The Chesterfield, Mich., native played two sports his whole life and played a season of baseball at Macomb Community College before earning a scholarship to do so at Oakland University near Detroit.
“I made the decision just for the love of the game,” Oleksy said. “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.”
After an impressive season in Traverse City, Oleksy got a hockey scholarship to Lake Superior State University, but only after the first place he committed to, Wayne State in Detroit, failed to mail his papers on time. Once his son got that break, Andy Oleksy knew Steve had made the right decision to continue his life on the ice.
“I give him full credit for what he did,” said Andy, who credited wife Sue and her mother with telling him to let his son dictate his direction. “I wasn’t the first one to encourage him, but once he did it, he had our support a thousand percent.”
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.
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.
“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.’”
Sue Oleksy said she finally knew it was real when she saw the news scroll by on the NHL Network ticker.
Oleksy was making his debut against the Boston Bruins, but goaltender Braden Holtby knew all about the defenseman from their time in Hershey.
“When he first got here, I asked him how nervous he was to play the first game,” Holtby said. “He said, ‘I’m not nervous at all because I never thought I’d actually be here, so I just want to enjoy it.’”
Oleksy recorded an assist that night of March 5, with his parents in attendance.
Stapleton recalled Andy and Sue bringing a deep fryer on the road and making chicken for his team in Traverse City, and while they couldn’t do that at Verizon Center, “it meant the world” to Steve Oleksy that his family was there.
“To me, it was more of a feeling like paying them back for all the early-morning practices, all the time and travel and all the money they’ve sunk into it,” Oleksy said.
The Oleksy family got two hours of sleep at the newest Caps player’s two-bedroom apartment in Arlington before turning around and driving all the way home.
“It took a while to recover from,” Sue Oleksy said. “It was an incredible feeling. To get here and see that was incredible.”
‘Recipe for success’
Andy and Sue knew their son was incredible well before he made it to the NHL. And that has as much to do with his off-ice exploits, which included in 1998 founding Eastside Hockey Elite, a summer league for players in the metro Detroit area.
Oleksy spends his summers running the organization, which includes a league, training and tournaments for local pro, college and junior players.
“Anybody will tell you when you’re at the minor leagues it’s tough to survive on the pay you get, especially if you want to put some in the bank account,” he said. “I had to do something outside of it and that’s kind of what I took on and it’s been really successful.”
Oleksy beams with pride about camp alumni such as defenseman Danny DeKeyser, a highly sought-after college free agent out of Western Michigan who recently signed with the Detroit Red Wings, and Mark Katic, who just won a league championship in Germany.
His deal with the Caps put Oleksy on more stable financial footing, but his “entrepreneurial mindset” won’t go away as he considers what life after his playing days could be like.
“It’s nice to see someone who doesn’t rely totally on hockey for their life,” Holtby said. “You know he’s got it together pretty well. And that’s part of the reason why he’s here is because he has a very level head on himself, but he’s very confident at the same time. That’s usually a recipe for success.”
A proud surprise
The Caps are 19-8-1 since bringing in Oleksy and his physical style. Stapleton joked that his former player was the reason for the turnaround, while pointing out that having Alex Ovechkin didn’t hurt.
Oleksy has only three fights with the Caps after 11 in the AHL, but his stable play helped him pass Tomas Kundratek on the depth chart and hold onto his spot in the lineup.
“He keeps it simple,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If he doesn’t know where the play is or if somebody’s open or if no one’s open for him, he just throws it off the glass and out or he’s pretty good at buying himself time. … He’s tough. He’s just a smart player.”
No one can question Oleksy’s toughness on the ice, nor his smarts in hockey or the real world. But that doesn’t always equate to playing in the NHL. Yet Oleksy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon; Oates likes balance on defense and a guy who doesn’t make many noticeable mistakes.
In the store at the Caps’ practice facility now hang jersey T-shirts with his name and number: “Oleksy 61.” When his father came to town last week, he needed something to wear to the game; Steve Oleksy had the T-shirt waiting as a surprise.
“I walked into the apartment and he had it sitting on the bed with his name on it,” Andy Oleksy said. “I was pretty proud of that.”
And proud of his son’s perseverance to make it to this point.
“It’s been a crazy route,” Steve Oleksy said. “When I first heard about this, I just kind of looked back and said, ‘Man, it’s been wild.’ But I think it’s just beginning.”