Long road leads to NHL for Oleksy

After going undrafted and spending several years in the minors, Steve Oleksy now finds himself with the Washington Capitals. (Candice Monhollan)

After going undrafted and spending several years in the minors, Steve Oleksy now finds himself with the Washington Capitals. (Candice Monhollan)

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Steve Oleksy had a hard time finding the words to describe playing in the NHL.

Just a few years ago, the possibility of reaching the best league in the world seemed like an impossible feat after being unable to reach the next level in his career.

“Any hockey player will tell you the first couple years are the toughest to try to break in and try to make a name for yourself,” Oleksy said.

The defenseman went to Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., for three years, where he graduated with a major in business management and a minor in marketing.

In his last year there, the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL came calling when they were in need of a defenseman late in the season.

“I went out there for a couple games,” Oleksy said. “Getting my degree was the most important thing. I had a full boat with credits, so I wasn’t able to go for a long period of time, but I got a couple games and got my feet wet and got to experience that and went back and got my degree.”

The following season, the Toledo Walleye brought in the Michigan native to start the season, but he only lasted three games before being released.

He was then forced to turn to the Port Huron Icehawks of the IHL to play.

“After being released from Toledo and going to the IHL, I actually went to a job interview,” Oleksy said. “When you’re bringing home a pay check of $300 a week, it’s tough to live on that, especially with a college education.”

His first year was a trying time and though Oleksy came close to calling it quits, he stuck it out with the Icehawks.

The decision paid off.

Oleksy returned to the ECHL in January, this time with the Idaho Steelheads, where he finished out the season.

The 27 year old finally found a stable spot with the Steelheads as he spent parts of the next two seasons with them and had call-ups to the Lake Erie Monsters and Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2010-11 and 2011-12, respectively.

“I never did expect to make a living playing hockey,” Oleksy said. “It’s definitely one of those things that you question, especially early on in your career when you can’t really find your spot. Fortunately, I was able to find a good spot for me and things worked out.”

Oleksy views his time spent in the ECHL as a good influence on him and his game.

“It really motivated me to work that much harder and to do whatever I could to try and stay at the next level,” Oleksy said. ”Taking that road and playing in the East Coast and battling for parts of three years, I think you really appreciate it a lot more when you do begin to climb the ladder.”

It took some time for him to begin to climb that ladder, but once he did, it all starting falling together quickly for him.

At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the Hershey Bears signed Oleksy as a free agent and he played in 55 games with them, posting two goals and 12 assists, along with a whopping 151 penalty minutes, second most on the team.

“I just tried to show up every game in Hershey and work hard every day and let the pieces fall where they may,” Oleksy said. “Coming from the East Coast and IHL, you’re happy to be in Hershey.”

What he wasn’t expecting to happen is receive the notice that he was moving up again – this time to the Washington Capitals.

On March 4, the Capitals signed the defenseman to a three-year, two-way contract and immediately called him up.

The next night, he found himself dressed with the big club and registered an assist in his NHL debut against the Boston Bruins.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Oleksy said while shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re surrounded by so many great hockey players. They welcomed me and I felt like part of them right away, which helped.”

Up until that moment, Oleksy had more games combined in the ECHL and IHL than he had in the AHL – 135 to 122 – and now he found himself as high as he could go.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” said Capitals teammate Matt Hendricks. “I think Stevie is a rare case and it just shows what hard work and dedication can do and that want to make it to the NHL and not letting anything get in your way.”

As someone else who experienced time in the ECHL, Hendricks knows what the league can do for a young player.

“You weren’t given much of a shot, that’s for sure,” Hendricks said. “You start out down there in the lower ranks, but it is a great league and a teaching league and a fundamental league. You can see a lot of those traits in Stevie – the hard work, the perseverance. He’s come a long way.”

He’s been a solid addition to the Capitals blue line, playing in the remaining 28 games of the regular season, tallying a goal and eight assists.

“He adds some grit for us and a little bit of a spark,” said Capitals head coach Adam Oates. “He’s a hard-nosed player, which every team can’t have enough of those guys. He’s a guy you can count on when he goes out there.”

While the NHL lockout was going on, Oates was assigned as co-coach of the Bears, so he was no stranger to what kind of player Oleksy is and what he brings to the table.

“I’m pretty proud of him,” Oates said. “He’s been a sponge just trying to learn and he’s been able to adapt to the game. He’s playing a simple game and he’s been able to stay in the lineup.”

With the long road Oleksy has traversed to get to the NHL, many young players can look to him as an inspiration to what they can achieve, and it’s something Oleksy is aware of.

“I’ve learned a lot going through it, a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t take the road I had,” Oleksy said. “I try to help guys out with a lot of advice. I’ve experienced a lot – positive, negative, good situations, bad situations. I try to help them any way I can as far as advice.”

Looking back on his career so far, Oleksy feels fortunate to be able to wear the sweater of an NHL team. The path he’s taken has given him the ability to take everything one day at a time, which is what he has been doing.

“I wasn’t thrown right into the fire,” Oleksy said. “I gradually worked my way up. You dream about [playing in the NHL] for so long, but it’s a tough business. You can never expect anything and you can never take anything for granted.”

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Categories: Features, Ice Hockey, NHL, Sports

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