As he stood at his locker stall on Sunday, the puck from his first NHL goal tucked safely behind him, Steve Oleksy smiled broadly and said what everyone around him was already thinking.
“I don’t really know what to say,” he said. “I’m just kind of the kid living the dream right now.”
Through Oleksy’s first four NHL games, the Capitals’ hard-hitting, no-nonsense defenseman already has four points. By comparison, it took Caps Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Mike Green 26 games to get his fourth NHL point [thanks to some nice research by @AdamVingan].
Maybe that’s why Oleksy couldn’t wipe the smile from his face when Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson announced Oleksy’s first-period goal against the New York Rangers on Sunday was also the first of his NHL career.
“Congratulations to Olie,” teammate Troy Brouwer said. “He got everyone excited when he scored his first career goal.”
So who is Steve Oleksy? And how did this undrafted 27-year-old who gave up a year of hockey to play community college baseball make it to the NHL?
Oleksy’s story begins in the Detroit suburb of Chesterfield, Mich., where he played hockey and baseball at L'Anse Creuse High School-North until graduating in 2004.
Oleksy played double-A junior hockey in the Detroit region during his high school years but when he attended Macomb Community College in Clinton, Mich., he decided to trade in his hockey stick for a baseball bat.
Oleksy was a power-hitting third baseman for Macomb, batting .290 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 23 games during the spring of 2005. After that one season Oleksy returned to hockey and played one season with the Traverse City North Stars of the North American Hockey League. That's when Lake Superior State University hockey coach Jim Roque decided to give Oleksy a partial hockey scholarship.
"We got a look at him and we thought he'd be a nice fit for us," Roque said. "His half scholarship turned into a full one. What I liked about him was he never had a bad day, that kid. Always smiling, always happy. And he was a very confident kid. But I'd be lying if I told you he'd make the NHL. It's a great story about believing in yourself."
In three seasons at Lake Superior, Oleksy managed three goals and 17 assists in 113 games, but it was his gritty style and 110 penalty minutes that earned Oleksy his first shot at professional hockey with the Las Vegas Wranglers [two games] and Toledo Walleye [three games] of the ECHL at the end of the 2008-09 season.
“I was kind of a shut-down guy, and when you don’t put up big numbers in college, it’s kind of tough to get noticed,” said Oleksy, who plays much bigger than his 6-foot, 190 pounds may suggest.
Oleksy started the following season with the Port Huron Icehawks of the International Hockey League before signing with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL.
Oleksy played parts of two seasons in Idaho before getting his first crack at the AHL with the Lake Erie Monsters at the end of the 2010-11 season.
Lake Erie declined to re-sign Oleksy, forcing him to go back to Idaho before the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers signed him and kept him for most of last season.
Oleksy played well enough in 55 games in Bridgeport [1 goal, 14 assists] for the Hershey Bears to sign him last summer.
That, Oleksy said, was the big break he needed, especially since Capitals coach Adam Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson joined the Bears’ staff for the first eight weeks of the season.
“I’m the kind of guy who might not stand out on paper, but I try to bring it every day,” he said. “For me it was all about proving myself year after year and just looking for the right opportunity and somebody to believe in me.”
That opportunity came in Hershey.
“I’m not a guy people will look at and say, ‘Wow, he’s unbelievable,’” Oleksy said. “But whether it’s practice or a game I try to give everything I have and lay it all out there. For [Oates] and Calle to be around to see my work habits and how seriously I take this … In the time they were down there I learned more in that time than I did in any of my previous years.”
In his first 55 games with the Bears, Oleksy recorded two goals, 12 assists and 151 penalty minutes, ranking third among AHL defensemen in penalty minutes. He is also a right-handed shot and when the right-handed shooting Mike Green went down with a groin injury, Oates specifically asked for Oleksy.
The Caps obliged, signing him on March 5 to a three-year contract worth $1.625 million if stays in the NHL, and $320,000 if he stays in Hershey.
Oleksy picked up three assists in his first two NHL games, a pair of wins over the Bruins and Panthers, and picked up his first NHL goal on a blast from the right point that eluded Rangers goalie Martin Biron. But Oleksy's presence has been more noticeable along the boards and in front of the net, where he drilled Ryan Callahan on Sunday after the Rangers captain tried taking a stab at goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
"That’s part of my game," he said. "If they’re going to drive the net hard, they’re going to have to pay a price. It’s my job to keep the net clear for the goalies and make them pay the price if they want to go into those hard areas."
After four games in six days, Oleksy says he’s just now starting to unpack his suitcase for what he hopes will be a long stay in D.C.
“It’s been a whirlwind, to be honest,” he said. “We played three in three [in Hershey] and I got a call [from the Caps] the next day.
“Everything kind of happened fast. I still haven’t got a good chance to settle in here, I just threw my stuff inside the door and the next day I’m playing against Boston. I found an organization that believes in me. Any player will tell you it’s all about opportunity and they’ve given me one.”
Roque said he likes to use Oleksy as an example to his college players about the power of perseverance.
"It was a longshot for him and it's a great story," he said. "It s really good for these college kids who are in such a rush to leave early and get to the NHL. Steve is proof that if you work hard enough and you play in enough leagues you can make your own opportunities. I give him credit. God bless him."