If you ever met Steven Oleksy on the street the last thing you would assume about him is that last season he racked up 145 combined Penalties In Minutes – 47 with the ECHL Idaho Steelheads and 98 with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers – and that amongst hockey enthusiasts he is generally coined as a “silent heavyweight.” Standing 6 feet even and 185 pounds soaking wet, the only hint in Oleksy’s appearance that might tip you off to his role on the ice is the lingering black eye he still carries with him from a fight at the end of the season – two months ago. Self admittedly, the 26 year-old Oleksy says, “I bruise like a peach and my skin is about as thick as tissue paper. I just laugh and tell everyone the cuts and bruises are nothing more than souvenirs,” but so far that hasn’t stopped the Defenseman – now of the AHL Hershey Bears – from stepping in to protect his teammates; even at the expense of his face, which generally carries battle wounds and lingering scars year round as a result.
Video footage of Oleksy fighting is engaging and emotion provoking with even the most die-hard hockey fans cringing at the sight of the bombs Oleksy throws, but it also leaves no question as to why the man who once took a year off from hockey to play college baseball was able to re-enter the hockey world and climb the ladder of professional hockey as a sought after asset to any team. It is safe to say that in the near future he could be standing on an NHL rink, the sweater of the Canadiens’ Brandon Prust or even Columbus’ Derek Dorsett wrapped firmly in hand, and stand a fighting chance, so to speak. Do not be quick however to start drawing many more comparisons between Oleksy and any other player he may get tangled up with in a tilt past their stats or size; Oleksy is a true original and stands out from the crowd in a myriad of ways.
Figuring out where to start with Oleksy was a challenge due to multitude of interesting things about him, but there’s no better place to start then at the beginning with the obvious questions. When asked why he loves playing hockey his answer was thought out and sincere, “The thing I love about hockey is every shift, every game, every situation is different. So it always keeps you on your toes; it’s fast paced and exciting to be involved in and that’s the thing that drew me to it…Another reason I enjoy the game so much is because it’s a thinking man’s game.”
Expanding on that same train of thought I inquired as to how the good-natured guy from Michigan became a force to be reckoned with as a tough enforcer on the ice. “It kind of came to me, I’ve never really been a fighter in my life and always wasn’t as willing to go as I am now. I played college hockey, obviously there’s no fighting in college hockey so it was an element of my game I tried to incorporate my first year pro. I was looking around and counting the numbers, there was about thirteen or fourteen D at camp and I’m asking myself ‘what can I do to set myself apart?’ so I ended up going out there and I fought Milan Misloka a 6’7 giant from Slovakia. I thought to myself well this is my first one in four years and no one expects me to win this one. All the pressure was off, I stood in there and had a pretty fair bout with him. I told myself well I made it through that one it should only get easier right? The next shift I ended up fighting again after a guy two handed my D partner and released, this may be what sets me apart. I mean at six foot 185 pounds I’m not a heavyweight by any means but I stand up for my teammates and it’s something that I’m willing to do.”
Just as every great scholar once had a great teacher, Oleksy also sought out and found guidance in other players well versed in the art of dropping the gloves. Of these men he says,“I have had the pleasure of working with some top notch fighters throughout my career. The first was Adam Huxley who worked with me when I was raw and lacked even the basics. The most influential would have to be Trevor Gillies; undoubtedly the toughest heavyweight I’ve seen. To learn from a guy of his caliber was an honor. He taught me a lot of different strategies, holds, and maneuvers, but more importantly how to think during a fight and not just throw haymakers. The night I got my nose shattered, Gillies said to me on the bus, “If you win them all you’re not fighting the right people,” and that was the most important lesson I’ve ever gotten.”
It was quickly obvious that Oleksy’s role as not just hockey player but also enforcer suits him well due to its unpredictable nature and intensity, it comes as no surprise that baseball, which Oleksy calls “routine,” didn’t sit as well with him. Just as the unpredictable nature of the job appeals to him, it also has its drawbacks and it isn’t shocking to hear Oleksy say that one of his least favorite parts of playing the game is the crazy schedule. He says “From the fan standpoint or that of people who don’t play, they see all the glitz and the glamour…but it is tough, and can be a grind with the travel schedule. With the travel any kind of relationship is tough I give hockey girlfriends and wives all the credit in the world…you miss holidays, birthdays, thanksgiving (Canadian and American Thanksgiving for you Canadians out there), you’re away from friends and family and it takes a toll…but I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.”
The good thing for Oleksy, is that he seems to have been born with a laid back, easily adaptable personality. He calls himself “The best DD in the league,” among many other things because the 26 year old doesn’t drink. He says, “I’ve never tried a sip of alcohol in my life. There is no reason behind it, there’s really no reason why. It’s just one of those things where I have a blast without it! I’m really easy going, I can go out and have a good time and fit in.” Aside from the occasional jab about it Oleksy doesn’t suffer any hard feelings for not partaking in the age old hockey tradition of boozin’, but he does make sure everyone has fun and gets home safe, and there is nothing wrong with that at all!
It is the small qualities that make people role models, and Steven Oleksy has not only embraced his fans as a player who loves to interact with them and to be someone they can look up to, he has taken it one step further. Oleksy runs Eastside Elite Hockey in Mount Clemens, MI; Eastside Elite consist of an elite no contact summer league designed for skill development in players of all ages including a girls league, summer camps, and various tournaments. Over the past five years Eastside Elite has grown from a challenging league for players needing more than just a pick up game, into much more. “I deal with a number of guys that are looked at as role models by the younger kids around the rink. We try to preach as long as you put everything you have into the game, you will never have any regrets. We also apply this to life in general whether it is school, work, or everyday situations people face. With the younger kids we try to instill a positive attitude. It doesn’t matter if they are an NHL superstar or average minor hockey player attitude goes a long way.” Additionally he says, “The thing with Eastside Elite players and staff we’re still playing the game or recently out of the game, and we were all in the same situation as these kids are. We understand that kids learn and develop at different rates. You have to understand that, it clicks with kids at different times. You have to support their learning process. The biggest thing for us is to teach these kids good work ethic in a positive way. That translates into their hockey game as they grow, but with a good positive work ethic, it’s going to motivate them to want to learn and get better. We try to motivate the kids at camp in a positive way so they take it in and become more successful.”
For Oleksy it isn’t hard to emulate positivity. By his own admission he “Hates negativity.” He expands on that by saying, “I look at everything like it could always be worse. You look at some people, what they are going through and then analyze your own situation and it forces you to put things into perspective. It’s easy to put a positive spin on anything. If you think about the negatives it’s impossible to see the positives.” He continues, “One of the biggest things that drives me toward this positive attitude are the fans and people that support me or my team. They are the reason I am pretty involved in the social media scene. Not too long ago I was a little kid in their shoes asking for an autograph, or nervous to talk to people of status. So really anyone who takes the time to ask for an autograph, talk to me, send me a tweet or anything like that, I use them as motivation. These people buying tickets, showing their support, would give anything to be in the place I am so the least I can do is give it my all and see what happens.”
It appears as Oleksy’s work ethic and positive outlook is paying off as this fall he will head to camp with the Washington Capitals as a member of the Hershey Bears. Of skating with the one and only Alex Ovechkin he says, “I try to learn something from every player, positive or negative, but to be on the ice with one of the best players if not the best player in the NHL will be a true honor. Growing up and watching these guys throughout my career I’ve gained a great deal of respect for each and every one of them. Being a part of the Washington Organization will be right up there on my list of accomplishments. Sometimes you overlook just how talented every guy is at that level. Climbing the ladder, even at the American league, every guy is so talented.”
At one point Oleksy simply states, “For me, to play a game or two in the NHL would be the greatest feeling that a hockey player can have,” and comments that his favorite part of the hockey lifestyle is simply, “…the people you get to meet in the hockey community…” solidifying his truly humble nature. For the man who loves music of all kinds, including soft R&B he makes up his own lyrics to, Jerry Springer audience experiences, and perfecting his culinary skills, hockey is the icing on the cake of a life charmed not by luck, but by his own hard work, dedication, and radiant positivity.
Remember that staying positive is 90% of the battle Gongers…W.S.P. and find the positives in everything!
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**All Photos Courtesy of Steven Oleksy**