“I thought, ‘What the heck, I worked there when I was a kid, so I’ll kill some time,’ ” the Washington Capitals’ defenseman said of his moonlighting gig. “This was only three or four years ago.”
“A lot of people were waiting for me to hang it up. They’d come in the store and have this look like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re playing hockey and you’re working another job?’ You really question it, you know.”
By day, Oleksy would unsuccessfully try to convince yet another minor league club he had the grit and the talent to play in the NHL. On non-game nights, when yet another team was failing to show belief in him, Oleksy would sharpen skates for kids in bantam leagues or old-timers playing senior league hockey.
“With so many teams rejecting him at that point, he had thoughts of calling it quits then,” his brother Danny said from B&R’s store in Mount Clemens, Mich., where he is the manager. “But one thing I remember him saying was, ‘I’m going to give it a go for a couple more years and see what happens. I have to try.’ My brother is so strong-willed.”
Since his NHL debut March 5, Oleksy has grinded the corners, back- and fore-checked, moved the puck and occasionally dropped the gloves, which has already made him popular among frothing Caps fans and on HockeyFights.com.
He also is a 27-year-old NHL rookie, a fact that pretty much requires two questions:
What took you so long? And, really, how did you get here?
“Long story,” he said while untying his skates after practice Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston. “It’s definitely not the most common route, that’s for sure. But one of my mottos the whole time has been: It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
If the Caps took a circuitous route to the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, Oleksy’s personal journey mirrors that odyssey.
He tried college baseball at 19. Then he quit college and moved away to play junior hockey against his father’s wishes. (Andy Oleksy said he didn’t talk to his son for three weeks.) Steve went back to college, playing hockey, graduating with a business degree yet always harboring a big-time hockey dream — that was going nowhere.
Cut in Toledo after just three games in 2009, toyed with in Port Huron until he finally asked for his release in 2010, he was nearing the end of his two-year-or-bust plan when Idaho of the East Coast Hockey League beckoned.
Another fork in the road came this past summer when he skated with some of the Red Wings under the tutelage of the great Igor Larionov. It was then a moment of clarity happened for Oleksy: “You really start to think to yourself, ‘You know, I can hang with these guys.’ ”
The Capitals brought him up on March 5 from Hershey, where he had accrued the third-most penalty minutes for a defenseman in the American Hockey League. At 6 feet, 195 pounds, he is not a heavyweight enforcer. But he made Washington more formidable and tough where it needed it. In his first NHL fight, a week after he joined the club, he pummeled Carolina’s Drayson Bowman to the ice with a flurry of right hands.
Beyond his physicality, “I’ve never seen the guy play a bad game,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. “He’s not going to wow you, but within the system and the structure he’s going to play a solid, stable game every single night.”
Matt Hendricks loves him because, well, three years ago he was a 28-year-old rookie. “It’s really cool when someone else has taken the long road,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy who had to find someone to believe in and I think he did with Adam [Oates].
“All that work, all that time he put in — not giving up, chasing the dream, not going to Europe just to make money because he really wanted to play in the NHL . . . and he made it.”
The son of an electrical contractor and a school-district clerical worker, Oleksy comes from the kind of stock which pulls out of their Chesterfield Mich., driveway at midnight and motors 12 hours straight to make their son’s NHL debut in Washington. “Sue drove, I slept,” Andy Oleksy acknowledged.
The similarities between Steve and his father are striking: squat, big hands, mischievous smile — “I was a scrapper, too,” Andy said. Standing behind the plexiglass at Kettler as slap shots violently thwocked the glass a few inches from his face, Andy had something to confess:
“I thought he should have stuck with baseball,” he said. “I didn’t know if that was the right thing to do, leaving home and trying to play hockey. I was not a fan of it at the time. But Grandma and my wife said, ‘Let him pursue his dream at that age because otherwise a couple years down the line, he’ll say, ‘Dad, you know, you held me back.’ They were right. I’ll give them 100 percent, full credit for that.’ ”
He paused and smiled and thought about where he is, watching his son hydroplane up ice with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and some of the most gifted hockey players in the world.
“It’s a pretty hard thing to imagine,” he said, putting his hands in his jean pockets. “You know, he had the determination from Day 1. But I never figured it would happen. It’s a pretty wild dream back where we’re from.”
Now that he’s days from his first Stanley Cup playoff game, Oleksy can laugh at the journey — the multiple times he was released, the nightmare lodging in Bloomington, Ind., (“Reminded me of ‘The Shining,’ ” he said), and all those grandiose dinners in the minor leagues (“Meal money? Usually it’s gas-station food or a $5 foot-long.”).
“When you’re playing in the minor leagues and not getting a shot, it’s easy for other people to say, ‘Why don’t you just hang it up,’ ” he said. “People along the way hinted or did everything but tell me that. In so many words, it was, ‘What are you doing?’ But you know what, I gave myself two years to play and see what happens. I wanted it. I just had to make people see that.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.