“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.