LOS ANGELES – Last season, before the nature of professional sports stuck its nose into family business, Steve Oleksy bought his father a plane ticket for Christmas. The Washington Capitals had scheduled their annual dad’s trip for a back-to-back in Montreal and New Jersey once the calendar turned and Steve, a defenseman ranked among the team’s most unlikely roster occupants given his zig-zagging path to the NHL, hoped Andy could attend his first one.
“Rubber Ball,” is what Andy had nicknamed his son, because of how life had bounced Steve around between cities and teams, and here came the latest example, a disappointment at the time, but understandable nontheless: Not long before the father’s trip was to begin, the Capitals reassigned Steve to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey. The experience would have to wait.
Now it was Friday afternoon, and Andy was standing inside a Los Angeles rink, watching the Capitals – and his son – skate onto the ice for practice. Only one year later, Washington had summoned Steve back into the NHL, just in time for the father’s trip. The last player cut from training camp, according to Coach Barry Trotz, Steve had an inclination this might happen, after getting asked questions during an earlier recall, but didn’t know for sure until his telephone rang last week.
So Steve bought another ticket. He dialed Andy. Told him to pack his bags. To take time off from work, as a self-employed electrical contractor. It was really happening this time. Andy was to be in Los Angeles by Thursday.
“Wonderful,” Andy said, grinning and shaking his head in disbelief. “What else can you say?”
Saturday, Steve will make his season debut for the Capitals against the Los Angeles Kings, skating on the third defensive pairing with Mike Green, the latest surprise in a career defined by them. Steve had grown up loving both hockey and baseball, and enrolled at Macomb Community College in Michigan to pursue the latter. Eventually, he earned a scholarship to Oakland University (Mich.), but the juxtaposition between the relative speed of the two sports tugged Steve elsewhere.
Andy resisted. He wanted Steve to get a college education, rather than enter the uncertain world of professional hockey, with a massive ladder to climb just to reach anywhere relevant. Andy eventually relented, wanting to avoid a situation where Steve said his father had held him back, but even though they had always been close, when Steve left home to join the Traverse City North Stars, they didn’t talk for almost three weeks.
“I didn’t think there was any future,” Andy said.
It took time, far longer than most. At Traverse City, Steve became the captain by Christmas. He spent three seasons at Lake Superior State University, played for two different ECHL clubs and one independent team in 2009-10, wobbled between minor leagues for another several years before finally latching onto Hershey in 2012-13.
“You questioned it sometimes, but obviously my love for the game and my passion for it kept going,” Steve said. “Early on in the career, you play strictly for the love. Obviously it wasn’t for the money, and definitely not for the atmosphere or anything like that. It’s strictly to keep playing. You work hard and it pays off.”
No more so than here in California, when Andy arrived Thursday, at around 1:30 p.m. He took a long walk on the beach and met up with Steve once the Capitals got into town, a real treat since during the season they only saw each other over Christmas, and watching Steve play for Hershey was tough with the grainy Internet feed.
They ate dinner with the Holtbys, another big moment for Andy, since Steve and goaltender Braden had grown close. They bussed to practice, where Steve took rushes with Green, the first indication that he would debut against the Kings. They both compared the thrill of this father’s trip to when Steve made his NHL debut, back on March 5, 2013.
The Capitals were playing the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center. It had all happened to fast – the call from Steve telling him to get to D.C., the eight-hour drive from Michigan – that Andy grabbed the first batch of clothes he found. He thought nothing much, until later he realized the cameras had panned onto the Oleksys sitting in the stands, and there was Andy, wearing a yellow sweater with black stripes, colors of the Bruins, for his son’s first game. So on this trip, Andy stuck to the red and blue, “so he can’t be wrong,” Steve said.
“For a guy who came from nowhere, it ballooned from there, and here we are,” Andy said. He paused. He smiled, again. He sounded like he was summarizing. “How’s that?”