by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Victor Oreskovich couldn’t have imagined where the strides he took on Notre Dame’s rink one year ago would wind up taking him.
Across the ice? OK. Back to competitive hockey? If he was lucky. The NHL? Not a chance.
"Absolutely not," Oreskovich said. "I would have thought that was ridiculous."
And no one would have disagreed. Yet here he is, just a few months later, a Rochester Americans rookie power forward possibly on his way to a long career with the Florida Panthers.
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Oreskovich has a mighty long stride. It remains debatable which lunges have covered more ground during the past year — the ones that have taken him to the NHL or the ones that have distanced him from his past.
Oreskovich is with the Amerks for now, after an extended 43-game run with the Panthers earlier in the season. His numbers in the AHL — four goals, five assists in 25 games — look ordinary. His ability is anything but.
Oreskovich made the improbable quick jump to the NHL coming off an 18-month hiatus from the sport, from roughly the preseason of 2007 to March 2009. He’s gone from burned out and indifferent to energetic and hungry.
"It’s been an interesting year, the ups and downs," said Oreskovich, 23. "It’s been a crazy ride so far. Taking two years off, I would have thought just having an opportunity would be difficult."
And it wasn’t long ago that Oreskovich had no interest in clearing even the smallest of hurdles. Oreskovich, a second-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche in 2004, played 37 games at Notre Dame as a freshman in 2004-05. The next season he played nine games with the Fighting Irish, and then jumped to Kitchener of the OHL for 19 more before hurting his shoulder.
"I was really struggling with it. I wasn’t enjoying playing," he said. "My attitude wasn’t in the right place. I don’t think I handled things well. I was very impatient. That carried on to my time in Kitchener."
Oreskovich played another season in Kitchener in 2006-07, but still couldn’t get his fire stoked. He went to camp with Colorado in 2007 and thought he did OK, but when the Avalanche sent him to Lake Erie of the AHL the frustrated Oreskovich decided he didn’t have the heart for the game anymore and bolted.
"It’s not that I don’t love what I do," he said. "It’s that sometimes things aren’t always that glamorous. There are ups and downs in a season. There’s a lot of pressure. A lot of it has to do with the mental side of the game. Regardless of how talented you are, if your head’s not in the game, it’s going to affect your game."
Oreskovich returned to Notre Dame to pursue his economics degree. The time off also refreshed his outlook toward hockey. He began to work out again, picking it up last spring and summer.
"It was a gradual process," he said. "I started to miss the game. It started to eat away at me. I never gave the pros a chance. I didn’t want to look back and regret it the rest of my life. That fire started burning again."
Those flames of interest were confined to Oreskovich. Understandably, there was a lukewarm marketplace for a player who so recently had stomped out on his sport. Finally, the Panthers, coached by Peter DeBoer, his former boss in Kitchener, thought he was at least worth a test drive.
"It wasn’t a big risk. Peter knew him very well, knew what to expect from him," said Jack Birch, Florida’s director of player personnel. "The second he hit the ice, you knew all the potential was there. It was just a matter of getting him to the point where he decided that is what he wanted to do."
"The fact that I quit, there was obviously some character issues," Oreskovich said. "They (Florida) were willing to let me attend camp, see what I was all about, see what kind of player I turned into. I didn’t know if the NHL was possible any more. I think the overall feeling was, you quit for two years, it’s not going to happen."
Oreskovich had one thing working for him, and that’s the type of player his is. A skill guy might have taken longer to round into form, needed more time to regain a shooting touch or a passing feel. Oreskovich’s size didn’t go anywhere — he built his strength back up last summer — and his skating ability bounced back with extra conditioning work.
"It was incredible how quickly things came back," he said. "Obviously, it’s not a normal circumstance. But I kept myself in shape."
The Panthers signed him to a two-year, two-way deal, and when that team needed some jump earlier in the season Oreskovich was the one with his hand raised. Although he produced just two goals and four assists in Florida, he changed his calling card from question mark to someone hard to play against.
"He’s really good on the forecheck because of his size and his skating. He can be a real physical presence," Birch said.
"It’s not an overly complicated game they want from me," he said. "They want me to use my size and my speed. Those are things that are easier than handling the puck, being a playmaker. I have to keep my game simple. They are not overly concerned with my point production. They don’t see me in that role yet."
Just envisioning Oreskovich as an NHL player at this point is a sight in itself. The obvious inclination is to wonder how far along he might be if he remained committed to the sport through the past couple years.
Oreskovich sees it differently. He looks at his hiatus and questions whether he’d have made it this far without it.
"If I would have kept playing at that time, I don’t know where I would have been," he said. "The road I’ve taken has opened my eyes to what the world of hockey is like, just coping with the ups and downs of the season. The best I play is when I’m enjoying myself out there."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.