by Jamie Palatini || AHL On The Beat Archive
The path to professional hockey is never the same for any two players.
In October, defenseman Steve Oleksy found himself with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. Just six months later, the rookie defenseman found himself with an American Hockey League contract and wearing the "A" for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers with a chance to clinch their first division title in a decade.
"It’s definitely the road less taken … lots of detours, pretty bumpy," Oleksy said. "I’d say all of those terms apply to how I’ve gotten to where I am today."
Oleksy wasn’t drafted and didn’t play major junior hockey in Canada. However, the Chesterfield, Mich., native has worked his way through the ranks of U.S. roller hockey, the junior North American Hockey League, college and the lower minors to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where earned a professional tryout contract early in the season.
Oleksy’s father and brother had played ice hockey, and the kids in his neighborhood were big street hockey players. It was on the hard top — not the ice — where Oleksy actually had his first big hockey experience.
"I actually played for the USA Roller Hockey Team for a couple of years. I played in the World Championships for two years, first in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the second time in Germany. There are quite a few that started out playing roller hockey and converted to ice hockey. Obviously, the further you get the more you focus on ice hockey. It definitely helps develop the skills. In the World Championships, we played against (Karel) Rachunek, (Ales) Hemsky, some big-name guys."
From there, Oleksy made the move to the college, but not initially to play hockey. He traded in his skates for a pair of cleats and a catcher’s mitt for one season at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., where he posted an impressive .290 batting average with two home runs and seven runs batted in.
Following that season, Oleksy knew he wanted to return to hockey. But having used one year of eligibility, his Division I options were limited.
"Obviously, only having three years left made it tough to land a spot," Oleksy explained. "I was talking heavily with Wayne State and I was pretty set on going there, and then Lake (Superior) State had a guy that wasn’t going to come back, so they came to me with an offer. They play in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, one of the best conferences in college hockey, so I jumped at the chance."
Oleksy played in 113 games over those three seasons at Lake Superior State, alma mater to Doug Weight, former Islanders captain and current assistant coach and assistant to the general manager with the Sound Tigers’ NHL affiliate.
Since playing collegiately, Oleksy has played in the ECHL, the International Hockey League and now the AHL. However, when you make your HockeyDB.com search to look up Oleksy’s stats, there’s one league pretty near and dear to his heart that won’t show up.
It’s called the Eastside Elite Hockey League, and its fifth season is slated to commence this summer. Oleksy has played in the league all four years, and plans to play in it again this season.
After all, he’s the president of the league.
"Four years ago, I started a summer league for all of the pro, college and junior hockey players from my area. I started this league through all of my connections in hockey and it’s grown to 10 teams with players from the USHL to the AHL and NHL."
Some names that Sound Tigers fans may recognize include 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner and current Portland Pirates forward Andy Miele, Matt Taormina and Nathan Perkovich from the Albany Devils, and Hershey’s Sean Collins. What started as a fun summer league for Steve and his friends has turned into much more.
"I’ve picked up some big sponsors like Buffalo Wild Wings and Jet’s Pizza which is pretty big in the area. I’ve got stick companies that are looking to sponsor the league. I get to play in it and run it. I would have never guessed I’d be this far in my career, so my idea was to start this league when hockey was done. We do kids camps now and all kinds of things during the summer. It’s definitely grown beyond my expectations."
Just as Oleksy’s Eastside Elite Hockey League has grown past what he had imagined, the hard-nosed defenseman can say the same for his hockey career. Oleksy appeared in 17 regular-season and three Calder Cup Playoff games with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters in 2010-11, but began this season back in the ECHL. New Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson had seen Oleksy play last season, and when an opportunity opened in Bridgeport, Thompson knew who to bring in.
"He was a hard-nosed, hard-working physical guy with a big shot," Thompson said of Oleksy’s play with Idaho. "We were lacking an edgy, defensive-minded guy here and he took advantage of an opportunity that was presented to him. When you get a guy that comes in and works as hard as he does on a day to day basis, what he may lack in skills he makes up for in his heart and desire to get better."
While on his PTO with the Sound Tigers, Oleksy knew that his time with the Sound Tigers could be cut short at any point.
"It’s always pretty nerve-wracking," he said. "You never know how guys are going to react or treat you or how you’ll fit in. From day one here in Bridgeport, I’ve felt comfortable. It’s a great group of guys and a great organization from top to bottom. Especially as a new guy stepping in, it makes it easy to play in this situation. It’s fun to show up to the rink and give 100 percent every day.
"Being with the Sound Tigers makes you want to get to the next level and realize how close you are. My goal coming out of college was if I could play one game in the American Hockey League, I would be happy and call my career a success. Now I have this chance in Bridgeport and want to stay, so the pressure mounts because you want to stick as long as possible."
He took advantage of his chance, signing an AHL contract through the remainder of the season. From Idaho to Bridgeport, from the hard top and the baseball diamond to the ice, Steve Oleksy has truly traveled the road less taken.