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Pumped up for a second chance

by Lindsay Willhite || AHL On The Beat Archive  

With his passion for hockey flickering and his confidence while playing the sport faltering, Victor Oreskovich walked away from it all in the fall of 2007.

He left the Colorado Avalanche’s training camp — abandoning the National Hockey League team that picked him in the second round of the 2004 NHL Entry draft — and returned to Notre Dame to pursue a finance degree. He was 21 years old and ready to get on with his life.

“When I stepped back from the game, I never, ever thought I’d come back to play,” Oreskovich said. “I definitely loved hockey when I was a kid. Then, when you get older…it’s a tough business. I think people are envious of our situation and rightfully so. We play a game for a living and we get paid pretty well.

“But it is tough. There are a lot of ups and downs. A lot of times, it’s easy to get mentally defeated. For me, it was more I lost my passion.”

Oreskovich, who ended his original stint at Notre Dame during his third semester to start pursuing hockey glory, figured he didn’t want to end up as the frustrated prospect that neither received his NHL chance nor obtained his college degree.

During the two years Oreskovich spent completing his coursework, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Whitby, Ont., native fulfilled his competitive urges with a rekindled passion for weight training. Hockey wasn’t even a blip on his radar.

“I didn’t skate for a year and a half,” he said. “My heart wasn’t in it. But after a gradual amount of time, I missed it.”

With his degree in hand and the 2009 training camps prepared to open, Oreskovich wanted to launch a comeback. There was just one problem: The hockey world isn’t big on rewarding those who turn their back on the game.

“The reception was obviously pretty negative,” Oreskovich said. “No one was really chomping at the bit to have me in camp.”

But Oreskovich finally found one ally in then-Florida Panthers coach Pete DeBoer, who coached him for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers in 2005-07. DeBoer knew Oreskovich as the physical forward who piled up 34 goals and 42 assists in 81 games for Kitchener, so he offered an invitation to camp.

Oreskovich accepted and pulled off one of the more unlikely rises in NHL annals. The high-energy forward opened the season with the AHL’s Rochester Americans and, after just five games with the Amerks, earned a promotion to Florida. Oreskovich wound up producing six points in 50 games with the Panthers.

“I never, ever expected that,” Oreskovich said. “Pete did me a favor just by having me in camp. I came in and played really physical and that was something that Florida was lacking at the time. Fortunately there were a couple of injuries and I got called up. A lot of it had to do with the circumstances. A lot of things in life, I believe, are just being put in an opportunity like that.

“I can’t thank Pete enough and Randy Sexton was the GM there. They allowed me to realize my dream of playing in the NHL, when at the time my goal was just to play in the American Hockey League.”

Oreskovich’s renaissance took an even more unlikely turn after a June 2010 trade to the Vancouver Canucks. After splitting the 2010-11 season between the Canucks and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, Oreskovich made 19 playoff appearances for Vancouver — including all seven games of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston as a fourth-line forward.

“Looking back on it, it’s sad we didn’t win it,” he said. “That’s an opportunity I might never get again. Just to be able to say I was there and be able to experience that level of pressure (was amazing). I know my role was pretty minute, but even so it was crazy to be with that great group of guys in Vancouver and share it with all of them. My family was there and it was a great experience.”

While Oreskovich and the rest of the Canucks were still processing the heartache of losing Games 6 and 7, he met with the team’s top brass to learn his instructions for 2011-12 and beyond. Oreskovich wasn’t surprised during the talk.

“All they ever tell me is about my physical play,” he said. “That’s what I always hear. I understand at the NHL level I’m not going to be a big-time goal-scorer, but I do think I have the potential to contribute offensively. But, like I said earlier, a lot of success is being put in those situations. So here I’m trying to work on my game. I know there are a lot of things I have to work on and I’m still learning every day.”

As Oreskovich tries to fulfill Vancouver’s desire for physical play during his first season with the Chicago Wolves, he has formed a fast friendship with Wolves strength and conditioning coach Rob Rosmis. Oreskovich’s passion for weight training and proper nutrition are two areas where Rosmis’ knowledge runs deep.

With Rosmis’ advice and blessing, Oreskovich occasionally sneaks in afternoon workouts at his apartment complex’s fitness center even when he already has done more than his share at the team’s practice facility.

“He’s one of the guys who definitely looks for extra work,” said Rosmis, who ranks Oreskovich among the five strongest Wolves he has trained. “Weightlifting and being an athlete and getting extra work in, I think it’s more mental than anything. He has the strength. Does he have to do something every single day in order to be as strong as he is? From a physical standpoint? Probably not. But the mental aspect of the game is huge. If that’s what he feels like he needs, that benefits him.”

No longer is Oreskovich, now 25, a young man in search of self-confidence and a passion for hockey.

“I’m really lucky to have that second opportunity,” he said. “To quit for two years, come back and be able to play in the NHL and the Stanley Cup Finals, I’m pretty lucky.”