WASHINGTON – Want to find out more about the 27-year-old Washington Capitals rookie? The one who took the never-give-up, roundabout route to the NHL?
The one who delivered a spot-on pass that travelled some 80 feet to set up the winning goal, then blocked a shot with his right cheek and kept on playing in the Game 1 playoff win over the New York Rangers?
You know, the one who’s Michigan-born-and-red? Even though his last name surely implies he’s a European import? The one who says he’s never had a sip of alcohol?
You could start by going to the Capitals’ website. Yet, when you click on defenceman Steve Oleksy’s name, there’s not even a photo—just a generic grey silhouette where his mug shot is supposed to be.
“The way his face is banged up right, it’d be a good time to take a picture,” joked Mathieu Perreault, whose locker is next to Oleksy’s at the team’s practice facility.
At that moment, Oleksy walked in, having just come off the ice after Friday’s practice. Perreault said “We were just talking about you”—which a lot of people are doing these days, photo or no photo.
“It’s probably a good thing if I don’t have a picture up there,” Oleksy said. “Ugly face, nobody wants to see that.”
Oleksy’s face indeed shows plenty of battle scars, most prominently along his right jaw, right cheek and left eye. He once got hit in the face four times during a practice in the minors—twice with a puck and twice with a stick—on a day when he already had stitches in his mouth.
“And, oooh, my face was just swollen, and I had cuts all over,” he said. “I was a mess. Four times in one practice is pretty frustrating. But it’s hockey.”
It was hardly a big deal, therefore, for him to wake up Friday morning finding it tough to talk because of a face that was swollen because it got in the way of Derick Brassard’s shot late in the second period of the Capitals’ 3-1 victory Thursday night. Oleksy didn’t stay long on the ice before he got up and skated to the bench, running his tongue along his teeth as his jaw was examined by the gloved hands of head athletic trainer Greg Smith.
Oleksy didn’t miss a shift.
“Regardless of what had happened, I would have been back in there playing,” Oleksy said. “Just make sure the teeth are OK and nothing was wrong with the jaw. … Luckily there wasn’t more damage.”
It was earlier in the period that Oleksy made the game’s flashiest play. On a night when Alex Ovechkin set the franchise record for career playoff goals, the truly “wow” moment came when Oleksy zipped a pass from the Capitals’ zone onto the stick of Marcus Johansson at the Rangers’ blue line, setting up the Swede to give Washington a 2-1 lead.
Really? Someone named Steve Oleksy making that pass? That’s something you’d expect from, say, teammate Mike Green.
“I thought that was Greener’s pass, to be honest,” Washington forward Eric Fehr said. “I didn’t know Steve had that club in his bag.”
Actually, Oleksy’s father was hoping that a bat—not a club or a hockey stick—would become his son’s standard equipment. Oleksy played baseball in college, but hockey was his sport of choice—even if it meant working odd jobs while playing junior hockey and bouncing across the minor leagues, hoping to make an impression somewhere.
Besides, he didn’t find baseball to be much safer than hockey.
“To be honest with you, the first time I got split open here was in baseball,” he said, pointing to his forehead. “I took a fastball right to the forehead, so I don’t think I’m safe in any sport.”
Oddly enough, the NHL lockout led to his biggest breakthrough. With nothing better to do, coach Adam Oates and assistant Calle Johansson used the layoff to spend time with the Capitals’ top minor league team in Hershey, Pa., where Oleksy was making an impact.
“We saw something down there. Calle saw something right away,” Oates said. “He worked hard. He was a sponge for Calle. … He got an opportunity, and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Oleksy was promoted midseason, making his NHL debut March 5 and instantly becoming an integral part of defence.
“He plays like he’s been around,” Perrault said. “You can’t tell that he’s a rookie.”
The first surprise was Oleksy’s accent, or lack thereof—”You think he’s probably from Poland or something,” Perrault said—but Oleksy’s family emigrated from Poland generations ago. He’s from Chesterfield, Mich.
“Never lived outside of Michigan, except for hockey,” Oleksy said. “I grew up in one house. My parents still live in that house, and I bought a house right across the street.”
Another interesting tidbit: A fan posted a photo of Oleksy at a pub across the street from the Verizon Center after Thursday’s game. Asked if he had a beer at the pub, Oleksy said he was simply there to meet his brother.
“I’ve never tried a sip of alcohol in my life. Definitely no beers for me,” Oleksy said. “I don’t even have an explanation. I just never had a reason to try it. To be honest, I can have fun and be in a happy mood without it, so I have no reason to drink.”
Notes: Rangers F Ryan Clowe and C Brian Boyle, who missed Game 1 with injuries, both skated Friday. Clowe said he’s not ruling out playing in Game 2 on Saturday, and coach John Tortorella said conditioning won’t be a factor in deciding when someone’s ready to return. “If we don’t win we’re done, so I don’t give a damn about the conditioning,” Tortorella said. “If I think a player’s going to help us, he’s going to play.”
AP freelance writer Harvey Valentine contributed to this report.
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