By Eddie Bishop, LSSU Sports Information Director
Lord Stanley's Cup, the single most-treasured piece of hardware in hockey, eludes many. While growing up in metro Detroit and splitting his time between hockey and baseball, former Lake Superior State defenseman Steve Oleksy never dreamed he'd get the chance to hoist the 34.5 pounds of metal over his head in celebration of a National Hockey League title.
Oleksy's long road as a professional hockey journeyman led him to the precipice June 12 as his Pittsburgh Penguins team defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-1 to claim the series, four games to two.
"I never planned to make a career out of hockey," Oleksy said. "Coming out of high school I decided to give baseball a shot. But after a year I felt that I wasn't done with hockey and I wanted to continue to pursue a chance to play collegiately. College challenged me and taught me a lot about my game. It was a major development process in my life to juggle school and hockey, and it teaches you how to be a professional early on with the time management skills that you learn."
The Chesterfield, Mich., native earned one letter in baseball at NJCAA Macomb Community College, hitting .290 with two home runs and seven RBI, before returning to junior hockey to play with the North America Hockey League's Traverse City North Stars. While captaining the North Stars he scored 30 points and had 11 goals during 57 games.
School was always important in the Oleksy household and prioritized ahead of sports for Steve and his older brother Daniel. Playing college hockey was also important to Steve after growing up watching so many Central Collegiate Hockey Association games.
"College hockey was always the goal and what I aimed for, and I thought that if I could play hockey and earn my degree then I would have accomplished my goals," he said.
Oleksy got his shot at fulfilling his life-long dream when a scholarship offer was extended his way. Despite only having three years of eligibility remaining, and he joined the Lakers in 2006-07. In three seasons at LSSU, Oleksy scored three goals and tallied 20 points in 113 games while serving as a solid back-end anchor. Most importantly, he accomplished his goal of earning a college degree.
"College hockey was a phenomenal experience and playing in Sault Ste. Marie, where the town has such a strong sense of pride in hockey, made it that much more special," he said. "Before I went there I knew a few people, including Brian Felsner (1993-96), that helped make that connection and really sold me on playing for the Lakers.
"The connections I've made and people I've met through LSSU have truly been unbelievable. I had a great group of teammates during my time and I still keep in touch with many of them to this day."
Following his third year with the Lakers, Oleksy graduated with a degree in business management and joined the Las Vegas Wranglers (ECHL). After turning pro, the 6-0, 190-pound blueliner bounced around the minors, including a brief appearance in the defunct International Hockey League with the Port Huron Icehawks before landing with the Idaho Steelheads and closing out the 2009-10 season on a high note. When he was re-signed for the 2010-11 season, he played 55 games with the Steelheads and scored seven goals and 21 points in 55 games. His first American Hockey League was with the Lake Erie Monsters for 17 games regular-season games and three playoff appearances.
In 2011-12, his third full season as a pro, Oleksy produced a goal and seven assists during the first 14 games with the Idaho Steelheads before getting called up for 50 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Oleksy proved to be a capable back-stop at Bridgeport and contributed 1-14–15 with 98 penalty minutes.
The following season, Oleksy was called up by Washington, which sought a right-handed defenseman to provide depth. Oleksy played 28 games while splitting time between the Capitals and their AHL affiliate, the Hersey Bears. With his family in attendance, Oleksy tallied his first career point, an assist, during his first NHL game against the Boston Bruins.
"I've never been a big scorer in college and pros, but to score in my fifth NHL game, on national television, that was a huge weight off my shoulders and was a huge accomplishment in my career," Oleksy said.
Fast forward to 2015-16 and Oleksy played 63 games while serving as an assistant captain with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in his first year in the Penguins organization.
"This year, obviously being my first year with the Penguins organization, to be labeled as an assistant captain for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was a very big compliment from them," he said. "Being a first-year guy over here it was really nice. It's no secret that a lot of our guys left at some point during the season to join Pittsburgh, so it was obvious we had a great group down there. It was awesome to be successful at both levels, a very unique and outstanding feeling to be a part of that."
After the Baby Pens were bounced in the second round of the playoffs, Oleksy was recalled and promoted to the "Black Aces", a small group of players that practices together, separate from the team, during the playoffs, awaiting their chance to join the NHL active roster.
"It was actually just after we got knocked out of the AHL Playoffs that they called me and told me I'd be joining the NHL club to join the 'Black Aces,' and I was excited to earn that label and just be around the situation," Oleksy said. "A few days after I got here, we were flying to Tampa and Coach [Mike] Sullivan told me I'd be up with the team for the rest of the playoffs. So to be around the team this year during the situations they were in and the experiences they saw was a great learning experience for me and my future. During the run I was trying to stay mentally prepared in case I got the call, make my teammates better in practice and just try to be a good locker room guy — that was my way of contributing."
During the locker room celebration on Sunday night, Oleksy experienced another first — his first taste of alcohol, poured out of Lord Stanley's chalice.
"I never tried it previously and I never had a reason to," he said. "I could always have a good time without it and I felt like I was in control and responsible without drinking so I never really had the urge to, or ever wanted to. I always felt that it was a distraction to where I wanted to be. Anyone will tell you, when you're striving for success, the more distractions you can eliminate, the better your chances of succeeding.
"About four or five years ago my buddies would try to get me to drink and I told them 'If I ever win the Stanley Cup, that would be my first sip of alcohol.' And then, sure enough, I'm looking around the room and Sidney Crosby's holding the Cup and people are drinking out of it so I felt that was the opportunity to have my first sip… so that was my first sip of alcohol at 30 years old."
Four former LSSU players have had their names etched into the Stanley Cup, as well as a pair of former LSSU students who served as support staff for Stanley Cup championship teams. While he's not sure if his name will be among the list the Penguins submit to be etched on to the Cup, Oleksy revels in his role in the title chase and the ultimate celebration.