Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy is a Michigan native who grew up outside Detroit and had the privilege of playing at the revered Joe Louis Arena as a kid, and again from time to time over the years. Tonight, the 27-year-old Oleksy will play in his first NHL game at The Joe, doing so against the team he grew up watching and with a host of family members and friends looking on. And that’s a Big Deal.
“I had a couple championship games when I was younger there and fortunately I skated with a team that used to practice there as well,” says Oleksy. “So I’ve skated there quite a few times, but obviously not on this scale, that’s for sure.”
Oleksy will skate in his 46th NHL game on Friday, and his first at The Joe.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” admits Oleksy. “Anytime you grow up going to the Joe and watching a lot of Red Wings games and things like that, you see it from the other side of things. To be playing [there], it’s a great feeling and it’s a great accomplishment. I’m really looking forward to it and it’s something I’m excited about it.”
A native of nearby Chesterfield, Mich., Oleksy played for Traverse City in the NAHL and played his collegiate hockey in Sault Sainte Marie at Lake Superior State. He also did a stint with Port Huron of the IHL, so he’s played a good bit of hockey in his home state.
One of his fondest memories is of winning a squirts championship at The Joe as a pre-teen.
“I do, I have some pretty fond memories but I think probably the one that stands out most was my first time playing there,” he recalls. “It was for a championship back in squirts. You play there and it’s a great feeling, but you’d never expect so many years ago that you’d be playing for real there.
“It was a big deal back then; all your family got to watch you at the Joe. Now, a number of years later they get to come back and watch again. It’s going to be a thrill.”
Caps coach Adam Oates will also have a bit of a homecoming of sorts tonight. This is the first time he has come to The Joe as an NHL coach. Oates’ long NHL career began here in 1985-86 when he started his NHL career as a rookie with the Red Wings.
“It’s weird,” says Oates, “believe it or not after all this time. I loved it here when I played here and was heartbroken when I got traded. All those years coming back and then even as a coach, it’s always a good feeling coming in here.”
Oates spent the first four seasons of his NHL career here as a member of the Red Wings. He was traded to St. Louis on June 15, 1989.
“It was my first team and as a young guy we went to the semifinals twice in a row. We lost to Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers. We played good hockey and when you’re that young you don’t think big picture. I really loved the city, loved the people, where I lived and I had a lot of friends here for a long time. It’s your first experience. It’s always tough, your first trade. It’s very difficult.”
For the first time in his NHL coaching career, Oates will be going up against one of the coaches he played for during his own NHL playing career. Detroit coach Mike Babcock coached Oates with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002-03.
“It was great,” recalls Oates of his one season playing for Babcock. “He was a rookie coach and I was an older guy, really at the last stages of my career. We ended up having success; we lost in Game 7 of the [Stanley Cup] final, so it was a long year. It was a little rough early, but then we really hit it off the second half of the year. He was just a great guy to talk hockey with. I was at that stage where, you play long enough in the game, you show up every day and you’re just willing to talk hockey.”
“We’ve been able to keep it together ever since. We trade information, we talk about the game and we both love the game.”