Local league offers ‘elite’ level of hockey

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published August 13, 2018

 Steven Oleksy created the Eastside Elite Hockey League as a way for high-level players to compete during the offseason. Oleksy is a 2004 graduate of Macomb L’Anse Creuse North and was part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup championship team.

Steven Oleksy created the Eastside Elite Hockey League as a way for high-level players to compete during the offseason. Oleksy is a 2004 graduate of Macomb L’Anse Creuse North and was part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup championship team.

Photo by Donna Agusti

MOUNT CLEMENS — A decade ago, Steven Oleksy had an idea.

A 2004 graduate of Macomb L’Anse Creuse North, Oleksy’s love of hockey is obvious. Currently a defenseman in the Anaheim Ducks organization, the Chesterfield native has enjoyed a career that includes a Stanley Cup ring with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016.

However, Oleksy wanted a chance to give back to his community while also tapping into the hockey hotbed of his hometown. Enter the Eastisde Elite Hockey League.

As he progressed through the ranks of college, junior, minor league and the NHL, Oleksy saw that many high-level players from the area look across the country and globe for competition and cardio in the offseason.

“So many guys make it from here. There’s a ton of hockey talent around,” Oleksy said after the EEHL’s All-Star game July 26 at Mount Clemens Ice Arena. “We have 15 teams with about 15 players on each team. It’s grown in ways I never thought possible, but am very proud of.”

Five nights a week, Mount Clemens hosts some of the area’s best prospects and products as well as junior standouts, college stars and NHL regulars from Canada and overseas. Held from the start of June until the end of July, the league keeps player stats and features a playoff with a final champion. However, Oleksy stresses the venture aims for a competitive outlet with a realization that each player is aiming for higher aspirations.

“We’re a strict non-hitting league. We can’t have a guy missing time for his season because he got hurt here,” Oleksy explained. “That’s the thing that makes me proud in the way that each guy respects one another. In the 10 years, I’ve never had any problems. … Everyone respects it and that shows a lot about the character of every guy in the league.”

Danny DeKeyser is one of the EEHL’s many success stories. A 2008 graduate of Warren De La Salle, DeKeyser played in the inaugural season before heading to Western Michigan and eventually the blueline of the Detroit Red Wings.

“It’s really great and impressive to see what it has become,” DeKeyser said of the league.

DeKeyser grew up in Macomb Township and currently lives in Grosse Pointe. He signed a six-year, $30 million extension with the Red Wings in 2016 and has returned to the EEHL the past two offseasons to stay sharp.

“It’s a great way for the guys to come out and get some summer skates and conditioning while playing with some really great players,” DeKeyser said.

DeKeyser’s Detroit teammate Dylan Larkin agreed. A Waterford native, Larkin has been in the EEHL for three years and teamed up with Oleksy to top DeKeyser’s team in the All-Star festivities.

“This is always competitive. Steve does such a great job setting this up,” said Larkin, who has totaled 140 points in three seasons with the Wings. “I wasn’t going to let a team with DeKeyser beat me in front of all these fans.”

The All-Star game drew thousands of fans to Mount Clemens to see current NHL stars like Larkin, Vladisav Namestnikov (New York Rangers), Alex DeBrincat (Chicago Blackhawks), Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets), Seth Griffith (Winnipeg Jets) and Tyler Motte (Vancouver Jackets). Past legends also participated including Sergei Samsonov, Igor Larionov and Todd Bertuzzi.

Funds were raised for four groups: Youth concussion prevention, local autism support, an ALS awareness outfit and the Special Olympics were chosen by Oleksy.

“It was important to find causes and beliefs that match what we stand for,” Oleksy said. “We have a tremendous opportunity as pros to give back. And it’s absolutely not just me. It’s the guys that make this work. The people of the Mount Clemens Ice Arena and our many, many sponsors have helped so much.”

Tyler Spezia agreed. A Clinton Township native and 2011 alum of Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse, Spezia praised Oleksy for using the event to benefit others.

“The charity is the most important thing. These guys can bring out a huge crowd and fun night for all, so it’s great to see the turnout,” said Spezia, who starred as a forward at Bowling Green State University before recently signing with the Toledo Walleye. “It’s insane how popular the game of hockey is in Detroit. This league just shows how much talent is around here.”

Spezia is in his sixth season with the EEHL.

“I look forward to it every summer,” Spezia said. “What you do here, you gain a little bit of extra confidence going into your season.”

Cam Johnson is another veteran of the EEHL. A Troy High graduate in 2012, Johnson was a standout goalie for North Dakota and recently signed with the New Jersey Devils organization.

“I’ve been playing here for seven years. I started in high school, and it’s really cool to see how far the league has come,” Johnson said. “When I was younger, there were some good players, but now every team is loaded with pro guys.”

Johnson said the All-Star event is the highlight of his summer.

“Events like this are awesome. I told Steve thanks for putting this on,” Johnson said. “It’s fun for us and the fans, and it really shows what the hockey community is all about. A bunch of guys come together and put on a night to raise a bunch of money for people that need it.”

Johnson will be teammates with Josh Jacobs next season with the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, New York. A Shelby Township native, Jacobs attended Utica Eisenhower up until his sophomore year before leaving for junior hockey. He is in his fourth year in the EEHL.

“It’s great out here and what Steve does is unbelievable,” Jacobs said. “He puts on a great show for the All-Star game, but the regular season is a lot of work. … It has helped me a ton in my development.”

Jack Olmstead echoed that. A Troy native, Olmstead graduated from Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2016 and is committed to play at the University of Michigan.

“You have NHL, AHL and college guys. You want to come to the rink and play against the best, and this is a chance for that,” he said.

Christian Wolanin is in his first year with the EEHL. Like Johnson, Wolanin recently finished at North Dakota and is focusing on becoming a professional. Drafted 107th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2015, Wolanin was born in Quebec, but moved to Rochester in elementary. He attended Rochester Adams before leaving his senior year for junior hockey.

“This is my first summer back home in awhile, and it’s great to be back going against a lot of guys I grew up playing with or against,” Wolanin said. “There’s so many high-end players that allow you to grow and see what it takes. Ottawa knows I’m having a great skate back here, and they’re happy I’m here. They told me they’re happy I’m playing in this because they know Detroit is a great place for hockey and provides a lot of guys to play with.”

Oleksy said he is pleased to hear reports like that from the NHL level. He believes his creation allows for the young talent to prosper while also serving as a reminder for NHL veterans like himself.

“All these young guys keep talking about how thankful they are for this league, but without them this wouldn’t work in the first place,” said the 32-year-old. “But that’s what we do in hockey. We give back, not only to the community, but to the players coming up.”