JEFF BLAY/Special to Bullet News
Marty Williamson knew he had to do something big at the Ontario Hockey League trade deadline to round off his Niagara IceDogs squad in preparation for a postseason gleaming with expectations.
That “something big” just so happened to come in the literal sense, as Williamson traded for six-foot-seven, 250-pound defenceman Jamie Oleksiak – a player with whom he had little familiarity at the time.
“We didn’t see him a ton, but we played against him once down in Saginaw and I thought he was really solid,” the Niagara coach/GM said. “Then I saw the interaction with our guys at the world juniors and how well he played there, but until I got him here I didn’t really realize just how special he was.
“I was happy with the deal at the time and I’m even happier now.”
With a relatively young defensive core coupled with the need of a sturdy defenseman who could take on extra minutes, Oleksiak seemed to be the perfect fit for the already successful IceDogs team.
“We play in a small rink and we’ve got a couple younger defencemen in (Luke) Mercer and (Jesse) Graham playing big rolls with us, and we just thought if we were going to bring somebody in – and there were different trades out there – it had to fit a roll for us, and we just think Jamie is that perfect guy,” Williamson said. “I really think he’s redefined our blueline, and with him and Dougie, the balance is just phenomenal.”
For Oleksiak, who has gone from a career-start in the United States Hockey League, to attending Northeastern University in the NCAA circuit, to now joining his second OHL team, the journey has been a bit of a roller coaster.
“There’s been a lot of changes I’ve gone through over the past year, but I’m fortunate enough to end up in Niagara and be involved in such a great program here,” Oleksiak said. “I think we have a great bunch of guys and the coaching staff, trainers and entire organization have done a great job at welcoming me and making it an easy adjustment, so now I’m just trying to give back.”
Although Oleksiak is currently still adjusting to a new system on a new team, he didn’t come into Niagara as a complete stranger. As a youth, Oleksiak attended Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto with teammates Freddie and Dougie Hamilton.
“That was way back,” he laughed. “I only attended Crestwood for about two years, but Dougie and Freddie were there; Freddie was playing for the (Toronto) Marlboros at the time, and I didn’t know Dougie as well, but I do remember playing high school hockey with him, so it’s definitely cool to catch up on those times and have something in common there.”
In addition to the Hamiltons, Ryan Strome and Mark Visentin, who also played with him on the Team Canada World Junior squad, Oleksiak was dealt to the IceDogs around the same time as fellow 2011 Dallas Stars draft pick, Brett Ritchie.
“I first met Brett Ritchie at the Stars’ rookie camp,” Oleksiak recalled. “I talked with him a bit and I think he’s a really great guy to have on your team and he’s another player coming in midway through the season, so I kind of get to share the experience with him, but I’m just fortunate to come to a team where I have some familiarity.”
In just six games as an IceDog, Oleksiak has already been counted on to step up and take on ice time in the absence of recently suspended Dougie Hamilton and injured Brock Beukeboom. According to Williamson, Oleksiak played roughly 34 minutes against Sudbury on Jan. 21, while also recording a total of four points in the past two games.
“It’s unfortunate because I thought our team looked absolutely wonderful about a week ago, and then we lose Dougie to a suspension and obviously Beuk and Ryan (Strome) to injury, and we have a few other injuries too, but we’re lucky a guy like Jamie can help pick up the slack,” Williamson said. “We can put him out there for final minutes of periods, he can shut the game down, he’s got good hands to make passes and he just takes up so much space.
“What I like so much about him is that he really does stay within himself, he knows what he does well, and we were able to throw him on the power play and he generated some offense for us, so that’s all a bonus.”
While Oleksiak prides himself of his shutdown abilities, he also recognizes his knack to step up offensively when his team needs it most.
“I think I do have the skill set to play those other roles and play a well rounded game, and obviously it went well for me this past weekend, but I just try to do my best to fill any voids when there are absentees and do what I think the team needs me to do,” he said. “Especially when there are guys out of the line up you want to contribute as much as you can, and whenever you get a chance to step up offensively or kind of take on a different role, I think it’s a welcoming challenge and I just try to make the most of it.”
Oleksiak was born in Toronto, but holds a duel citizenship as his father is a native of Buffalo.
After spending the majority of his childhood in Canada, Oleksiak moved to Detroit at age 14 to join a midget team there, where he played roughly 20 games before being called up to the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. In addition to his two seasons with Chicago, Oleksiak also played for the Sioux Falls Stampede, where he finished his USHL career. In a total of 37 games this season, Oleksiak has recorded six goals, nine assists, 28 penalty minutes and a plus-7 rating with both the Saginaw Spirit and IceDogs.