Eastside Elite Hockey League offers place for pros to play in summer
So, here’s a question:
How does an NHL, minor league, junior or college hockey player stay sharp and in game-shape during the summer?
By playing in leagues like the Eastside Elite Hockey League, which is in its 10th season at the Mt. Clemens Ice Arena.
The league was started and run by Chesterfield Township native Steve Oleksy, a professional hockey player who has won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins and is currently in the Anaheim Ducks organization. The defenseman also played at Lake Superior State.
“The college guys, pro guys, they can’t just go back and play in a regular senior league,” Okeksy told the Detroit News. “So what do you do to stay in game shape?
“I wanted to create something to bring everyone together,” continued the 32-year-old. “It took some time to build it to where I wanted it to be. But what it’s become over the last 10 years is absolutely incredible.”
Among the EEHL regulars are the Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin (Waterford), Danny DeKeyser (Clay Township) and Luke Glendening (East Grand Rapids), along with Xavier Ouellet, recently released by Detroit and signed by the Montreal Canadiens organization; Alex DeBrincat (Chicago Blackhawks and Farmington Hills); Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets and Grosse Pointe); Tyler Motte (Vancouver Canuck and St. Clair); Vlad Namestnikov (New York Rangers), and Seth Griffin (Winnipeg Jets).
In addition, former NHL player Sergei Samsonov skates on a team put together by retired Red Wings Hall of Famer Igor Larionov that also includes Larionov’s son and former Wing Todd Bertuzzi’s son.
“The team was short a player one night, so Igor and Todd Bertuzzi actually dressed and played,” Oleksy said. “It was awesome.”
The EEHL, which also features several AAA players, has 15 teams of roughly 13 players and a goalie each that play a seven-week schedule from mid-June to the end of July. There are also playoffs and an All-Star Game.
Oleksy said that, when he started out, he had eight teams with about 10 players on each roster.
“And I was lucky if I got six guys to show up for a game,” he said.
Talking about the league’s growth, he said: “Incredible. I’ve had to turn guys away.
“I had a guy from South Bend drive four hours each way for the games a few years ago. We had six or seven guys who were drafted (last month into the NHL). We have six or seven guys from Bowling Green that come and play every year.
“Guys who grew up playing with each other, but once you join juniors, not all your buddies can go on the same team. So a lot of guys reunite in the summer and play with each other, brothers on the same team.”
An example is Larkin, who plays on the Tattoos by Loaf team along with his brother Colin and their cousins Adam and Ryan.
And it is a no-hitting league.
“In 10 years, everybody has respected that rule,” Oleksy said. “Everybody respects that guys are playing for something more in the real season. But guys are playing hard without the hitting. All the plays are happening so fast without the hitting … With that, the AAA guys get to play with the NHL guys and it’s great for them, they benefit from playing with the older guys.”
During Sunday games, there’s usually a barbecue with players hanging out and watching games.
“Every summer it’s like a family atmosphere,” Oleksy said. “Guys have come back and reunited. Brothers, like the Larkins, get to play with each other.”
There are pro and college referees but no coaches. The players run their own benches.
A golf outing on July 30 at Great Oaks Country Club which benefits four causes important to players in the league – ALS, concussions, Special Olympics and autism – has been added in recent years, and sponsors have been brought on.
There is also a Tier 2 summer league and, until this season, a Women’s league.
But Oleksy would rather not add teams in the near future.
“I don’t want the quality to diminish,” he said. He just wants “to grow it.”