It has been a few offseasons since behemoth Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak literally began forging his own path.
That’s when the 6-foot-7, 255-pounder stepped off a plane in 2018 in Ecuador, took a motorized canoe two hours up the Amazon River and hiked to a small jungle village. There, Oleksiak, already an outsized curiosity in a South American country where the average male stands 5-4, spent 10 days clearing brush, digging ditches and hauling rocks to build a school and bathroom facilities for the remote river community as part of a charity mission in which his family was involved.
“The wild West is a really good way to describe it,” said Oleksiak, who was dubbed “El Toro” (the Bull) then by some wide-eyed locals. “It was really cool, something you don’t do every day. This wasn’t the usual vacation most people go on where you sit at the beach. It was a nice change of pace, and I think that’s what made it so rewarding.”
These days the 28-year-old Oleksiak, who is the NHL’s heaviest player, goes by his longstanding “Big Rig” nickname from United States Hockey League (USHL) junior days and is forging a much different personal path. A left-handed shooter who can play both sides of the blue line, he’ll be counted on as a top-four defensive mainstay by a Kraken squad that last month gave the free agent $23 million over five seasons as its expansion-draft pick from the Dallas Stars.
It was a rare shining moment for a player whose career trajectory had only recently headed upward again. Oleksiak’s signing even briefly generated more headlines than those about his youngest sister, Penny, whom he rarely casts a shadow over regardless of height.
Penny Oleksiak is a household name in their native Canada, as the country’s most decorated Olympian with seven swimming medals despite being only 21. Last month she claimed three more medals — a silver and two bronze — in the Tokyo Games to go with the gold, silver and two bronze captured five years ago in Rio.
The Rio Olympics transformed life for the Oleksiak family. Soon after, the teenager dubbed “Canada’s Golden Penny” did something her NHL brother never dreamed of: Beating out Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby for the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.
“We text and talk with each other all the time,” said Oleksiak, who attended the Rio Games but not Tokyo because of COVID-19 restrictions. “We don’t really talk much about our sports careers. In fact, we try to talk about other stuff as much as possible. But sometimes Penny might have a question about training, and we’ll talk about that part of it.”
Penny is vacationing in Mexico, and their family is respecting her desire for a post-Olympics break beyond the spotlight. But Oleksiak’s father, Richard, shared details of a Toronto upbringing in which all the children were accomplished athletes.
Jamie was the eldest and left home at 14 to play for an Under-18 squad in Detroit, then with the USHL’s Chicago Steel at 16. A middle sister, Hayley, now 26, was a competitive figure skater and rowed for Northeastern University.
Their half-brother, Jake, 44, from their father’s previous marriage, was recruited for NCAA Division I hockey at Clarkson University before an injury. And a half-sister, Claire, 39, skied competitively.
“All five kids are really close, which you love to see,” Richard Oleksiak said. “But Penny and Jamie, they text all the time. I think she really did look up to him as a role model.”
Penny told The New York Times in 2017: “I went to a lot of his hockey games. I used to always try to wave at him and get his attention. I learned pretty quickly that doesn’t make him very happy when I do that.”
Their parents had also been athletes.
Richard Oleksiak, 73 and a 6-foot-8 Buffalo native, is in the sports Hall of Fame at that city’s powerhouse Nichols prep school and played rugby and lettered in track at Colgate University.
Alison Oleksiak was an elite swimmer in Scotland and nearly competed at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow before the U.S.-led boycott.
Richard Oleksiak said the couple insisted their children be well-rounded. They accompanied Jamie to Ecuador, as Penny had become a spokesperson for the group undertaking projects there.
His dad said Jamie quickly took charge.
“It’s kind of funny when you see the pictures, because Jamie’s there looking like a giant among these jungle residents,” he said. “But he really worked his butt off. … He did all the heavy lifting and the big digging and sort of set the standard for all of us.”
Oleksiak wasn’t a giant while growing up in Toronto. He played on an Under-16 team alongside future Dallas teammate Tyler Seguin and on a private high-school squad with current New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton, but he hardly seemed a future NHL prospect.
But upon heading south, Oleksiak stood out in multiple ways — sprouting to 6-5 his first USHL season. He was 6-7 his freshman campaign at Northeastern, but the previously skinny, self-described “Bambi on skates” had by then added 20 pounds of muscle.
NHL scouts noticed, and Dallas made Oleksiak the highest draft pick in Northeastern history at 14th overall in June 2011.
After some inconsistent seasons, Dallas traded Oleksiak to Pittsburgh in 2017 — a year after his sister’s Canadian athlete-of-the-year victory over Penguins icon Crosby, which guaranteed some locker room mirth. Oleksiak would be traded back to Dallas roughly a year later.
Oleksiak gained confidence in the 2019-20 season, his tough corner work and shutdown play helping the Stars make the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Tampa Bay.
“Playing in highly stressful scenarios, I’d say that really helped me improve my game,” Oleksiak said.
His past season included a career-high six goals, with eight assists in a pandemic-shortened, 56-game schedule. And though he’ll never be mistaken for an offensive force like former Toronto youth teammate Hamilton, Oleksiak is surprisingly athletic for a big man and unafraid of pinching forward.
His workouts in Toronto this summer with personal trainer Andy O’Brien focused more on hockey-related movement than heavy weights. He also has incorporated swimming, teaming with Penny’s original pool coach.
That drew immediate media attention in Canada, especially when he quipped — obviously joking — about racing his medal-winning sister.
He readily admits: “I’d need a really good head start.”
Oleksiak’s future is clearly on the ice. The Kraken has provided long-term contract security, the opportunity for an expanded role — especially on the penalty kill — and a fresh start building upon a name he’d finally started making for himself in Dallas.
“I don’t think I’ll have to stray too much from my game,” he said. “But you saw that with Vegas. A new team, a lot of guys coming in and getting a chance to do some things they hadn’t already. I think I’m up to that challenge.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.