Walleye defenseman lived his childhood dream

Oreskovic was drafted by, scored goal for Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Phil Oreskovic (4) scored his first goal for the Walleye on Sunday.

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  • Phil Oreskovic (4) scored his first goal for the Walleye on Sunday.
    Phil Oreskovic (4) scored his first goal for the Walleye on Sunday.

    Back when Walleye defenseman Phil Oreskovic was in grade school, he answered the standard question about what he'd like to do when he grew up in a standard way.

    The young Canadian said one day he would play in the NHL for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. But in an unbelievable and improbable twist of fate, Oreskovic's farfetched dream came true.

    Oreskovic not only was drafted by the favorite team of his childhood, he got called up to the big leagues.

    And on top all of that, he scored a goal for the Maple Leafs on home ice in Toronto in 2009.

    “It was an overwhelming and humbling experience,” Oreskovic said. “To actually get to play for the Leafs was unbelievable. I grew up a big fan, and I couldn't have picked a better team to play for. It was tremendous.”

    ON THE HOOK: Phil Oreskovic

    Oreskovic, an imposing 6-foot-3 and 245 pound defenseman who is in his first season in Toledo, is easy-going and comical off the ice. After playing in 10 games for the Maple Leafs, he spent the next two seasons in the American Hockey League and in the ECHL.

    On Sunday, Oreskovic scored his first goal in a Walleye uniform. He tied the game at Kalamazoo in the second period and Toledo continued a recent hot streak with a 3-2 win.

    The Walleye have won three of four and leaped back into first place in the North Division. The team is 7-0-1 in its last eight road games, setting a new franchise record for the best road streak.

    “We've been playing well and it's been fun,” Oreskovic said. “The skill level is very high right now. There's a good buzz around the room. We're all really motivated.”

    The Walleye (11-7-1) meet Kalamazoo once again at the Huntington Center on Friday night and then host Cincinnati on Saturday.

    Oreskovic, who describes himself as a stay-at-home defenseman, has just seven goals in his six-year career.

    The 25-year-old said his goal on Sunday was special. He and his defensive partner, Phil Rauch, both scored in the contest. Rauch notched the game winner with two minutes left. It was also his first of the season.

    “Usually it take me about 50 games to get one,” Oreskovic said chuckling. “It was nice. It was a funny thing. We're the two ‘Phils’ on the team. After I scored, I looked at him on the bench and started chirping at him about how I was waiting for him to score. And then he ended up getting the game winner. Now let's hope we both don't stop.”

    As satisfying as that goal was, none will ever live up to the one he scored for the Leafs. On March 24, 2009, Oreskovic sent a shot from the point that eluded Washington Capitals goalie Jose Theodore in a 3-2 victory.

    “I always want to say it hit the cross bar and went in. But it was a good shot. I wristed it on net. But it may have gone off of two defensemen's legs and then went in,” Oreskovic said. “It's really hard to explain how much that meant. And it only took seven games.”

    Oreskovic said he will never forget the morning he received the call up when he was with his wife, Melissa, who was then his girlfriend. He also said his NHL debut was unforgettable.

    “It was in Ottawa, and I had about 30 people there. I just remember having the jitters, and it was just awesome,” he said.

    He had the goal and an assist in his 10 games along with 21 penalty minutes, most for fighting majors.

    “Most of my fights were in Toronto,” he said. “It was amazing.

    “I remember being asked in school what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to play in the NHL with the Maple Leafs.”

    As far back as he can remember, Oreskovic said he would follow his two older brothers around the local ponds and rinks.

    “It was monkey see, monkey do,” he said.

    When he moved up to junior hockey, Oreskovic was drafted by his hometown team in Brampton, Ontario. He played four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League while living at home.

    He then was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2005 NHL draft. He was sent to the organization's AHL team in Toronto, which is four and a half hours from Brampton.

    “I got to keep living in my hometown. My parents could not get rid of me,” Oreskovic joked. “But it couldn't have been more perfect.”

    Until it actually was. Oreskovic said he had a solid plus-minus rating at the end of the 2008-09 season while playing for the Toronto Marlies when he got called up.

    “I had two great coaches there,” he said. “They were the ones who told me.”

    Now Oreskovic is among a handful of similar veterans on a Walleye team that is rolling.

    “We have six experienced defensemen, and we move the puck forward and keep it deep in the offensive zone,” Oreskovic said. “I credit our forwards. We have speed up front with young guys who are playing well.”

    Oreskovic, who has 541 penalty minutes in 311 pro games, has gotten into his share of fights this season. He said teammates Joey Ryan, Dale Warkentin, and Wes O'Neill aren't afraid to drop the gloves.

    “We may be the least penalized team in the league but we're also the least bullied,” he said. “No one will push us around. No one will turn you down when the bell comes.”

    He said playing with O'Neill, who also has spent some time in the NHL, along with seasoned forwards Kyle Rogers and Randy Rowe has been rewarding.

    “We like to think our experience rubs off. But we can learn from the young guys as well,” he said.

    He also said he appreciates that the Huntington Center seems to be full of energy.

    “The atmosphere here is second to none, even in the AHL in Toronto,” Oreskovic said. “Everyone here is excited and it's been outstanding.”

    FISH TALES: G Jordan Pearce has won each of his last five starts and has posted a 2.00 goals against average in those games. … D Gleason Fournier was called up to Grand Rapids Tuesday. Fournier did not collect a point in four games last week for Toledo. He appeared in three games earlier this season with the Griffins. … On Saturday night fans are encouraged to bring a stuffed animal to toss on to the ice after the Walleye score their first goal. All bears will be donated to Lucas County Children's Services. … Saturday's game will feature the Hanson Brothers from the movie Slap Shot.

    Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com, 419-724-6354, or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.