As the Metro Jets enter their 30th season as a junior hockey franchise, a trio of individuals over the years has attained to the highest rung on the hockey ladder – the NHL.
Former Jets defenseman Steven Oleksy (several NHL teams), former goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes) and former coach Jon Cooper suited up in Jets colors at one time and have recorded NHL duty in recent years.
Oleksy skated for the Jets from 2002-05 and made his NHL debut in 2012-13 with the Washington Capitals. He has since played for the Pittsburgh Penguins (winning the Stanley Cup in 2016), Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks after several years in the minors and three years at NCAA Division I Lake Superior State University.
“There were a lot of positives playing for the Jets during my junior career, but I feel the most important was the opportunity to grow as a player,” said Oleksy. “The Metro Jets have a rich history and reputation of developing players in the most crucial years of a hockey career. I feel playing there with the number of games, positions I was placed in, and the organization as a whole helped me take my game to the next level.”
Metro coach-GM Justin Quenneville sees Oleksy as a positive role model for the organization.
“Steve has been a great advocate for the Jets program here and he is the perfect example of a balanced individual between hard work and humility,” Quenneville said. “Too many players look to get ahead before even going through the process. Here is a guy that plays his heart out every night and is continuing to do that as we speak.”
Back during the 2012-13 season, Nedeljkovic was third on the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers (now Flint Firebirds) depth chart as a 16-year-old. He was sent to the Jets to get crease time and found his experience one to remember.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to get a lot of playing time at the beginning of the season being the youngest goalie in Plymouth,” explained Nedeljkovic. “When the time did come where I was going to play my first game, (Plymouth) coach (Mike) Vellucci didn’t want to put me in net without being in game shape or having any kind of junior hockey experience, so for the first few months of the season, I would practice once a week with the Jets and play games for them whenever I could.
“My experience in playing with the Jets was very helpful when I was able to play with Plymouth. Having the feel of junior hockey and the quickness of the game really helped me to fine-tune the little things in my game. I took my time playing with the Jets as an opportunity to make myself better, to try and tweak little things and work on them as much as I could. I was able to get a feel for junior hockey while playing with the Jets and that gave me a lot of confidence when I was able to play with Plymouth.
“That’s one of the biggest things I liked about the Jets organization – when you were there, you were being pushed to be the best you can be.”
Nedeljkovic made his NHL debut with the Hurricanes during the 2016-17 season after being a second-round pick of Carolina at the 2014 NHL Draft.
Cooper, who has coached the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning since the 2013-14 season, led the Jets to the 2002 Silver Cup national championship. He later coached in the NAHL, USHL and AHL, and found success at each stop, winning titles with the NAHL’s Texarkana Bandits, USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. He has also coached Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship.