Jason Maleyko has an astonishing number of firsts in Brampton Battalion annals.
He was the first, and the Battalion’s first, pick in the Ontario Hockey League’s 1998 Expansion Draft, in which the Mississauga IceDogs also participated.
He was the first captain in Battalion history, as well as the first, and only, player to hold that position for three seasons.
He scored the club’s first goal.
Defenceman Maleyko was one of eight players chosen by the Battalion in the Expansion Draft. A Windsor native, he had played nine games with the Windsor Spitfires in 1996-97 and skated in 64 games with the Oshawa Generals the following season, scoring four goals and adding four assists for eight points.
“I remember being at the first training camp, looking around seeing all the young guys,” Maleyko, 32, said via telephone recently from Windsor, where he works as a certified financial planner. “We knew we were going to take a few lickings with such a young team going into some of the arenas around the OHL.”
Maleyko scored in the Troops’ first game, a 5-1 road loss to the Peterborough Petes on Sept. 24, 1998. He was one of two Battalion players to skate in all 68 games that season, leading the team’s blueliners in scoring with seven goals and 25 assists for 32 points. He topped the team with 155 penalty minutes.
“He probably came into the most difficult position, being the captain of a new team,” said Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach throughout the Battalion’s time in Brampton. “He was good in school and worked hard off the ice. He was as tough as nails and he had a heart of gold.
“There’s probably nobody who was a better character player here than Jason. In our first season he was minus-71, but over the next two seasons he became a big part of our team.”
Battalion owner Scott Abbott spoke highly of Maleyko’s impact.
“If I were to pick a 20-man roster for the Battalion’s 15-year history, Jason would be on that list, not necessarily on a skill basis, although he had a decent amount of that, but for his leadership. To get him from Oshawa was one of the best things we’ve done. He was a very important player who was a heart-and-soul kid and a great leader.”
Maleyko said captaining an OHL team was a new experience.
“I was always a natural leader on and off the ice, but I was only 18. Being the captain of such a young team was fun, but it was a challenge trying to show them what the OHL is all about on the ice and show them what it’s like off the ice with the curfews and the school commitments. ”
The Battalion posted a won-lost-tied record of 8-57-3 in its inaugural season and allowed 362 goals, but Maleyko could see progress.
“I think most nights I was playing 30 minutes a game against guys who had been high NHL picks from teams like the Sarnia Sting and Plymouth Whalers.
“The best way to develop is to play. Look at a guy like Jay Harrison, who was the first overall pick. There were a few nights where he’d make mistakes, but by playing a ton he was so much better in his next season. There was no point in treating guys like rookies, because for the most part we were all rookies. We had no choice. The young guys had to play a lot, and that was something we had over a lot of other OHL teams. That really expedited their development. Playing a lot helped even me so much, since it was only my second year in the league.”
Maleyko said Butler wasn’t as concerned with wins and losses that first season as he was with ensuring his young charges put forth a good effort.
“His expectations were in line. It was his game plan to go with a young team early on. He knew we wouldn’t be that competitive. The wins and losses didn’t matter as much as long as we were competing, and if we weren’t doing that he’d get frustrated. If we gave 100 percent and gave a great effort but just didn’t have enough talent to win, he was fine with that, but he would call us out if we didn’t give that effort.”
Four of the eight wins came against the IceDogs.
“Mississauga went with an older group and didn’t have as much success, so it was clear the plan Stan had put together was working,” said Maleyko. “We lost only one game to them and had their number. We lined up well against them, and it was the start of a good rivalry.”
The Troops came out of the gate with a flourish in their second season, winning 11 of their first 14 games and eventually qualifying for the playoffs, where they were eliminated by the Erie Otters in a tough six-game series.
“We really built off the year before, and that’s why we started so well in the second season,” said Maleyko, who played 63 games, scoring five goals and adding 27 assists for 32 points. “We had so many guys back, and Rostislav Klesla was a huge pickup for us. All those tough times in the first season helped us as a team. We had a full training camp; we weren’t missing guys who were off with NHL teams. We really played together as a team.
“We were still a young team, and to be as competitive as we were with a great team like Erie showed how well we developed. I still think we got the short end of a few calls in that series.
“You have to give credit to Stan and his scouts in those early years for getting guys like Aaron Van Leusen, Raffi Torres and Paul Flache. They were able to turn out some really good players with those mid- to late-round picks.”
Maleyko was one of six Battalion players selected in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, going to the Ottawa Senators in the sixth round.
“I think that goes back to when I was chosen by the Battalion in the expansion draft. I played a ton in my first season, played a lot in my second season, and I don’t know if I would have been drafted by Ottawa if I had been playing somewhere other than Brampton. I got the opportunity to play a lot and show what I could do.”
In 2000-01 the Battalion won 33 games and finished fifth in the conference. Butler engineered a major trade with the Barrie Colts for goaltender Brian Finley, who was battling a groin injury, and he backstopped the Troops to a four-game sweep of the Guelph Storm in a conference quarterfinal. But the Battalion then was beaten by the Otters in five games.
“If there’s any disappointment from my time with the Battalion, it would be the way that season ended,” said Maleyko, who produced 11 goals and 30 assists for 41 points in 63 games. “Finley never got to 100 percent. Klesla played hurt in the Erie series, and I know that’s part of the game, especially in the playoffs. If we’d been healthier we could have made a great run, as we had the players to do it. But the Western Conference was pretty tight. There were three or four teams that had a chance to win it all.”
Maleyko, who remains involved in the OHL as a scout for the Kingston Frontenacs, completed his Battalion career with 23 goals and 82 assists for 105 points, second on the club’s all-time list for defencemen. He earned a finance degree from St. Mary’s University and played four seasons in the ECHL.
“Playing for the Battalion was three of the best years of my life. It was great being the captain of an expansion team, scoring the first goal and watching us progress as a team.”
And to demonstrate that his string of firsts didn’t make him a one-trick pony, Maleyko scored the last OHL goal of the 1900s, the overtime winner in a 3-2 victory over the visiting IceDogs on Dec. 31, 1999.