Anyone who’s played softball, broomball, hockey or other sports in Yellowknife long enough will remember Robb Olexin as being among the best competitors.

He’s been called one of the best athletes ever seen in the territory, among the likes of people such as Meika McDonald, Joe Dragon, Steve Vallillee, Robert Redshaw and so many others. Even though Olexin left the NWT several years ago for work, he still considered Yellowknife home.

He died on April 30 at his residence in Lonsdale, Minnesota, after a short battle with cancer. His son, Taltson Olexin, was by his side along with his sister Patty Olexin-Lang, as well as Redshaw and Redshaw’s wife, Heather, who were two of Olexin’s closest friends.

Redshaw moved to Yellowknife in 1972 and met Olexin for the first time in Grade 3.

“He was already playing every sport he could, and I wasn’t playing anything at the time,” he recalled. “Meeting Robb and another friend, Myles Severn, that changed my whole life. At recess, Robbie would go out in the yard and play soccer and he would always tell me I had to sign up for hockey and I had never played hockey. So my parents signed me up for hockey because of Robbie.”

In the summer, it was time to play fastball and Redshaw signed up for that also because of Olexin.

“Around the age of nine, we were playing on every team together all the way through. Some people are just natural athletes and I always said he was probably the best athlete out of all of us because he practised the least and was the best at everything,” he laughed. “Natural talent, I guess. He was the kind of guy who would play anything, shoot any puck, hit every ball, kick every ball — you name it.”

Playing so many sports gave Olexin the chance to travel to many tournaments. Redshaw was part of plenty of those trips himself, beginning around 1974, when they were 10 years old.

“We were on all the all-star, or rep teams, as they were called, for hockey and so we’d go to Pine Point, Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, Fort Simpson,” said Redshaw. “One of the big highlights for us was winning gold at the Arctic Winter Games in 1978 in Pine Point with the bantam boys and then 1980 in Whitehorse with the midget team.”

Olexin and Redshaw garnered interest from scouts in the south in 1981. Both athletes were invited to the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats training camp that year.

“From there, we got invited to a junior A camp in B.C.,” said Redshaw. “I made the team (in Fort St. John) and stayed while Robbie didn’t and went to play junior B in (Bonnyville), Alberta. That was the first time we weren’t together playing and, to be honest, I remember crying when we left town. Both of us were just so passionate about Yellowknife and the North and now, we’re separated.”

Fastball was a chance for both of them to hit the road on a national scale, beginning at the bantam level at age 14 with the Western Canadian Championships in 1979. They would end up travelling together for fastball until Olexin left town in 1990.

“We never had the very top pitchers like Paul Gard and Andy Tereposky, who were six years older than we were — but we always had guys who could hit and play defence,” said Redshaw. “We’d start playing nationals in midget ball and went to Swift Current (Sask.) in 1981, Napanee, Ont., in 1982.”

That 1982 tournament saw Olexin named to the All-Canadian Team at shortstop and also pitch a no-hitter in one of the team’s consolation games.

“Funny thing is he wasn’t even our pitcher,” said Redshaw. “We had three other pitchers, but we lost our first four games. Last game was consolation against P.E.I. and we knew Robbie could throw this knuckleball. He threw it every pitch and that was really cool for a kid out of Yellowknife to throw a no-hitter.”

Olexin followed that up three years later at the 1985 Canadian Junior Fastball Championship by winning top batter and he, along with Redshaw, were named to the All-Canadian Team. They would lose in the semifinal that year.

Coveted talent

One time, Olexin was asked to join an Indigenous softball team based out of Fort Smith that was participating in a tournament in New Mexico. Olexin wasn’t Indigenous but the team managed to fake a status card so there would be no questions.

“Community sports was very competitive back then,” said Redshaw. “We didn’t exactly get along with the teams from Hay River or Fort Smith. But Robbie was so personable, enjoyable, so easy-going. He was the only guy Fort Smith would even consider taking. All of the guys were Aboriginal: Floyd Daniels, Kevin Daniels, Pinto Dragon, Smoky Bourque, all those guys.”

“Here’s this blonde, Ukrainian kid and they got him a fake Metis card so he could play at this tournament,” added Olexin-Lang. “They went that far so he could play on their team.”

Building rinks around the world

Their love of hockey was such that they would find ways to stick around at the old Gerry Murphy Arena for as long as they could, even after being given a curfew.

“We would play hockey all winter, September to April, and our parents would drop us off at 9 a.m. on the weekends and told us we had to be home by 5 p.m.,” Redshaw remembered. “We found ways to hang around that arena — we’d play in our own game, we’d referee the younger kids, asking if we could help out, we helped coach teams — public skating every day at 3 p.m., so we’d help out there. The guys who ran the rink would let us stay and skate around if we helped sweep the bleachers.”

Olexin would end up working at the rink at the age of 14 and that’s where he would find his calling in life.

“That’s how he ended up getting into the rink business,” said Olexin-Lang. “He started at the Gerry Murphy, learned the ins-and-outs on how everything worked, and it became his passion. He did get his carpentry journeyman ticket (in 1990) and worked in construction for several years and then he left and moved to Grande Prairie (Alta).”

He would settle in Wembley, just outside of Grande Prairie, and worked at the local arena/curling rink in the town when he was approached with an offer to head even further south and help build a rink in Texas.

“Robb got a call from a multi-millionaire who owned a mall and wanted a rink added on,” said Olexin-Lang. “They were having a hard time, no one knew what they were doing, and he wanted Robb’s help.”

The mall owner asked Olexin to go to Texas and work for him but Olexin initially balked at the idea. He then agreed to go for a week. When he got home, Olexin and his family packed up and moved to Odessa, Texas, in 1996. Olexin would run the rink there and also set up minor hockey programs before moving on to Abilene, Texas, where he would be in charge of operations at the Taylor County Expo Centre, home of the Abilene Aviators of the old Western Professional Hockey League.

“The team knew he played hockey and they needed a back-up goaltender,” said Olexin-Lang. “He signed a professional contract and was on the team for one game.”

After that, Olexin met up with Jim Becker, owner of Becker Arena Products based out of Minnesota, and that would be his next port of call.

Olexin’s work with that company would see him travel all over, including one stop in Turkmenistan to work on an arena in Ashgabat, the country’s capital. He also worked on rinks for figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and even curling ice for Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.

“He just had such a passion for the business,” said Olexin-Lang. “Here’s a guy who started out driving a Zamboni at the Gerry Murphy Arena at age 14 and now he’s going around the world and building arenas for famous people. He never really pursued it, but he just had a passion for it.”

Taltson, Olexin’s only son, who Olexin-Lang said was his pride and joy, had a special bond with his dad, unlike any other father-son relationship Olexin-Lang has seen. And Taltson has ended up getting into the ice rink industry himself — starting out by pushing a broom in the warehouse for his dad’s employer.

Olexin found out in 2005 that he also had a daughter.

“We welcomed Wynter into our family,” said Olexin-Lang. “Wynter’s mother had given her up for adoption and Simon and Millie Kuliktana, who went to Akaitcho Hall and grew up knowing Robb, were her adoptive parents. We had some inklings but never any confirmation until 2005 and that’s when we welcomed her. We’ve had her with our family for 17 years and she’s been just amazing. She has a family of her own with two children, Robb’s grandchildren, Leighton and Aili. They never saw each other often but they always had coffee over the phone and built a wonderful relationship over the years.”

The cancer diagnosis came in early January after Olexin began to suffer from pain. Olexin-Lang said her brother thought that it was a torn muscle from all the golf he had been playing.

“We spent 10 days together with Robb in September and that never happens because it was always go-go-go with him,” she said.

“Our mom was ill last year and my aunt strongly suggested that we get out there and be with her. (Robb) was complaining about his chest being sore. December came and he got pneumonia, and everything spiralled from there.”

In remembering his friend, Redshaw said people would ask him how he was doing after returning home from visiting Olexin in the U.S. and his answer was always the same.

“People thought we must be partying every time I went down but we never drank or went to the bar — maybe one drink with a nice meal — but all he wanted to do was golf and hang out,” he said.

“I would tell people he’s the closest person I know at age 55 that is the same as he was when he was 15. He was just such a joy to be around. Always a joy to visit him. It was like we were kids again. He was a beautiful person and friend — a special gift to everyone he ever met. I’m gonna miss him every day for the rest of my life.”

A celebration of Olexin’s life is scheduled for June 24 downstairs at the Yellowknife Elks Lodge beginning at 2:30 p.m. The same thing will happen in Lonsdale, Minnesota on Sept. 18.

James McCarthy

After being a nomad around North America following my semi-debauched post-secondary days, I put down my roots in Yellowknife in 2006. I’ve been keeping this sports seat warm with NNSL for the better...

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  1. Great teammate and friend. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with R.O. in Texas, as I lived in Houston. We played both hockey and ball hockey in Yellowknife as members of the Rec Hall Raiders in the 80’s, capturing the Territorial Championships in both sports, and competing at the national level twice in ball hockey. A great guy, with too many friends left behind. Fond memories begin.