By: Monty Mosher
Emily Oleksuk is a perfect fit to captain the St. Thomas Tommies women's hockey team.
A communications and public policy student, the Thunder Bay, Ont., native speaks clearly and isn't one to make a fuss.
The Tommies have never won an AUS title. St. Thomas doesn't participate in many AUS sports and the attention around the conference generally goes elsewhere.
But you can find St. Thomas seventh in the national rankings, tops for an AUS women's hockey entry, this week. They sit first in the AUS standings after winning 10 out of their first 12 games. They are on a six-game winning streak.
St. Francis Xavier, Saint Mary's and Moncton own all but one of the conference championship banners handed out over the past 20 years. UPEI has the other.
But St. Thomas is 93-45-18 over the past seven seasons. They have finished .500 or better in all of them.
Went to nationals as a rookie
They got to the nationals in Calgary in Oleksuk's first year, losing to Guelph, defeating McGill and losing to Calgary for fifth place.
A forward, she began the week in second place in league scoring with 14 points, one behind Moncton's Katryne Villeneuve.
She agrees the Tommies tend to get lost in the shuffle. It may not be helped by the fact the university folded the men's hockey program at the end of the 2015-16 season.
"We kind of don't attract as much attention as maybe the teams out in Nova Scotia do," the 21-year-old Oleksuk said. "I'm not sure why that is. But I definitely think that we've made a name for ourselves over the last few years anyway.
"We went to nationals a few years ago and I think that's when we put ourselves on the map."
Head coach Peter Murphy has a veteran group this season. There are four games remaining before the holiday break, and a whole semester after, but this team might be positioned as well as it has been in years.
'We have a mature team'
"We have a mature team this year," Oleksuk said. "We have quite a few fourth and fifth-year players, so I think it's a lot of experience and just knowing what it takes to play in the league.
"And the league is very competitive this year. Everyone is beating everyone."
Murphy said Oleksuk is easily overlooked despite being a consistent producer and leader.
"Her linemates often got the lion's share of the attention," he said. "She is now establishing herself as one of the top forwards in the league.
"She has always been a top centre and played on our first line in her rookie season. She now gets more credit as an offensive threat. It's nice to see as she definitely deserves it."
As for her role, he said: "She is the leader on our team and, just like all the captains before her, her game has elevated since donning the C."
Oleksuk said the team's fast start shouldn't really surprise anybody. She said the Tommies have already established they are one of the top programs in the conference.
"I think the league knows that we are a team to beat," she said. "I think we have that respect from our opponents. I definitely think everyone brings their A-game against us. So I don't think we're seen as underdogs within the league, but maybe from the outside looking in people might not give us the respect that we deserve."
Olesksuk, from an athletic family, played her Grade 12 season in Winnipeg. Her coach there had a connection to Murphy.
"I really had no idea what the AUS was. I came out here and I fell in love with it. It's a fantastic school. It's small and it's a hands-on liberal arts school. That's something I was used to being from a small town. It was easy for me to become attracted to it."
Her father played college baseball in Iowa. She had an uncle and cousin play hockey at University of Minnesota-Duluth.
It's been extra fun to play at St. Thomas this year with a hometown rivalry with UNB rekindled after a decade. UNB has been plenty competitive in its return to AUS play.
"It's been awesome. The tensions are high, but it just makes for a better hockey game."
The goal is to get back to nationals. But there are many steps before that.
"The long-term goal is to get back there, but we're focusing on the little stuff because we know we do have a strong chance of getting there if we keep playing consistently and getting better with each game."
Her cousin, Travis Oleksuk, is still playing in Austria. She watched him play in the NCAA and imagined something like that for herself.
But she never fixated on playing in the U.S.
"I was going to be happy wherever I ended up, I think. But I'm glad I chose the path that I did."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Nova Scotia with more than 30 years covering university sport. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)