Emily Oleksuk: leading the team to greatness

(Billy Cole/AQ)

Players piled up by the boards at the Aitken Centre’s centre ice. The puck was nowhere to be seen but it didn’t stop Emily Oleksuk and the St. Thomas University women’s hockey team from hacking at the pile, desperately attempting to keep their season alive. The University of New Brunswick led the defending AUS champions 1-0 with seconds remaining in game three of the best-of-3 AUS quarterfinals. As the clock ran out, so did the Tommies’ season. And so did Oleksuk’s AUS hockey career.

The Tommies skated off the ice one-by-one, wearing their black jerseys with the white T in the middle. But Oleksuk’s jersey had a slight difference from her teammates. On the top left of her Tommies’ sweater, next to her heart, is the letter C, meaning captain, an honor she’s held since her third year in 2017.

“It was very emotional,” Oleksuk said.

“I was grateful to be able to wear the C but I think everyone jumping on the same page and leading made it easier.”

Oleksuk, from Thunder Bay, O.N., started playing hockey when she was five years old and loved it from the beginning. Oleksuk said being competitive was in her blood. Her family has an athletic background. Her father played college baseball in Iowa and her cousin and nephew played hockey for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Oleksuk came to STU in 2015 following her single season in Winnipeg, playing for the Shaftbury Titans. It was there where she gained more experience in hockey and time away from home.

It was also in Winnipeg where Tommies’ women’s hockey team head coach Peter Murphy first witnessed her play.

“She immediately impressed me with how she played centre in her defensive zone,” Murphy said.

“She had an offensive side to her game but she won most of her face-offs and supported her [defense] very well.”

Oleksuk’s style of play would quickly turn her into the face of Tommies’ hockey. Murphy said he knew she’d eventually be a leader on the team. After her second season in 2017, former captain Kelty Apperson would graduate and the men’s hockey program was cut, leaving just the women’s team.

Conversation quickly began of who would be honored with the title and responsibility of captain and even though Oleksuk still isn’t quite sure why she was chosen, her coaching staff had tremendous confidence when passing down the role to her. She already had experience at nationals from her rookie season and had a natural ability to lead.

“She had the confidence of the team. In year-end interviews she was one of the most suggested as next captain,” Murphy said.

Oleksuk said at first, she felt a lot of pressure because of the standard that was set by Apperson during her stint as captain. But over time, she became more comfortable.

Murphy told Oleksuk she couldn’t replace Apperson in her first year of being captain. It would be up to her to create her own legacy. Over time, she did just that, leading the Tommies’ to their first-ever AUS women’s championship after defeating St. Franicis Xavier University X-Women in three games in the 2019 AUS finals, punching her ticket to her second nationals appearance.

“Even at the beginning of the [2019] year, we knew it was a special group,” Oleksuk said.

“Everyone was on the same page, we had the same mindset going in … We were going to keep pushing and pushing and it was just a team that got better and better every game.”

The Tommies team quickly changed after the 2019 championship team. After a large group of veterans who had already played multiple seasons together, the Tommies were forced to bring in new blood, with eight members of their roster graduating. The 2019-20 team would feature eight rookies, a group with no experience at the AUS level. But it wouldn’t create a new role for Oleksuk. It was just a new challenge and some adjusting.

“Our main goal was to install a culture into the younger rookies,” she said. It was something Apperson did for her during her rookie season.

“The major thing for me was taking my veteran experience and making sure that they’re picking up on what habits we create as Tommies … just setting a good example.”

Oleksuk’s final season didn’t start as smoothly as one would hope. It took the Tommies three games to score their first goal of the season. But eventually, STU’s mix of veterans and rookies would click, as they finished the regular season with a 13-15 record and took their rivals, the UNB Reds, to a third game of the best-of-3 series, where they would fall short 1-0.

Throughout Oleksuk’s Tommies career, she recorded 38 goals, 70 assists and 108 points in 127 career games. More importantly, she made two national trips, led the program to its first championship and was captain for three seasons.

“I want the best for the team, always. I’m always going to put my heart on my sleeve for the girls.”