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Top UMD players nurtured skills together as kids

He wears 11, she wears 12. He has 106 career points, she has 201. He has an NCAA championship ring, she has an Olympic gold medal along with an NCAA championship ring. "Anything you can do, I can do better," a line from the Broadway musical "Anni...

Haley Irwin

He wears 11, she wears 12.

He has 106 career points, she has 201.

He has an NCAA championship ring, she has an Olympic gold medal along with an NCAA championship ring.

"Anything you can do, I can do better," a line from the Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun," could apply to two top hockey talents from Thunder Bay, Ontario, a town of about 112,000 residents, about 190 miles north of Duluth.

Travis Oleksuk and Haley Irwin, Minnesota Duluth senior centers nearing the end of stellar college careers, will be on display today and Saturday in doubleheaders at Amsoil Arena.

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The UMD men face Colorado College in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season series, while the UMD women meet Ohio State in the first round of the WCHA best-of-three playoffs.

Skating with grandpa

At age 2, Haley Irwin took the hand of her grandpa, Lionel Waghorn, and headed to the indoor rink in Terrace Bay, Ontario, a small town 2½ hours east of Thunder Bay. Grandpa had played hockey and wanted to pass along his interest.

The two went to the rink two or three days a week for a couple of years when the Irwins lived in Terrace Bay. The young girl learned to skate and found her passion.

"I tried to get her into figure skating, but she

wouldn't have any of it," Kerry Irwin, Haley's mom, said this week by phone. "She lives and breathes hockey and nothing means more to her, well, except, maybe her family. It's all she's ever done."

Irwin played organized hockey at age 4 and, when the family moved to Thunder Bay when she was 9, she was the only girl in a boys youth league. She played on the same team with former NHL star Jordan Staal at age 12 and the next year on the same team with Oleksuk. She joined all-girls hockey at age 16.

"I was drawn to the game because of my love of competition and the team aspect. And, as a Canadian, it's like you're born to play hockey. It's what the entire country loves," Irwin said. "I see myself as a power forward, who pays attention to defensive responsibilities and is very competitive. I think I was born with a competitive side."

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Oleksuk enjoys telling a story of a bantam practice where Irwin made an open-ice check on their teammate, Ryan Magill, separating his shoulder. Magill is now a 5-foot-11 and 185-pound forward at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

"Haley was a rough-and-tumble child, and she had to be as tough as the boys in hockey," said Kelly Irwin, who works for Sears in merchandise presentation. "At first, the boys challenged her, but once she proved herself, they didn't tangle with her any more, they took her under their wing. Ryan Magill said hitting her was like running into a brick wall."

As a UMD freshman in 2007-08, the 5-foot-7 Irwin made WCHA history by leading the league in scoring and being named rookie of the year. She had 60 points as UMD won the 2008 Division I championship. As a sophomore she had 44 and, in 2009-10, scored four goals in five games as Canada won the Winter Olympics hockey title in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Olympic victory was a career highlight ("To put on the maple leaf and represent your country was a little girl's dream come true") and the gold medal is now in a security box in a Thunder Bay bank.

Last season she had 48 points, missing 10 games because of a concussion, and this season has 49 points. Last weekend, she became the sixth player in the 13 years of UMD's program to reach 200 points, with 76 goals and 125 assists for 201 in 130 games. The aggressive playmaker is among 30 candidates for the 2012 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which goes to the top player among Division I women.

"If you look at any goal her line has scored over four years, Haley's been a big part of it. She'll win a faceoff, she'll win a battle to get the puck, she'll put the puck in the net herself," said UMD coach Shannon Miller. "She has the size, the hands and the smarts, and stands alone as the most physical goal-scorer I've coached here."

Irwin, 23, will earn a degree in community health in May and remain with the Canadian national program in preparing for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. She expects to play in the Canadian Women's Hockey League next season and, somewhere after her playing days, get involved in coaching.

Following in his dad's footsteps

The four sons of Linda and Henry Staal -- Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared -- all play professionally, three in the NHL. They're the face of hockey in Thunder Bay.

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Yet, the Oleksuk family has its own small share of notoriety. Left winger Bill Oleksuk had 190 points in four UMD seasons, including 90 goals, from 1978-82, 11th in career scoring. Travis, his son, has cracked UMD's top-50 scoring list, at No. 48, with 44 goals and 62 assists for 106 points in 125 games.

And when Travis Oleksuk set up Kyle Schmidt for an overtime winning goal against Michigan last April 9, the son had the edge over his dad -- an NCAA championship, the first in program history.

"Trav has the skill and knowledge, and there was no doubt in my mind he could be a good offensive player in college," said Bill Oleksuk, 51, a regional counseling manager for Canada's Department of Veterans Affairs. "He was fortunate to get playing time right away as a freshman and has developed."

Oleksuk's point totals have grown from five, 24, 33 and 44. He's tied for sixth in Division I scoring this season and has the fourth-most goals, to lead UMD, at 20. He's second in team scoring behind All-American center Jack Connolly. He's taken just two minor penalties.

Oleksuk, undrafted by the NHL, has played in 106 straight games, trailing only Connolly's school-record 157 among current Bulldogs.

"Every year you come into the season with goals, and then work your butt off to accomplish them," said Oleksuk, a business management major. "As a team, we've won a league playoff title and an NCAA title since I've been here, and that gives you high expectations.

"I was hoping to have 20 goals this season and try to make plays in all situations, and help us win. Winning is what matters."

The assistant captain has been on a hot streak lately, with four goals and eight assists for 12 points in the past six games. He has six game-winning goals this season and 15 for his career, tying Derek Plante for the program record.

"Travis is just a good all-around player with a great shot and great release, who has the knack for finding the back of the net," Connolly said. "His feet are always moving and he's always thinking about making the right play. He shoots on the move when goalies aren't really expecting a shot. He catches them off-guard."

UMD coach Scott Sandelin also has been impressed by Oleksuk's solid overall play for four seasons.

"Travis is a great example of being able to transform yourself as a player. He didn't play a lot as a freshman and then came back physically stronger and in better shape, and has now come a long way," Sandelin said. "He's leading our team in goals, he's a great faceoff guy, he has speed and yet doesn't have to play at 100 mph to get things done. There is some deception to his game."

The 6-foot Oleksuk, 23, who idolizes former NHL center Peter Forsberg, has Thunder Bay natives to look up to at UMD in addition to his dad. Prominently represented among program career scorers are winger Tom Milani (1972-76) at No. 7 with 198 points (including a school-record 100 goals), and defenseman Norm Maciver (1982-86) at No. 10 with 191 points (including a school-record 152 assists).

Bill Oleksuk and wife, Sally, will be on hand for Saturday's Senior Night and figure to be back in the car next season heading on Highway 61 to watch Travis play professionally.

Travis Oleksuk
Minnesota Duluth senior forward Travis Oleksuk (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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