- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

T.J. Oshie couldn’t be found.

At the precise moment in which Oshie was needed the most — really, the main reason why he was selected to play for the United States at last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t locate the skilled winger.

He looked down the bench, scanning the faces of the forwards as the fourth round of a shootout against Russia was set to begin. He yelled out Oshie’s initials, and after hearing no response, he yelled his last name, causing a head to crane from behind a gaggle of defensemen near the end of the row.

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Oshie, unaware he was being summoned, straddled the wall, stepped onto the ice and skated toward his own blue line. He had been successful in the opening round of the shootout, beating Sergei Bobrovsky with a near-side wrister, and once the whistle blew, Oshie skated toward the puck, cradled it in his stick and glided toward the goaltender — again and again and again.

This is how Americans largely remember Oshie, the mostly anonymous winger who attempted an absurd six shots in a single shootout. Forget that it was a preliminary-round game, or that the United States didn’t leave Sochi with a medal — it was Oshie, in the navy blue sweater, repeatedly skating 120 feet, with millions watching in the early-morning hours of a Saturday back home.

Those moments against the Russians, on their soil, have crafted a legacy that has come to define Oshie over the last 20 months. He’ll now have a chance to redefine it, following a trade from the St. Louis Blues, his team for seven years, to the Washington Capitals in July.

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“I think it propelled him into a completely different level in the United States, there’s no question about it.” Bylsma said, reflecting recently on that game. “T.J. Oshie, or ‘T.J. Sochi‘ — a lot of things have happened because of that. Him going that many times propelled him into a different level and a different stratosphere in the sporting world.”

A love for hockey

Small towns prepared Oshie for the big cities.

At age 4, Oshie became smitten with hockey, dazzled by the players at his first Seattle Thunderbirds game. An affinity for the sport was sprinkled through his family tree; nearly all of the men on Oshie’s father’s side of the family played in Warroad, Minnesota, including his second cousin, Henry Boucha, who played six seasons in the NHL in the 1970s.

It wasn’t easy for Oshie’s parents, Tim and Tina, to cultivate their son’s dream. Ice time was limited in Everett, Washington, where Oshie was raised. Once they divorced when Oshie was 13, the trek, from his mom’s place to his dad’s house, then his dad’s house to the rink, could take up to an hour each way.

His commitment to the sport was strong. In his first year at Stanwood High School, Oshie made the freshman basketball team, then informed his coach he wouldn’t be available two nights a week or most weekends because he would be traveling for hockey. The only kid in the school who skated, Oshie was told he’d have to choose between the two sports.

“I think he thought I was going to quit hockey,” Oshie said. “I gave him back the jersey that he just gave me 20 minutes before that, and that’s when I really started focusing on hockey.”

Oshie and his parents knew he wouldn’t be able to focus on hockey in Washington. For years, relatives of Oshie’s father had been probing the family’s interest in moving to Minnesota. Doing so only became necessary once it was clear Oshie required better coaching.

The wrinkle: Oshie would move with his father to Warroad, and his younger brother, Taylor, and younger sister, Tawny, remained in Washington with their mother.

In Minnesota, Oshie was welcomed to a town seven miles from the Canadian border by a yellow-and-blue water tower with hockey sticks painted on its side. Although ice time was infrequent in Washington, it was bountiful in Warroad, with two public rinks — one open 24 hours — shared by a population of 1,700.

Oshie, raw upon arrival, quickly grew into a better hockey player. Once 5-foot-2, he grew to 5-foot-11, enhancing his athletic ability, and over the span of three years, he went fewer than 10 days without skating at all.

“He was — I wouldn’t say small, but medium-sized, and a combination of the growth spurt and getting on the ice every day with what proved to be world-class athletic ability really kind of springboarded him by a lot of people,” said Cary Eades, who coached Oshie his first two years at Warroad. “He sort of took off from there, and he never looked back.”

The Warriors advanced to the state tournament in the Twin Cities all three seasons, claiming the Class A title when Oshie was a sophomore and a senior. During that first appearance, he caught the eye of college coaches, but for Oshie, the recruiting process was simple.

Oshie had developed an affinity for North Dakota, and once he was certain he would attend college, he committed to play for the program. As part of a recruiting class that included current Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and Taylor Chorney, a defenseman now with the Capitals, Oshie helped North Dakota advance to the Frozen Four during his first season, then returned during his sophomore and junior years.

“It wasn’t hard to know and understand that he was a pretty special player,” said Dave Hakstol, Oshie’s college coach, who is entering his first season as the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. “He was one of those guys who had a knack to impact the game no matter what type of game it was, and probably the tighter the game, the better he was.”

Center of attention

Bylsma had already hatched his plan by the time Oshie, James van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski had taken their shots.

International rules allow for multiple attempts in a shootout once three players have gone, and Bylsma knew there was no way he’d veer from Oshie, even with Patrick Kane and Zach Parise on the bench.

Before his second try on Bobrovsky, Oshie licked his lips, waiting for the whistle. As he paused before the fifth round, his third attempt, the circumstance forced a slight smile to creep across face. On his fourth attempt, with the excitement building in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, he unleashed a wide grin.

“Guess who’s shooting for the Americans?” NBC television analyst Eddie Olczyk asked as Oshie stood in place, waiting to begin the seventh round.

Players, including Parise, wondered if Oshie had any moves left. He had been successful on three of his first five attempts, with his first miss high and his second miss deflected. By the eighth round, Oshie stood in front of the blue line, visibly spent. The whistle came and he was off again, looping to his right, returning to the slot and flicking a wrister that beat Bobrovsky, glove and short side, for the victory.

Almost instantly, the legend of the Olympic fourth-liner turned national hero, was born.

“Immediately afterwards, you started getting texts and you started getting YouTube [clips] and you started getting social media [reactions] about how it unfolded, with people huddled around TVs and at bars and at hockey rinks and pretty much everywhere,” Bylsma said. “Hundreds of people were glued to TVs, and going through this shootout with T.J. and watching it all unfold — almost literally as soon as we left the ice, you got a sense of how big it was going to be and how it was a game that was going to be considered one for the ages.”

Back home, 4.1 million people watched the game, with 6.4 million tuning in during the shootout, according to NBC Sports Network. Oshie’s popularity soared; he received a congratulatory message via Twitter from President Obama, and upon returning to the United States, he was starring in television commercials.

“He seems to have that ability to rise to the challenge and rise to the occasion,” said Eades, who followed Oshie’s adventures from home. “He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he enjoys it. He has nerves of steel. I think that was evident in the Olympic showdown. I don’t know of many people who could have handled that situation.”

Adapting to change

Once the Blues, the Central Division champions, lost in the first round of the playoffs in April for the third consecutive season, Oshie knew changes would be made to the organization.

He had expected to be traded during the NHL draft in late June, but less than a week later, a day after the Capitals bolstered their offense with former Los Angeles Kings right wing Justin Williams, they shipped popular right wing Troy Brouwer, minor-league goaltender Pheonix Copley and a third-round draft pick to St. Louis.

Although Oshie only cracked 20 goals for the first time two years ago, when his 39 assists gave him his first 60-point season, the Capitals figure his physical play, his offensive instincts and his abilities on special teams can make him a strong fit in their system.

“You like the relentless sort of game that he brings, and then high execution on certain plays,” coach Barry Trotz said. “His skill level and his compete level is very high. He brings an energy to the room every day and on the bench, and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Oshie played in four of the Capitals‘ seven preseason games, finishing with two goals and three assists. During one of them, Oshie was sitting on the bench when he turned to new teammate Alex Ovechkin and asked for his interpretation of what was occurring on the ice.

“We’re still learning from each other,” Oshie said. “He’s asking me what I want him to do. I’m asking him what he wants me to do. It’s good to have that communication, especially early right now, when we’re not completely familiar with each other. I think that will bring more chemistry and help us grow right away.”

Trotz will shuffle his lines throughout the season, but when the Capitals open at home on Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, Oshie will be their new top-line right wing.

If all goes according to the Capitals‘ plan, Oshie, back in red, white and blue, will recognize a level of fulfillment and accomplishment not seen since that afternoon in Sochi.

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