Long before the drama of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, when an army of American hockey fans would get up early on a Saturday to watch a new USA Hockey legend take his place alongside names like Christian and Craig and Eruzione, there was a condo complex north of Seattle, and a steel garbage container that doubled as a net for kids who liked to play street hockey.
Meet T.J. Oshie, a hockey player from Everett, Washington.
When his oldest child was just starting to skate, Tim Oshie recalls taking T.J. to a Seattle Thunderbirds game, and after one night of watching Junior hockey, the 5-year-old was sold on the game. The next day they signed up for beginners’ ice hockey, and in the first period of T.J.’s first game, he scored five goals.
He was a natural athlete, playing basketball and football as well, but he was a rink rat at heart. Tim and wife Tina separated when T.J. was a teenager, and getting to and from hockey often involved several hours in the car. It was a struggle, but the love for hockey never waned.
“It was hard, going to a school where I was the only hockey player. That travel was tough,” T.J. said, recalling many days where Tina would drive him from her home in Stanwood to Everett, where Tim would pick him up and drive to OlympicView Arena in Mountlake Terrace for ice time. “I was getting home after practice at 2 a.m. sometimes because of traffic.”
Tim’s father and uncle had been northern Minnesota high school hockey stars in the late 1940s, long before the family migrated to the Pacific Northwest. When Tim’s biological father Buster died suddenly in 1971, Tim was raised by Richard Oshie, who always had a dream that the family would move back to Minnesota someday. Richard died in 2001, but left that dream in the minds of his son and grandson.
“My dad’s dying wish was to get [T.J.] back to ‘Hockeytown USA,’” Tim said. “Dad is the one who instilled in us the passion and the desire to have him play for the Warroad Warriors someday.”
One summer, before T.J. started as a freshman at Cascade High School in Washington, Tim took the boy back to Warroad for a summer hockey camp.
“That came about out of the blue,” said Cary Eades, then coach at Warroad High School who now coaches the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede. “T.J. was not a very distinguished hockey player at the time, so much so that I don’t remember him attending that first camp.”
But if T.J. didn’t make an impression on Minnesota hockey, it immediately made an impression on him. In Warroad, the father and son saw a place where they had roots and could find a new home, and dedicate themselves to excelling on the hockey rink.
Back in Washington, a basketball coach tried to convince T.J. to give up hockey, which turned out to be a big mistake.
“In all my baby pictures, I have a basketball next to me,” T.J. recalled. “I made the freshman [basketball] team in high school and I told them I was going to have to miss some practices and maybe some games because the hockey rink was so far away. I think the coach thought I would choose basketball, and told me I had to decide right then. I gave him the basketball jersey back.”
So at the end of his freshman year of high school, Tim and T.J. loaded up a trailer and moved halfway across the country, settling in with Tim’s cousin Henry Boucha, a former NHLer and member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team that won a silver medal in Sapporo, Japan.
In Washington the rink was a few hours away, depending on traffic. In Minnesota the commute to hockey was a matter of blocks.
Meet T.J. Oshie, a hockey player from Warroad, Minnesota.
“He started the season on our fourth line, so either I’m a terrible judge of talent or that’s where he was as a hockey player at the time,” Eades said.
But when a top-line forward was injured early in the 2002-03 season, Eades decided to leave the second and third lines intact, and promoted the newcomer to the first line. T.J. stayed there for three years, helping the Warriors win Minnesota state titles in 2003 and 2005 while scoring 241 points to rank 15th on the state's all-time scoring list.
Oshie was even named king of the school’s winter festival as a senior. His queen was classmate Gigi Marvin, who would skate for Team USA on the women’s side in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Warroad earned the name “Hockeytown USA” more than 50 years ago, as a legendary incubator of on-ice talent and home to Olympic medalists going all the way back to 1956. From miles away one can see the crossed hockey sticks emblazoned on the town’s water tower. The ice time on two indoor rinks (in a community of just 1,700) is free for anyone who wants to skate. T.J. took full advantage of that, playing high school sports in the afternoon and then practicing with Warroad’s senior hockey team later in the evenings. And whenever possible, he would spend hours on a practice rink, perfecting moves that would one day be showcased on worldwide TV.
With a Major Junior team, the Everett Silvertips, in his old hometown, there was some pressure to head back to Washington, but instead T.J. chose the college route, accepting a scholarship at the University of North Dakota, and making the jump from high school right to the NCAA.
Meet T.J. Oshie, a hockey player from Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Winters on the North Dakota prairie can be notoriously harsh, leading many residents of the region to get out of town in the spring. Oshie was a big help in that regard, helping lead North Dakota to the NCAA Frozen Four all three seasons he played college hockey.
In his initial college campaign, T.J. was named North Dakota’s top rookie (ahead of fellow freshman Jonathan Toews) and finished third on the team in scoring (behind current NHLers Drew Stafford and Travis Zajac).
As a sophomore in the 2006-07 season, Oshie played on a line with Toews and Ryan Duncan, and led the team with 35 assists, as Duncan won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. That April in St. Louis, where North Dakota fell to Boston College in the Frozen Four, fans in Missouri got their first in-person look at the dynamic forward that the Blues had plucked in the opening round of the 2005 NHL Draft.
After leading the team in scoring as a junior, Oshie signed with the Blues, giving up his final year of college.
Meet T.J. Oshie, a hockey player from St. Louis, Missouri.
In the era of social media, when any info, good or bad, can circle the globe in minutes, Oshie was widely known for his on-ice skills in college, and just as renowned for a few off-ice brushes with trouble. As a professional hockey player there was a maturing process as well. Now in his sixth season in St. Louis, Oshie has seen his game blossom, as his life has become more filled with the trappings of adulthood.
Once known for his hard-charging ways on the rink and elsewhere, friends and teammates have seen a notable change as T.J. and fiancée Lauren recently welcomed their daughter Lyla Grace into the world.
Where summers were once filled with lakeside parties in Minnesota, Oshie seems more content these days to work with kids at Minnesota Hockey Camps, and has even begun the formation of a foundation to help those in need.
“The best thing that happened to him was when [Blues coach Ken Hitchcock] came in. He placed a lot more responsibility on him,” said Kevin Shattenkirk, Oshie’s teammate with the Blues and on Team USA.
“He put Osh into a leadership role right away and Osh is a guy who has always led by example on the ice. There wasn’t a guy on the team who ever doubted his effort in games, so to put him into a role like that, it forced Osh to mature and grow up right away. He’s done a tremendous job.”
Disappointed in 2010 when he did not make the Team USA squad that took silver in Vancouver, Oshie made the cut this time around and immediately proved his value to the team killing penalties and playing on a line with Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, who scored a pair of goals in the opener against Slovakia.
But it was the next game against Russia where Oshie’s stock really took off as he scored on four of six shootout attempts and sent notice throughout the hockey world that he was deadly serious about his game and his country.
For Oshie, it was a kind of flashback to that condo parking lot north of Seattle, or those bone-chilling rinks in northern Minnesota, and also a reflection of how far his life has come.
“I think as a player I’ve grown everywhere – my weight, the smarts of the game to my skills,” Oshie said. “The only thing that hasn’t changed is 10 years later I’m still having the same amount of fun that I did back then.”
A few days after the Olympics, President Barack Obama gave a speech in St. Paul, and played to the crowd, talking hockey and praising one of their own.
“It is not shocking that Minnesotans might be pretty good at the Winter Olympics. What is particularly interesting is that, once again, the tiny town of Warroad proved that it really is ‘Hockeytown USA,’ thanks to T.J. Oshie and Gigi Marvin, who we’re just so proud of,” President Obama said, as the crowd roared with cheers.
“And T.J.’s shootout performance against the Russians I might say I enjoyed a lot. I tweeted at him about it.”
Oshie heard about the Tweet from the White House while he was still in Russia.
“When someone told me that I didn’t believe them. Someone actually showed it to me,” Oshie said. “For him to go out of his way from his busy life and take the time to congratulate my teammates and I was pretty special.”
Asked what it was like to be an American hero after the Russia win, Oshie famously gave credit to those men and women who don a different kind of helmet and armor to represent their country.
“The American heroes are wearing camo,” he said. “That’s not me.”
Meet T.J. Oshie, a hockey player from the United States of America.
Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.