It is, by almost any standard, the hockey memory of a lifetime. Maybe not Bobby Orr trip-flying over the stick of a St. Louis defender or Mike Eruzione in the third period against the Russians. But if there’s a list of hockey moments from the past five years, doesn’t T.J. Oshie’s personal shootout have to be on it?
“First time being on a stage that was that big,” Oshie said.
The stage was the Olympics, of course, and while the Sochi Games may not seem so long ago, here comes the next version, roaring up on us in less than 14 months, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. NHL players either will be there, as they have the past five Games, or they won’t.
Oshie is not Gary Bettman, the commissioner who is expected to make an announcement not long after the holidays about whether his players will partake. But Oshie is a man who not only had his Olympic moment but whose life changed because of one two-week span overseas. His opinion should count, and his opinion is clear.
“One hundred percent, we should be there,” Oshie, now a Washington Capitals forward, said before Christmas. “I think it’s just important for hockey. I think it’s our responsibility in the stage that we’re at and the impact that we have on the game. I think it’s our responsibility to play in that tournament and represent our country.”
He is not only right, but he shows amazing awareness his sport’s position in the world.
Hockey can’t be mistaken for soccer, which puts the Olympics in their place by having a men’s tournament that features teams consisting mostly of players 23 and under, a reminder that the World Cup, you’re not. Women’s soccer, conversely, shows its understanding of the need for the Olympic stage by sending its best players — of all ages — to the Games every four years, even with the Women’s World Cup holding equal or greater prestige.
There are certain sports that need the Olympics. The World Figure Skating Championships are just that and no more. Did you realize they’re coming up in March in Helsinki? No? But by this point next year, you might recognize some of the American hopefuls as the field takes shape for Olympic gold in PyeongChang.
Hockey, like so many other sports, can fall in on its own sense of self-importance. Hockey people can extol its virtues, speak its language and delve into deep conversations about line combinations or power-play structure that last until the Tim Hortons runs out. For the purist, last fall’s World Cup — featuring, in the estimation of Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, “probably the best eight teams that you could come up with in the world, even an Olympic Games” — is just about nirvana. Get sucked into that world, and it’s easy to forget how few countries play hockey, how few markets are obsessed with it, how few people actually see it.
The Olympics offer that exposure — surely for an individual player but also for an entire sport. The World Cup? Canada noticed, for sure. The Olympics? Everyone notices.
That’s why Oshie is such a perfect person to ask. Back then, in 2014, he was a member of the St. Louis Blues who was something of a late addition to the U.S. team. Kept in part because of his proficiency in shootouts — and the Olympic rules, which allowed a team to use a single shooter repeatedly if a game remained tied after three players had taken their turns — Oshie had enough going on in his life that he could be excused for thinking he didn’t much need the Olympics. His then-fiancee (now wife) was back home, eight months pregnant with the couple’s first daughter. The players who didn’t make their Olympic team got, essentially, a two-week vacation from the grueling NHL schedule.
“It’s such a big stage,” Oshie said. “You want to make sure you represent yourself the right way.”
Oshie’s stage came against the home-standing Russians in the Americans’ second game of the tournament, with Bolshoy Ice Dome packed with more than 11,000 fervent fans. When the game was tied after regulation, then after overtime, at 2-2, Oshie scored on the Americans’ first shootout attempt. And after the score remained tied, he got four more attempts. Twice, had he missed, the Russians would have won. Both times, he scored.
“It was intense,” he said.
He was in the process of becoming Captain America, an athlete around which a country could rally. The game was played in the early evening in Russia, and when Oshie took the ice for the shootout, it was midmorning on the U.S. East Coast — compelling, nationwide viewing on a Saturday. That kind of international exposure doesn’t happen if he’s playing for the Blues or the Capitals. The NHL can’t forget that.
There is a legitimate other side here, though. John Tavares, the New York Islanders’ best player, injured his left knee playing for Canada in Sochi and didn’t appear in an NHL game the rest of the season. Henrik Zetterberg, the captain of the Detroit Red Wings, suffered a herniated disc while playing in Sochi and didn’t return to the Wings that year.
The risks are substantial, the logistics imperfect. But think about Oshie’s assessment, the NHL’s “responsibility” to send its players, to show off its sport in the best fashion possible. The 2014 Olympics were, for a moment, about one American hockey player. Can the NHL pass that up?
Oshie is in a different spot now, more of a veteran, a husband and father of two young girls. His shootout winner against Russia, one that came after the two game-saving goals, is still right there, easily conjured up. How about another chance?
“If I’m lucky enough to go again, great,” Oshie said. “If not, that means there’s going to be some other kids or some people that are going to get a pretty cool experience that they’ll remember forever.”
If only their league lets them.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.