SOCHI, Russia — Of course, there had to be a Warroad connection. It’s part of America’s Olympic hockey DNA strand that runs back through 1980 and 1960 and 1956 with the Christian family. T.J. Oshie wasn’t born in that Minnesota town up by the Canadian border but he moved there from the state of Washington when he was a high schooler in order to drink from the magical waters that are flecked with gold.
So of course, with the lastest US-Russia showdown hanging in the balance, Oshie was the man who kept shooting, shooting, and shooting until he five-holed goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the eighth round of a five-ringed shootout for the ages for a 3-2 victory before a stunned assemblage of 11,678 inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
“It was unbelievable,” marveled defenseman Cam Fowler, who’d drawn his teammates even after Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk had knocked them on their heels, dashing past three blueshirts for the first of his two goals. “You’re not going to see something like that ever again.”
We’d never seen anything like it before in the Games and certainly not between these two old adversaries, whose hockey rivalry goes back to the Cold War. The Americans never had played an Olympic match in the Motherland before a chanting crowd (“Shaybu! Ross-i-ya!”) waving red-white-and-blue flags that couldn’t be confused with the Stars and Stripes and with President Vladimir Putin in the house.
The Yanks were down, then even, then up, then even, and then down and possibly out after Fedor Tyutin’s blast got by goalie Jonathan Quick with 4:40 to play. At least that’s what the Russians thought, until the goal was disallowed upon review because the US cage had been dislodged, evidently when Quick slipped.
“I don’t know what happened there but it was definitely a goal,” declared Alexander Ovechkin. “Nobody [on Russia’s team] touched the net but the goalie touched the net so that the net moved. The referee had to see it. He should have given him two minutes.”
Had the game been played under NHL rules, the goal would have counted. Under IIHF rules, it did not. Knowing that an American [Brad Meier] was one of the two referees that annulled the goal provided an extra sting. “It’s very sad that the referees didn’t count it, but the referees looked at the video and made this decision,” shrugged Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who played defense on the 1980 team. “That means that’s the way it was.”
So the game went to overtime and after Patrick Kane was stoned by Bobrovsky on a breakaway, it went to a shootout. Oshie, the team’s best at that fine art, made his first one and missed his next one when his turn came around again after James van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski had been stopped. So he figured he was done for the night and went down to hang with the defensemen. “I just lost him,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I was looking for him to call him again.”
Bilyaletdinov started with Evgeni Malkin but bypassed Ovechkin, the NHL’s leading goal scorer with 40 in 55 games, going with Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk exclusively. But Bylsma stuck with Oshie. “With the quality moves he had, even when he did miss, we were going to ride him out,” he said.
Oshie made his next shot, then the one after that. “I kept looking back seeing if anyone else was going to go,” Oshie said. “I told some of the boys on the last couple, ‘I’m running out of moves here.’ So it was a little nerve-racking, but I got through it.”
So did Quick, who denied Datsyuk and watched Kovalchuk shoot wide before he saw Oshie flip the winner between Bobrovsky’s pads at the other end of the rink. “Kids will be out on the pond, probably in Minnesota right now, throwing a five-hole on the goalie three or four times in a row,” mused forward David Backes.
Oshie immediately found himself being hailed as a hero and the White House tweeted him congrats, but the man himself wasn’t having it. “American heroes are wearing camo,” he said. “That’s not me.”
He’s just another guy who grew up with Olympic dreams that he figured wouldn’t come true. When the team was announced on television on New Year’s Day, Oshie had no idea whether his name would be called. He thought he might get tapped for a shootout because he’s one of the NHL leaders, but he didn’t think he’d be going again and again and again and again.
It wasn’t just him, Oshie insisted. It was Quickie and the rest of the team. And it wasn’t for a medal of any color. “We just won a round-robin game,” Oshie kept saying.
There’s another one on Sunday afternoon against Slovenia. There’ll be a quarterfinal and then the medal round. There’s almost always somebody else to beat after the Russians. The 1960 team had the Czechs, the 1980 squad the Finns, the 2002 group the Canadians.
If this US team doesn’t win a medal, a shootout decision in a group match will be a bittersweet footnote.
“Everything is OK, nothing terrible has happened,” said Kovalchuk, who scored twice in the shootout. “It’s only a preliminary game. Everything will be decided in the semifinal and the final.”
Without doubt, this was a game for the ages. An Olympic showdown between American professional millionaires and Russian professional millionaires a hundred yards from the Black Sea would have seemed beyond unlikely in 1980. What would have sounded familiar was that a Warroad guy would have the puck on his stick when it ended.
“Can we call you an American sports hero, then?” Oshie was asked. “Hopefully they’ll still say it by the end of the tournament,” he replied.