By Walker Orenstein
When Washington was first introduced to Olympic hockey star T.J. Oshie during his shootout heroics that propelled the United Sates past Russia 3-2 in a preliminary game last week, I greeted his performance like an old friend.
Oshie, an Everett native, took the country by storm. His sly smile, poise in a tough spot and the surgery he performs with a puck on his stick surprised nearly everyone. But not me.
I grew up in Saint Paul, Minn., the capital of “The State of Hockey.” I’ve worn skates since the age of 3, and even though I played hockey pretty much daily through high school, I never made it past the bottom rung of talent in a state that churns out Division I players like cars on an assembly line.
Minnesota is the most brazenly proud, provincial hockey hot-bed in the country. To understand why, just look at this year’s U.S. Olympic hockey roster. Out of 25 players, 10 are either Minnesota natives or have deep connections to the state, such as playing at one of the state’s five Division I hockey programs, or for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
When Oshie left Everett, he went to high school in Warroad, Minn., a tiny (pop. 1,781) northern town steeped in hockey lore. With an enrollment of 257 students, the school may be small, but its hockey team is loaded with talent. This year’s Warriors have the state’s top three scorers, each with over 80 points in 25 games.
Oshie is remembered as a magician with the puck who wore a smile and long bleach-blond hair (during the state tournament, some teams bleach their hair). He won two state championships in Class A, the small-school division of a two-tiered system, and made the state tournament three times.
He scored 241 points in three years at Warroad, but none resonated louder than his assist on the winning goal of the 2005 state championship against private-school power Totino-Grace. In overtime, Oshie dived head first off a face-off in the offensive zone and slapped the puck perfectly to Aaron Marvin, who was waiting in front of the net. The goalie couldn’t make it over, and Marvin buried the puck to give Warroad the win.
Oshie’s move was crazy, and having it work to perfection was even more ridiculous. Classic Oshie.
After his senior season, Oshie spurned Minnesota by playing for North Dakota, a bitter rival of the Golden Gophers and the state’s other programs. The hero-turned-villain led North Dakota in goals his sophomore year and led the nation with nine game-winning goals, a school record. He tallied 142 points (59 goals, 83 assists) in a storied 129-game career with North Dakota before being drafted and leaving to play with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues in 2008. To put that in perspective, any player putting up more than a point per game is considered a superstar. He accomplished it all with his hockey hair flowing in the wind and the nonchalant humor that made him a fan favorite.
I have written about high-school hockey in Minnesota for over three years, and followed it long before that. My old hockey coach, Brandon Ferraro, once wrote me and some teammates notes excusing us from school to watch the afternoon games of the state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul. Big games at state draw crowds of about 19,000.
Few players from my generation inspire breathless reminiscing in the state’s hockey community the way Oshie does.
And not many in the nation had bigger smiles than Minnesotans when Oshie carved wide “Cs” into the ice before scoring his fourth shootout goal in six attempts to beat the Russians. I know I was smiling ear-to-ear while chanting “T.J.!” in my U-District apartment, trying not to wake up my sleeping roommates.
Washingtonians aren’t as familiar with this hockey thing, so let me tell you how lucky you are to claim a special talent and personality like Oshie.
Enjoy Oshie and the Olympics with the rest of us from The State of Hockey.
Walker Orenstein, 20, is a junior studying journalism at the University of Washington and works as a sports news assistant for The Seattle Times. His passions are hip-hop and hockey, and he will manage to fit both into any conversation.
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