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Kovacevic: This hero American made

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 3:57 p.m.
 

SOCHI, Russia — Heroes aren't born. They're made.

You hear that a lot, and there's endless validity to it. Even the most inherently heroic human needs someone to make it happen. To show the faith. To set the stage.

It can be a parent or a brother, a teacher or a doctor. Or a coach.

In an Olympics desperately seeking any American hero in any traditional winter sport, it wasn't a skier or speedskater who became that singular Wheaties-bound personality that defines a Games for our nation. It wasn't one of the many trumpeted stars, the magazine-cover girls or boys, or even one of the NHL's best and brightest.

It was T.J. Oshie.

It was a run-of-the-mill, salt-of-the-earth, 5-foot-11, 189-pounds-in-sweaty-socks right winger from the St. Louis Blues who would emerge, in the United States' stirring 3-2 shootout victory Saturday over their heated Russian hosts, as the one man stubbornly standing in front of the tank.

Oshie would tune out the 11,678 flag-waving partisans inside a manic Bolshoy Ice Dome and, yeah, Vladimir Putin looking all serious up in his super box.

He'd block out, inadvertently or not, anything anyone on the U.S. bench might be saying or suggesting save for his coach, Dan Bylsma.

And of course, he'd ultimately stare down Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL's reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Then again. And again. And again. And again. And again!

Finally, with the team's Olympic-record eighth attempt, his sixth overall and fifth in a row — four goals in that time — he set aside his fancy repertoire of practice moves and sliced through Bobrovsky's pads. Five-hole. Hockey's most fundamental shot for one of its most fantastic moments since ... wow, I'm kind of grasping for the last one like this.

Oshie's first thought?

“It's just relief more than anything,” he'd tell me about an hour after the celebrating and media stampeding. “I mean, I was having fun. I had more moves, and I felt like I could keep going. But I was glad for the team.”

Second thought?

“Honestly? I'm grateful to Dan and the whole coaching staff for showing that kind of belief in me. I mean, we've got a lot of guys on that bench qualified to do what I did. For them to …”

He faded there, but it didn't matter. This hero was made, and he knew it.

The making

Rewind to December. That's when the final roster calls were being debated among U.S. management. In that room of nearly a dozen gentlemen, most of them NHL general managers, one voice called for Oshie. Pleaded, actually.

“I think we all felt like T.J. could be a physical presence, strong on the forecheck, taking the body,” Bylsma recalled. “And I think he's been that for us.”

What Bylsma left out recently was described in gripping detail by the two American reporters embedded in the selection process: Bylsma passionately pushed for a shootout man, prioritizing its potential impact in such a short tournament. And nobody's better in the NHL — not Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or any of the marquee names — than Oshie, who's 7 for 10 for St. Louis.

As St. Louis teammate David Backes was telling others on the U.S. bench, then reporters afterward, “He's got a million moves. You wouldn't believe his arsenal.”

That's what Bylsma wanted and got, against no small resistance. And once the chance came, he stuck by his guy.

International rules allow for a coach to go with the same shooter repeatedly after the original round of three. That's when Russia's perpetually confused-looking coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, began haphazardly alternating Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, while insanely leaving Malkin and the world's greatest shooter, Alexander Ovechkin, as spectators. It felt as if, at any moment, Bilyaletdinov would come to his senses and just end the thing.

Except if you were watching Oshie. If you were watching his calm expression, his calculated approach each time.

“Once we got to the fourth shooter, and even with the misses he had, we were going to ride him out,” Bylsma said. “We had other guys capable, but … it seemed like he was going to score every time he went.”

He nearly did. As James van Riemsdyk pointed out, “He had the goalie beat all six times. He just didn't finish off two of them. But the moves were there.”

No question. And credit to Oshie for what he described as “a lot of hours, a lot of pucks” invested in practice at mastering the craft.

At the same time, give the coach credit. We can be tough on Bylsma in Pittsburgh because of his stubbornness. But sometimes that's borne out of meaningful belief.

The crowning

There's no instant king-maker in our sporting culture like the Olympics. An athlete in this setting can be unknown to all but family and friends one morning and nationally famous by night. All it takes is one piano-and-violin NBC intro, followed by one magical athletic accomplishment.

The game was the game. For all the drama, it was still just a round-robin. If the U.S. and Russia meet again — which is possible — the outcome will mean infinitely more.

But man, did the U.S. Olympic movement need Oshie. And not just to nullify the relentless bombs by Shani Davis, Shaun White, Julia Mancuso and so many others racking up eighth-place finishes and lame excuses.

It needed someone getting a congratulatory message from the White House.

“Congrats to T.J. Oshie and the U.S. men's hockey team on a huge win!” President Barack Obama tweeted. “Never stop believing in miracles.”

It needed Oshie's undersized body, underdog demeanor and the grin of a 27-year-old who never really grew up from riding to rinks in the folks' minivan in Everett, Wash. That'll all play well with David Letterman, just as it has already here with — of all people — Al Michaels.

“I'm really not used to all this,” Oshie said when flanked by so many microphones and cameras that a team official had to step in and move back the pack.

It needed someone genuinely modest, genuinely moved by what they had accomplished even as an NHL pro making $4 million this winter.

When a reporter referred to Oshie as a hero, he interjected, “The American heroes are wearing camo. That's not me.”

Yeah, like that.

It needed T.J. Oshie, sent out to center ice by a confident coach time and again, standing there at center ice, staring down the barrel but ready to shoot.

 

 
 


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