SOCHI, RUSSIA - T.J. Oshie was hardly a recognizable name when the Olympics began. Even die-hard hockey fans probably knew little of Oshie beyond basic details about his career. Not anymore.
As Team USA prepares to play the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament Wednesday, Oshie has become one of these Games’ unexpected stars. His one-man shootout display in a thriller against Russia on Saturday brought overnight celebrity to the unassuming kid who once starred for Warroad High School.
Oshie gained more than 130,000 new Twitter followers in 24 hours. President Obama sent him a congratulatory tweet. He has made series of national media appearances, including a segment on the “Today Show.”
People now know that his real name is Timothy Leif and that he has a drop-dead gorgeous fiancée with a baby on the way. And in a spinoff of his last name, some are referring to these Games as the “Soshie” Olympics.
Oshie’s entire life has gone viral.
“I don’t mind it as long as it doesn’t get in the way of how me and my teammates play the game,” Oshie said after practice Tuesday. “It hasn’t been too tough. I’ve been a little bit busier than I expected, but that’s OK. Anything that can grow our sport a little bit is all for the better.”
OK, so some of this newfound celebrity is nuts, such as one unusual question he received Monday.
“Someone asked how I would respond to them saying that their wife would leave him in two seconds for me,” Oshie said. “It was weird. I’m not that cool.”
Oshie seems appreciative of the attention, but he has also tried to steer the conversation back to his team. He asked reporters to remember that goalie Jonathan Quick played an integral role in that shootout as well. And he gave a neat answer to someone’s suggestion that he has become an American hero.
“The real heroes are wearing camo,” he said, referring to the U.S. military.
“The sacrifices they make are on a completely different scale than what we do,” Oshie said the next day.
That response and Oshie’s humility in the face of all this new attention doesn’t surprise David Backes, the former Spring Lake Park and Minnesota State Mankato standout who is Oshie’s teammate both with Team USA and the St. Louis Blues.
“He’s a great man who’s humble,” Backes said. “He doesn’t take anything for granted, and we see a lot of that in his performance here.”
Oshie put his array of moves on display in his six shootout attempts against Russia. He scored on four, including the winner in the eighth round.
“It was unbelievable,” defenseman Cam Fowler said. “You’re not going to see something like that ever again.”
Teammates watched in awe again as Oshie worked on his slick shootout moves at the end of practice Tuesday. He was one of the last players off the ice as he kept attempting a trick shot in which he tried to flip a puck into an igloo cooler from a distance.
“It’s pretty much all luck,” he said. “It’s almost impossible.”
Oshie honed his shootout skills as an elite high school talent in Warroad. His grandfather, Buster Oshie, helped Warroad to the 1948 state hockey tournament, but much of the Oshie family moved to Everett, Wash., in the early 1960s after a tragic house fire badly injured Buster and claimed the life of his sister.
T.J. was born in Washington but moved to Warroad as a teenager at the urging of his second cousin, Minnesota hockey legend Henry Boucha.
“I call him Uncle Henry,” Oshie said. Boucha proudly points out their great-great-great grandfathers were brothers who grew up with an Ojibwe band in Buffalo Point, Manitoba, which is six miles from Warroad by water on Lake of the Woods.
Boucha led Warroad to a state hockey tournament, played on the 1972 Olympic team that won a silver medal and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.
“I remember we went out there and visited his house when I was 10 years old and that’s when I started falling in love with Warroad,” Oshie said.
Boucha worked at hockey schools in Everett run by Oshie’s father, Tim, and said he could tell T.J. had special talent when was only 5 years old.
“He could already see the ice, he was an exceptional skater and he just loved the game,” Boucha said Tuesday from Warroad. “I talked to Tim and said, ‘You should move back. Here in Warroad, we got free ice time, you can skate all you want, everyone has a rink, you can skate on the river.’ He could play hockey all day.”
In terms of Oshie’s development, Boucha said he will only take credit for helping the family relocate in 2002 to Warroad, which offered a rich hockey history. He said Oshie made himself a great player “by being a rink rat.”
But even Boucha marveled at Oshie’s performance in that shootout.
“I would have been a nervous wreck,” Boucha said. “I couldn’t have done it. It was his moment, his time. He didn’t look nervous out there at all.”
Staff writer Chris Miller contributed to this report.