The day before Tom Wilson came back from a four-game suspension, for not one but two cases of miscreant behavior in the pre-season, T.J. Oshie’s evil mind went to work. Drumming his fingers together, Oshie felt compelled to find a way to welcome his rugged teammate back into the fold, all the while employing the tried and true hockey tradition of serious chop-busting. That was when he collaborated with Washington’s art director to recreate the Free Willy movie poster, replacing Jesse, the foster child who frees a killer whale back into the ocean, with Wilson. Clad in his full Capitals uniform, Wilson is standing on a rock with his arms raised while the killer whale leaps over him. Oshie was originally just going to share it on the club’s group chat account but was encouraged by the organization to distribute it to his 393,000 Twitter followers.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not exactly a walk in the park being a Washington Capital these days, largely because of the perpetually agonizing early playoff flameouts. This is a team that’s tough to put your faith in, one that some observers think has frittered away its prime Stanley Cup years and is watching its promise as a serious contender fade away. After starting the season with back-to-back wins, the Caps blew a two-goal lead to lose in overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning before dropping another game on home ice to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have some history with those guys. Oshie sensed things were tightening up already, so he sprung into action.
“I didn’t want (the NHL department of) player safety or anyone to take it the wrong way,” Oshie said. “I was just trying to have some fun. It was just a way to lighten up and get the guys going and have fun again.”
There’s an old hockey joke about those ubiquitous guys who “are good in the room” – that’s where a lot of them should stay (heh heh). But, alas, many of them insist on playing the games, which can sometimes pose a problem. Oshie is not one of them. Teams are not in the habit of tying up $5.75 million in cap space per season for eight years on a 30-year-old guy to just be the dressing room DJ. Oshie had a career-high 33 goals last season (along with posting the second-most points of his career) and was off to another great start in 2017-18, so it’s obvious he still has game. But he brings so much more to his team and those around him. There aren’t many players who provide a better template for overcoming adversity than Oshie, whose family has absorbed emotional body blow after body blow, only to emerge stronger, more united and more steadfast in their faith in humanity and their willingness to face the world with a smile and an optimistic outlook. It’s easy to claim you’re a glass-half-full person, but it’s quite another to demonstrate it in the face of the kinds of setbacks and obstacles that have been placed in front of Timothy Leif Oshie. (‘T.J.’ is short for Timothy Jr.)
“This game can beat you up sometimes,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “It can beat you up pretty good. To play as hard as he does and bring the energy and life to the room, that’s a skill in itself. He’s just a hockey player. He just loves playing. He loves being at the rink.”
It didn’t take Dan Hinote long to come to the same conclusion about Oshie. Hinote was a seventh-round pick, an obscure player who jumped from U.S. college hockey at Army to major junior to the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. The guy knows a little about assessing character. Hinote was winding up his career with the St. Louis Blues when Oshie broke in as a 21-year-old rookie in 2008-09. Both of them found themselves on the injured list at the same time, rehabbing identical high-ankle sprains. It was in the weight room and on the ice with the team’s “black aces” that Hinote got a glimpse of Oshie’s character. He knew then Oshie would be a special player.
Hinote, 31 at the time, took it upon himself to be Crash Davis to Oshie’s Ebbie Calvin Laloosh – the veteran who would teach the youngster about the pro game and help prepare him to play in the best league in the world, essentially by passing on the lessons taught to him by the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote. Hinote found a remarkably quick study in Oshie, a kid who proved to be a throwback to a time when even the most talented young players knew their place and what they had to do to earn their spot in the team’s pecking order. Hinote noticed around that time that a lot of rookies were all about protein shakes and turning the lights out by 9 p.m. But there were occasions when the Blues veterans would want to go out for a team meal, then have a couple beers and get back to the hotel just in time to make curfew. Oshie, Hinote discovered, was completely on board.
“When you’re around people like T.J. Oshie, you realize they have an aura about them,” Hinote said. “It’s infectious and you don’t see it very often. He was a guy who was as raw as you could imagine with a very similar upbringing to mine where it was kind of old school and he didn’t have a lot of money. He just played the game with every ounce of his heart and he had a great time doing it. The veterans just loved him.”
To understand Oshie, you have to go back, way back. More than 50 years before his grandson led the Warroad Warriors to two Minnesota state high school titles, Alvin ‘Buster’ Oshie was a legend in Warroad, helping the Warriors to their first-ever state title in 1948. But not long after that, things took a turn for the worse for Buster Oshie. This gets a little complicated, but we’ll try to untangle it.
In the 1950s, while his brother was serving in Korea, the Oshie house in Minnesota burned to the ground. Buster went into the burning house to save his sister and suffered severe burns to his body, along with extensive smoke inhalation damage. His sister died in the fire and Buster was left with burns to much of his body. The smoke inhalation contributed to his sudden death of cardiac arrest in 1971 at the age of 43. Buster Oshie and his wife, Carol, had one son named Tim. Carol had been Richard Oshie’s high school sweetheart, but she fell in love with his brother while he was away at war. Shortly after Buster died in 1971, Richard returned from serving in Vietnam and he and Carol were married. Buster had been showing signs of mental illness by the time he died, but knowing what the family knows now, they’re convinced he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Hinote was right. The Oshie family was not blessed with an abundance of riches. Tim had a number of jobs, running basketball tournaments and development camps. He operated a roller rink in Seattle and also worked as a DJ. Oshie’s mother Tina was a hairdresser. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl named Tawni, who is 26 and lives with her mother. When Tawni was born, she was deprived of oxygen for several minutes because the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. The lack of oxygen to her brain at such a crucial time resulted in an intellectual disability that requires constant care and leaves her unable to work. “She’s always a happy-go-lucky person,” Tim said. “She’s always smiling as long as she’s watching her brother with the Capitals. And the (NFL’s Seattle) Seahawks.”
Tim and Tina divorced when T.J. was a teenager, and with the encouragement of his cousin and former NHLer Henry Boucha, Tim moved with T.J. to Warroad in 2003. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the town’s hockey culture, consider that before Detroit took the moniker, Warroad was known as ‘Hockeytown USA.’ It was the home of Bill and Roger Christian, who won a gold medal with the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, and Bill’s son Dave Christian, who went on to duplicate the feat with the Miracle on Ice team 20 years later. Along with brother Gordon, who won a silver medal in 1956, they formed the Christian Brothers Hockey Company, which was a major player in the global hockey stick market until the turn of the century. Dave’s nephew is New York Islanders winger Brock Nelson. The water tower in town is adorned with crossed hockey sticks.
Warroad is located at the southwest end of Lake of the Woods, just a snowball’s throw from the Canadian border. The games against archrival Roseau are almost as intense as the battles that gave the town its name – a war road that was used by Native American tribes that fought each other. They’re televised and attract crowds of almost 3,000, not bad for a town with a population of less than 1,800. Oshie came to Warroad as an unknown 16-year-old and started as a fourth-liner, but he quickly became a high school star and for three straight years he went to the state tournament, which sells out the Xcel Center, home of the Wild.
“It kind of felt like you were playing in the NHL,” Oshie recalled. “It felt like our Stanley Cup. You can imagine being 16 or 17 and selling out the Xcel Center. It was amazing, and at the time you almost felt like it couldn’t get any better.”
But in his first year in Warroad, Oshie was dealt another emotional setback. His closest cousin, Cory Baudry, was killed in a car accident in Everett after getting into a car with a drunk driver, who hit another car and killed two other people.
“It was just a call in the middle of night,” Tim said. “We had just moved to Warroad and it was a really traumatic thing. T.J. and Cory were only 15 months apart, so they came up playing hockey together. The families were always together on road trips.”
After establishing himself as an elite player at Warroad – he scored a mind-boggling 99 points in 31 games in his senior year – and being drafted in the first round by the Blues in 2005, Oshie eschewed the usual path for Minnesota players, which is the University of Minnesota (known there simply as ‘The U’), and went to play for Dave Hakstol at the University of North Dakota, about two hours from Warroad. As it turned out, his coach at Warroad, Cary Eades, was hired as an assistant at North Dakota, and Eades made sure he was the first to speak with Oshie to recruit him. It was a crafty move. In his first year at North Dakota, Oshie outscored another freshman, some guy named Jonathan Toews, and was named to the WCHA’s all-rookie team. He played three years at North Dakota, earning Hobey Baker Award finalist honors in his last season, before jumping to the NHL. “I saw the stick room and I was sold,” said Oshie of his decision to go to North Dakota. “When I see something I like, I’m a quick sell.” That would extend to his personal life as well. It was at North Dakota that Oshie met Lauren Cosgrove. The two fell in love instantly and were married in 2015, with their then-16-month-old daughter, Lyla, walking Oshie down the aisle to his bride.
Unlike most of his NHL peers, Oshie is something of an open book. His wife has more than 70,000 Instagram followers and the two of them don’t hide behind their celebrity. In fact, they embrace it and seem intent on allowing as many people into their world as they can. Which is part of the reason why there’s no hesitation on his part to share his humble beginnings and the family challenges he faces, none bigger than the fact that a disease called Familial Alzheimer’s has run rampant through his family. Brought to light by the recent film Still Alice, Familial Alzheimer’s typically strikes at a very early age, sometimes as early as the late 30s. It’s extremely rare – only about 200 family lines in the world carry the genetic mutation that causes it.
Oshie’s world was thrown into chaos five years ago when, at 48, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Unable to work, Tim lives back in Everett with his brother Mike and sister Pam Baudry, who provide most of the care for him. Mike takes the day shift, then Pam handles the nights after she returns home from her nursing job. But here’s the thing, Pam works all day with dementia patients, then spends her nights and weekends caring for her brother, who has Alzheimer’s. “It’s family,” Pam said. “It’s just what you do.” Like anyone who has faced this disease, Tim has good days and others that aren’t so good. He gets confused and has lapses in short-term memory. Much of his life now is centered around when he can watch the next Caps game, “He’s not getting worse as fast as they predicted,” Oshie said. “He’s doing better than they thought he would be.”
Oshie describes his father as someone who keeps everyone laughing, the kind of person who lights up a room with his presence. Much of that light has been diminished, but it’s remarkable how optimistic Tim is in the face of his obstacles. It certainly helps that the Oshie family is so close and that the challenges they face have brought them even closer together. And this is where Oshie gets it. It seems like the unwritten family rule is to be grateful for the blessings in your life instead of being brought down by the setbacks. It’s a unique way to live, and it’s all the more remarkable to maintain that approach in the face of those kinds of challenges. “We just keep bouncing back and just taking whatever the good Lord gives us,” Tim said. “Our whole family is optimistic. We have a beautiful family, and T.J. is the glue now for our family.”
That can be a lot to handle. Oshie’s grandfather had early onset Alzheimer’s, his father has it and his aunt, who was a valedictorian at the University of Minnesota, also had it and died in her early 50s. You probably see where we’re going with this. This is a family disease that strikes early and frequently. Oshie himself hasn’t undergone any genetic testing, largely because knowing you can be at a high risk for symptoms doesn’t do anything but create stress and have an impact on your well-being and personal relationships. The positive side of it is that while researchers search for a cure, there is some evidence that living a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, eating a good diet and minimizing stress can help. Oshie figures he has a lot of that covered, though he’s not immune to cheat days. He also has read that showering, brushing teeth regularly and keeping up personal hygiene can help, and he has pretty much removed gluten from his diet. “But I mean, I had a pizza last night,” he said.
Oshie has essentially decided he’ll deal with this the way he deals with everything else. He could dwell on the possibilities or he could wring every bit of enjoyment out of life that he can. Doing the latter seems to be serving him pretty well. “I’m hoping it either skips me or they find a cure,” he said. “Once in a while it comes up and I think about it. But I’d rather just enjoy the day and focus on my family than waste energy worrying about what could happen down the road.”
Oshie doesn’t waste energy, not when he could be bringing it to his family and his team. Teammate Brooks Orpik told GM Brian MacLellan over the summer that Oshie was the most important person to bring back, and so they did just that, even though it likely cost them a younger player in Marcus Johansson, who fell victim to the salary cap and was dealt to New Jersey. “We felt last year that if we got by Pittsburgh, we were going to win a Cup,” Trotz said. “When we didn’t get by them, that sucked a lot of energy out of our room. If we had lost T.J., it would’ve been a really big hole.”
The obstacles have just kept coming for Oshie. In 2014, he lost his grandmother and an aunt to cancer six months apart. Earlier that year, a little more than a month after Oshie became a household name with his shootout heroics over Russia at the Sochi Olympics, Lyla was born with gastroschisis, a rare condition in which the intestines are outside the body. She had to have immediate surgery and Oshie could not hold his daughter for the first week of her life. Lyla is now happy and healthy as well as an older sister to Leni, and Oshie dotes on them both. In typical Oshie fashion, he was not afraid to share his story with the world.
“The first poopy diaper wasn’t for a while, it was mostly IV fluid,” Oshie said at the time. “I’ve had a couple of good experiences already, no explosions down the arm or anything. Lauren and I cheered when we found the first poopy diaper because that’s a sign things are going well.”
If you aren’t accustomed to the way hockey players speak, particularly when talking about their personal lives, you should know this is tantamount to an NHLer publicly sharing his passwords and PINs with the world. Oshie is cut from a different cloth in this respect. As long as he produces the way he has, the Caps will be happy they have him. And as Trotz said, they’re not terribly concerned he’s under contract until he’s 38 because he’ll continue to give every ounce of energy he has until he has no more to give.
“It’s the only way I know to approach things,” Oshie said, “and it seems to be working for me so far.”