About those “distractions.”
A year ago, the American sports media trooped to Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, and the story was the distraction that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o would be for the team that drafted him, in the wake of the girlfriend hoax. The Detroit News wrote, “Draft prospect Te’o is a distraction the Lions cannot afford.’’ Said draft guru Gil Brandt: “I think some teams will say [Te’o] isn’t worth the problem.” Houston defensive lineman Antonio Smith said his teammates would chide and laugh at Te’o, and he’d better have a very thick skin.
At the combine, I’ve never seen the kind of media crowd around a player that I saw around Te’o. The sight of that horde led to more thinking that if a team takes Te’o, the circus comes to town. And maybe it pushed him down quite a bit from where he thought he’d be picked—somewhere in the bottom half of the first round. (Though his just-average speed and his getting steamrolled by Alabama in Notre Dame’s bowl game probably pushed him into the second round, really.) In the end, the Chargers drafted Te’o with the sixth pick of the second round. Think back now: What do you remember about his rookie year, on or off the field? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He was unimpactful on the field, particularly against the run, playing 56 percent of the defensive snaps. He kept his mouth shut off the field. He’s a vanilla interview anyway, and eventually the questions about the phony girlfriend went away.
So much for the headache that drafting Te’o would bring.
Now, Sam is likely to be just as big of a story at the combine. And, unlike Te’o, Sam probably will be more of a lingering story, wherever he is drafted. But I think Sam will be a mega-story only for several days, when you might see Anderson Cooper with a CNN crew on the sidelines early in training camp. Especially after the aforementioned league-mandated “enlightenment” in the preseason, with some education about treating all teammates with respect.
That’s why I think if you’re a scout or GM, and you think Sam fits your team, you shouldn’t overthink it. If Sam can play, his teammates will accept him—maybe with a hiccup or two from a very religious teammate who disapproves of homosexuality or an unenlightened teammate who thinks it’s cool to make gay jokes. And it could be that some of those on the team will simply steer clear of Sam. No one knows. But there won’t be much of a problem, I don’t think, if Sam is contributing as a player.
* * *
America needs more Oshies.
The 3-2 victory by the United States hockey team over Russia on Saturday really wasn’t a significant event, if you consider that it meant nothing in the medal standings. But you couldn’t watch the game and listen to the explosions by the fans (particularly the Russians, who outnumbered the Americans so clearly) and not feel there was something riding on this. Even the players, diving to make stops, taking shots off their bodies and their hands, clearly knew something was at stake.
But that’s what great about hockey: Even in a game that’s being played for future seeding only, the players care so much. And in the first match between the countries since the USA’s Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, it was T.J. Oshie, as unheralded a player as any who suited up in the game, who made all the difference.
Sunday, when I got to ask Oshie about it, he was still stunned about it all. “The president tweeted about you,” I said. “America went pretty nuts. The New York Post and the New York Daily News both had you on the back pages this morning, with screaming headlines. Yesterday morning, no one knew you. Now, this.”
Said Oshie: “I know. It’s very odd. I was talking to my fiancée last night on the phone and I said, ‘This just felt like a round-robin game in the tournament, just another shootout.’ But I see how big it was now. It’s awesome. Just awesome. In my mind, I thought, I know we’re not in the medal round yet, so it’s early to get really excited.”
You’ve probably seen some or all of Oshie’s goals in the shootout. In the NHL, a player gets to shoot once in the shootout, and then others on the team get to shoot if the shootout is still tied after three players from each side alternately take a shot on goal. But in Olympic play, after the first three shots are taken by a side, the coach can keep putting the same shooter out there. That’s what Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma did with Oshie. It was 1-1 after the first three rounds. Then Ilya Kovalchuk missed for the Russians, and Oshie shot it over the goal. Onto round five. Pavel Datsyuk beat Quick, and Oshie shot it through the goalie’s legs. Onto round six. Kovalchuk scored, and Oshie pinged it in off the crossbar. Round seven: Datsyuk missed, Oshie backhanded it off the goalie.
I asked Oshie if he’d been the kind of kid who grew up—in Washington state and Minnesota—shooting the puck into a net, imagining it was for the Stanley Cup or Olympic gold. “Yeah, I was that type of kid,” he said. “I did it a lot, playing in the backyard, playing wherever, 9 or 10 o’clock at night, just before you leave the ice, you’re alone, and you think, ‘This one’s for the Stanley Cup,’ or ‘This one’s for the gold medal.’ I thought about it a lot. But I was thinking about like it was a breakaway. Shootouts weren’t part of the game then.”
The NHL adopted shootouts in 2005.
“But that definitely started as a kid,” he said. “Every kid, when I was growing up at the end of practice, would go to the blue line or red line, one after another, go to score, even defensemen who know they’ll never shoot.”
Oshie skated in deliberately, as always. “If you skate in fast, you’ve only got a chance to make one or two moves—that’s it,” he said. He swept in toward the right, the back left, then right in on goal, and he saw a little hole between the legs, and he aimed for it, and bang … right in.
Then the scrum around him, and the interviews and more interviews, and then he got taken to the NBC set. “I was nervous about that,” Oshie said. “I was actually shaking to meet Dan Patrick, Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels.”
And then the quote America loved, about how he felt about being an American hero, in a group interview with some American writers and TV people. Oshie said to them, “The real American heroes are wearing camo. That’s not me.”
He told me: “The way the question was asked … people were asking all kinds of questions, about what I was thinking, and how big it was, and how I was blowing up on Twitter, and then, ‘How does it feel to be an American hero?’ I could never think of that. I mean, I would hope everyone would think the men and women who protect our country, those are the heroes. A hockey player, that’s not a hero. I wanted to make that correction.”
Then he talked to some of his family members. Some had tears. He went back to his room, hungry. His celebratory dinner: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The last time he looked at his phone, it was about 12:30 in the morning, maybe four hours since the game was over.
“Thanks,” I said when we were about to get off the phone. “Hope you bring home the gold.”
“Thank you sir,” said the 27-year-old hockey player, not hero, from Warroad, Minn. “We will sure try.”