Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets captain and world-class sharpshooter, had no choice but to seek and destroy.
Having been sent flying to the ice as if he were nothing more than a sack of potatoes on a clean hit by an impetuous rookie, Nash ---- at 24 already one of the NHL’s most accomplished players ---- was all too aware of the unwritten hockey code that demanded he extract payback from the energetic and undersized wrecking ball known as T.J. Oshie.
The rematch set up perfectly for Nash. The second game in the late-March home-and-home series against the St. Louis Blues was to be played the next night in Columbus, where Blue Jackets fans were so eager to see their superstar prove his mettle ---- the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Nash is five inches taller than Oshie and outweighs him by some 40 pounds ---- they were all but frothing at the mouth.
Round 2 came soon enough. Early in the second period, Oshie, after dodging a hard-charging Nash in the corner, swung around his goal and looked up ice for an open teammate. What he saw instead was Nash racing hell-bent toward him yet again. The ensuing collision ended much like the first, with Nash sprawled on the ice and the blonde-haired, pink-cheeked kid from tiny Warroad (population: 1,722) skating away with the puck.
Video of Oshie’s demolitions of Nash went viral on the Internet and almost instantaneously the words “overnight sensation” preceded any mention of Oshie’s name.
Meanwhile, fans in St. Louis were going bonkers, with one labeling Oshie the “King of St. Louis” and another starting an “Oshie 4 Mayor” Web site urging residents to vote for the 22-year-old in the city’s upcoming election.
Oshie No. 74 jerseys reportedly started outselling those of any other Blues player by a 3-to-1 margin. The verb “Oshied” (“1. to destroy obstacles with reckless abandon”) was added to the online version of the Urban Dictionary.
Shrugging at all the attention was Oshie, the poster boy for a new wave of Minnesotans who completed their senior seasons of high school hockey and are now excelling at the highest of levels.
“I’ve never really read my newspaper clippings or looked at blogs and stuff like that,” said Oshie, the former University of North Dakota phenom who, despite missing a large chunk of the season with a high ankle sprain, had 14 goals and 25 assists in 52 games for the Blues. “I think if you start doing that, you can go out there and start trying to do too much.”
Oshie did acknowledge that “a few” fans in St. Louis were noticeably excited about his run-ins with Nash but said the biggest reaction came in enemy territory.
“I think most of the fans in Columbus were booing me every time I touched the puck,” the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March said with a laugh.
While they can’t match Oshie’s Hollywood-esque rookie season for sheer drama, the stories of Matt Niskanen of Virginia and David Backes of Spring Lake Park aren’t altogether different.
Niskanen, 22, and Backes, 25, like Oshie, had standout seasons with their NHL clubs ---- Niskanen is a Dallas Stars defenseman, Backes a St. Louis Blues forward ---- and all three were invited to play for the U.S. in the World Championships that concluded May 10 in Switzerland.
Minnesotans representing their country in international play is hardly a new phenomenon ---- there were 12 Minnesota-bred players on the legendary Miracle on Ice team at the 1980 Olympics. In all, there were seven Minnesotans on the 24-man U.S. roster in Switzerland ---- Keith Ballard of Baudette, Jason Blake of Moorhead, Kyle Okposo of St. Paul and Colin Stuart of Rochester were the others.
Dissecting the roster even further, four of those Minnesotans on the U.S. squad stayed home to complete their senior year of high school hockey. That three of those players are 25 or younger and major cogs on their NHL teams highlights what some believe is a marked improvement in the overall quality of Minnesota high school competition.
“The Minnesota kids have improved by leaps and bounds," Central Scouting Service scout Gary Eggleston told NHL.com in a story previewing the league’s Entry Draft in June in Montreal.
Blake, who led the Toronto Maple Leafs in goals (25) and points (63) last season and at 35 was the oldest player on the national team, went from Moorhead High to, eventually, the University of North Dakota before starting his NHL career.
A decade later, Backes, Niskanen and Oshie finished their senior high school seasons before playing in the WCHA and starring in the NHL.
“Some guys will go ahead and leave and play juniors, but there are a lot of guys who have stayed (in high school) who have become just as successful,” said Moorhead coach Dave Morinville, a former general manager and coach in the United States Hockey League, the nation’s top junior league.
After years of seeing top high school players leave their hometowns and high schools early to live with host families in distant towns and play in junior leagues that offered longer seasons and tougher competition, high school coaches in Minnesota went on the offensive. They successfully pushed to have regular-season schedules extended from 22 to 25 games for the 2000-01 season. In 2003, periods were lengthened from 15 to 17 minutes.
“For many years (high school coaches) were complaining about the USHL, but there was very little being done to help keep our kids in high school,” said Virginia coach Keith Hendrickson, whose son, Garrett, was one of the state’s top sophomores last season. “In the last eight to 10 years, our group has become very innovative in that regard.”
For players seeking more games against high-level competition as well as maximum exposure in front of college and pro scouts, the Upper Midwest High School Elite League was formed in 2002. The league runs from September through mid-November and includes five teams from Minnesota, one team consisting of players from both Minnesota and North Dakota and one from Wisconsin.
A second elite league ---- Elite II High School Hockey League ---- was formed in 2003.
“I definitely think it has helped to keep kids because there is so much competition with the USHL and the other programs,” former Moorhead coach Terry Cullen said about the fall elite leagues. “It gives the kids more opportunity, more ice time, and they get to play with kids from the surrounding towns. I think it is great.”
Elite league games are played at a central site on weekends, allowing players to continue to compete in fall sports such as football for their high schools.
“Absolutely, I encouraged them to play other sports,” Cullen said about his three sons, all of whom went on to play professionally. “It is very helpful for the development of a player. It’s hard to see it sometimes at the moment, but it is going to help an athlete in the end.”
Multi-sport prowess is another recurring theme with this new wave of Minnesotans. Oshie’s relentless, physical style of play ---- as Nash discovered, he will throw a shoulder into any player at any time ---- has its origins in part from his days as a defensive back, running back, kicker and punter in football.
Oshie said there are vintage photos of him as a pint-sized middle schooler playing football in the Seattle area. “You can see where my head comes up to a bunch of guys’ waists,” he said.
“I’d say most of my hits come from my seventh-grade football coach,” Oshie said about the encouragement he received to play aggressively ---- and fearlessly ---- despite his diminutive stature.
Oshie, who also was a member of Warroad’s golf team, said he would have happily played on both the Warriors’ basketball and hockey teams concurrently during the winter season had it been allowed.
“Basketball was probably his best sport, other than hockey,” Tim Oshie said about his son. “When we moved to Warroad (before T.J.’s sophomore year) he was upset at first when he I told him he couldn’t play both.”
At Virginia, Niskanen played baseball ---- as a freshman lead-off hitter, he struck out only once ---- and was the quarterback of the Blue Devils’ football team.
“The beauty of playing in Minnesota high school is you can still play football, you can still do track, you can still play other sports,” Morinville said. “You can still play in the elite league.”
Backes played baseball at Spring Lake Park, where he also excelled in the classroom. He finished in the top 10 of his class and had a 4.0 grade-point average at Minnesota State-Mankato.
He has proven to be a quick study in the NHL, too. In his second season with the Blues, Backes scored 31 goals, had 23 assists and registered a team-high 165 penalty minutes. His goal and point totals ranked second on the team, but it was a monster performance against the defending Stanley Cup champion and notoriously stingy Detroit Red Wings that drew league-wide acclaim.
In an April 2 game at Detroit, Backes scored four goals ---- including the game winner ---- in the Blues’ 5-4 win over the Red Wings. That victory helped propel St. Louis in a frenetic stretch run that culminated with a surprising berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Niskanen, who played at Minnesota Duluth, followed a strong rookie season by leading Stars defensemen in scoring with 35 points (6 goals, 29 assists).
At the World Championships, Backes had five points on a goal and four assists and a team-high 33 penalty minutes in nine games. Niskanen and Oshie each scored a goal and two assists for the U.S., which lost to Russia 3-2 in the tournament semifinals before losing the third-place game to Sweden.
The tournament served as an audition of sorts for the Winter Olympics beginning in February in Vancouver. The U.S. coaching staff in Switzerland, headed by Ron Wilson, also will guide the national team at the Olympics.
“I definitely got a taste of European hockey,” Oshie said. “It’s not quite the hard-hitting style you see in the NHL.”
Provided they have strong starts to the 2009-10 NHL season, all three players could be candidates to play for the U.S. team in Vancouver.
If Oshie has proven anything in his career, it is an uncanny ability to adapt to his surroundings. Though he admitted moving to Warroad from the Pacific Northwest, “took some getting used to,” Oshie said he couldn’t imagine leaving high school early.
“There’s nothing better than playing with your buddies,” he said. “That’s something you never forget.
“I remember after some practices we would still be at the rink two hours later, hanging out in the locker room with our equipment still on. We’d be there so long the ice would be open again. We probably could have gone out there and skated some more.”
Oshie, who says he still ranks Warroad’s double-overtime win over Totino-Grace in the 2005 state Class A championship as his biggest hockey thrill, has remained close with many of his high school teammates.
Niskanen and Backes also have said the bond they shared with their high school teammates kept them from leaving early.
“He did not want to let the kids that he grew up with down,” Spring Lake Park coach Tom Benson said about Backes. “That was his big reason for staying.”
Oshie had an opportunity to leave for the USHL before his senior year at Warroad.
“But I never considered it,” he said. “You can’t really top the high school hockey experience. Playing with your best friends, the crowd going nuts, there’s nothing like it.
“When you go play juniors, and definitely in the NHL, it gets to be a little more of a business.”
Business or not, at any level, Minnesota players are arriving well-equipped to handle most anything thrown at them.
For Oshie, that includes one vengeance-seeking NHL superstar.