I now officially have my Olympic highlight. No further sport is needed. It didn't even happen during a competition. The Hug symbolized the success of these games more than athletic feat ever could. Sure, there'll be great moments of sport, thrilling and heartwarming medals over this final week... but for a sight that signifies the Olympic ideal of One World, it will get no better than the micro-moment that capped that most amazing of hockey games Saturday morning.
It came after the actual contest -- a game which, unencumbered by any medal pressure, allowed the teams to simply play beautiful, balls-out hockey. The Hug? If you blinked, you may have missed it, so, a replay. As the teams shook hands, the cameras were on T.J. Oshie, as they will be a lot from here on in, given the hunger of the network star-making machinery. NBC has its American of the Games.
So anyway, moving down the handshake line -- just another reason hockey rules, that ritual -- T.J. had just shaken a Russian player's hand. Then, instead of a handshake, we next saw a hug -- between Oshie and an opponent in red: Vladimir Tarasenko. Both broke away grinning.
But this wasn't just about T.J. and Vlad. This was about a gesture that resonated around a globe, through a half-dozen cultures... and one world. This was about a hug between a young man from a city north of Moscow and a young man born in a town called Mt. Vernon in the state of Washington who, in their day gigs, are currently teammates on the banks of the Mississippi River, doing their best to boost the spirits of a flagging piece of history.
Two very different life paths intersecting for a second, and connecting us all -- if only briefly -- in the web that only sport can weave.
Let's start with the reach of part-Ojibwe Timothy Leif Oshie's legacy, and roots, and journey. In tenth grade, as his parents separated amicably, he moved 1,700 miles east with his father, who is 5/8 Ojibwe Native American (a historically Canadian tribe), to Warroad, Minn. -- "Hockeytown, USA." The Warroad Warriors have produced, at last count, eight Olympians. The town's water tower sports crossed hockey sticks.
Whence the name "Warroad?" Named for the path that the Ojibwe called "Ka-beck-a-nung" -- the "Trail of War" -- harking back to their battles with the mortal-enemy Sioux, just to the west, in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ojibwe ancestors? As old as the Bering Straits Land Bridge itself -- crossed over by Pleistocene-era tribes, 15 millennia ago, migrating from modern-day... Russia.
T.J. Oshie's Ojibwe name is "Keeway Gaaboo," which means "Coming Home." But after Warroad, he did the opposite. He crossed over and became a Fighting Sioux, playing for the storied University of North Dakota in the "The Taj Mahal of Hockey," $100 million Ralph Englestad Arena, with granite flooring and cherry-wood and leather seats and a home locker room that has its own kitchen, adjacent to a workout room that features artificial ice.
For three years he was a star for the Fighting Sioux -- one of the last of that particular tribe, for after he left, the name disappeared. They are not the Fighting Sioux anymore. A few years back, the NCAA threatened sanctions if UND didn't change the name, much to the dismay of many a North Dakotan. At the time, the two nearby Sioux reservations whose flags still hang in the arena were asked their opinion. One voted that UND keep the name. (The chieftain logo is anything but a caricature; it's stern and handsome. I know; in 2012, I scored one of the last sweatshirts they were allowed to sell with the symbol on it in the giftshop of "The Ralph.") The school bowed. It currently has no nickname.
Oshie decided to forego his senior year and signed with the St. Louis Blues, who had drafted him in the first round in 2005 out of high school. He hit the ice running, and scored 39 points while becoming an immediate fan favorite. The smile has something to do with that.
Tarasenko? He was born in the historic city of Yaroslavl, one of the eight "Golden Ring" cities a few hundred kilometers northeast of Moscow. The city wasn't Russian when it was first populated; it was a Viking outpost in the single-digit centuries. Today it's the oldest city on the Volga River.
By the time Tarasenko was ready to play for the Kontinental Hockey League, it would have been sweet if he'd played for his birth town Locomotiv Yarolslav. Instead, he moved 2,000 miles east and signed with the Sibir Novosibirsk team. Novosibirsk's nickname? "The Capital of Siberia."
If Tarasenko had signed with his hometown team, he would no longer be alive. The entire team perished in September of 2011 when the team plane crashed on takeoff en route to its first game. In honor of that team, the city of Yaroslavl was the Russian site for the annual Canada-Russia Cup that year, along with Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city populated by citizens who roots are Scottish, English, Irish, French and German.
Two years ago, Tarasenko decided that it was time for a change in scenery. The Blues had drafted him in the first round in 2010. He showed up in St. Louis in September of 2012. In his first week of practice, fans flocked to the training facility wearing his jersey. Not his Blues' jersey. His No. 91 Sibir Novosibirsk jersey. The citizens of St. Louis were welcoming a kid from the once-evil empire to a team named for a song written by an African-American man from Alabama named W.C. Handy, known as The Father of the Blues. "St. Louis Blues" is such a classic that it's been referred to as "the jazzman's Hamlet."
And yes, St. Louis, Mo., U.S.A., has the blues. Thirty percent of the city's citizens live below the poverty rate. Since the Blues joined the NHL in 1967, the city's population has dropped by fifty percent. Its job growth is stuck in neutral. Hell, even Anheuser-Busch is now owned by a Belgian corporation.
But they have a hockey team. They have heroes. Oshie is tied for first in points for the 39-12-6 Blues, Tarasenko fifth. Two men from opposite ends of the globe, pairing to pump some lifeblood into a struggling city.
And on Saturday, in a winter games played in a sub-tropical town on the Black Sea, with one fleeting hug they pulled off something truly Olympian: a crowning moment to remind us that a festival founded in the hopes of transcending cultural and national barriers can still bind us all, no matter where we're from, or what we believe in.
It's said that in the first Olympics, in 776 BC, the Hellenic competitors were not even identified by home region in the competition. The festival wasn't about nationalism or provincialism. It was about internationalism and commonality and celebration. So, thanks, T.J. and Vlad, for reminding us why they keep playing these games.