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Hossa's career comes full circle in Pittsburgh

Sunday, March 9, 2008
 

Marian Hossa was so determined to celebrate the Cup-winning goal that he hobbled back toward the ice on crutches.

He'd sustained a serious knee injury - a torn ACL, he would learn later that night -- with five minutes left in the third period of a tense, tie game.

Less than a year earlier, Hossa had experienced "the best feeling I ever had," when he sat with his parents and brother at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh and heard the Ottawa Senators call his name with the 12th pick of the NHL draft.

Now, he was experiencing the worst feeling he ever had. His hockey future was in peril.

But instead of feeling sorry for himself alone in the dressing room, he moved toward the noise created by his team's overtime goal. He'd worked too hard, sweated and bled too much with these guys, to sit there and listen to their party.

So he joined them -- and they promptly plopped Hossa on a chair and pushed him around the ice as he held the Cup aloft.

The Memorial Cup, that is.

Hossa's junior team, the Portland Winter Hawks, had just captured it by beating the Guelph Storm.

"You watch the video," says Winter Hawks front-office worker Jennifer Eggleston, "and it's tear-jerking."

That story no doubt made the rounds Saturday night in Portland, where the Winter Hawks commemorated the 10-year anniversary of their championship.

It was quite a game.

And it was the last time one of Hossa's teams won anything of significance. Perhaps the NHL's most inconspicuous star, Hossa hopes to reverse years of playoff frustration now that he has returned to Pittsburgh, of all places.

This time as a critical new piece to what the Penguins hope is a championship puzzle.

Hossa will be the first to tell you that winning a Cup of any kind is worth the sacrifice. When he looks back on that special night with Portland, he does not mention the pain.

The pleasure stands out.

"That was awesome," he says. "Good memories."

Postseason misery aside, Hossa has created plenty of those on his way to Pittsburgh, both in the way he carries himself and the way he plays the game.

Good sport

As the story goes, Hossa was 12 when he made the serious mistake of attempting a hot-dog move during a game in his hometown of Trencin, Slovakia.

His father/coach, Frantisek, waited until intermission to address it.

Loudly.

"He closed the door and asked what the (heck) am I doing," Hossa told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution years later. "Sometimes, kids need it. He was old-school."

But it was good school. Hossa and his younger brother, Marcel, a winger with the Phoenix Coyotes, followed their father's lead in hockey and in life.

Frantisek Hossa was a Czech player who went on to become Slovakia's national coach. He now coaches a team in the Slovakian Elite League, secure in the knowledge that he raised two honorable sons.

No one among the 15 or so people contacted for this story had anything remotely negative to say about Marian Hossa -- on or off the record, on or off the ice.

Quite the opposite.

Innes Mackie, trainer for Hossa's junior team in Portland 10 years ago, remembered Hossa calling him on Christmas morning two years later - when the latter was a budding star with the Ottawa Senators - just to say hello.

Joey Tetarenko was Hossa's teammate in Portland. Hossa was the star, a hot-shot first-round pick who didn't act the part.

"We were a tight-knit group, but he made the extra effort to learn English and join in," Tetarenko said. "That's what made it so easy to accept him."

Five years later, Tetarenko, a tough-guy forward, was dealt to the Senators and found himself in the daunting position of trying to fit in with a veteran team late in a season.

Hossa threw him a lifeline.

"He made me feel really comfortable," Tetarenko recalled.

Hossa rarely shows emotion. His easygoing personality can lead some to misread him.

"One player I know, who's still in the league, thought Hossa was lazy until he got a chance to play with him," said TSN analyst Pierre McGuire. "Then he saw how hard of a worker he was."

Senators strength-and-conditioning coach Randy Lee can vouch for that. He and Hossa spent the summer of 1998 together, rehabbing Hossa's torn ACL. Lee recalls an 18-year-old power forward-in the-making, one who rehabbed with uncommon resolve.

Hossa's work habits never changed.

"When we did weight-lifting testing (later in Hossa's career), he was one of the guys who was so competitive, we had to cap it," Lee recalled. "I didn't want anybody to get hurt."

Everybody says Hossa plays the game like a coach's son. Former teammates and coaches speak of him as the rare player who can be trusted in any situation - penalty kill, power play, protecting a lead or fighting from behind.

"If he's not the top all-around winger in the league," says former Penguins winger Mark Recchi, who teamed with Hossa in Atlanta, "he's pretty close to it."

The Hossa brothers grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Trencin, a town that has produced multiple NHL players, including Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra of the Minnesota Wild, former Penguins winger Ziggy Palffy and Hossa's close friend, Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins.

Many of the players are neighbors during the offseason.

"We played every day at an outdoor rink when we were growing up," Hossa says. "It was hockey 24/7, and the dream was to make it to the NHL."

NHL players are considered royalty in Slovakia. Fans follow their every move. Hossa and his girlfriend, Jana Ferova, recently were featured in a lengthy story and photo spread in the Slovakian magazine "Zivot."

Hossa says Ferova, who was finishing her college studies in Slovakia, will join him this week in Pittsburgh. They plan to reside in what Hossa described as an apartment attached to Recchi's Fox Chapel home.

Under the radar

Hossa manages to keep a relatively low profile in North America, despite being a five-time NHL All-Star.

The probable reasons, besides his low-key demeanor:

• His two most productive seasons occurred in Atlanta, hardly a hockey hotbed.

• His paltry playoff numbers (more on that later).

Before the stunning trade to Pittsburgh, Hossa's two most-publicized NHL episodes were tinged with negativity.

The first occurred in March of 2000, when, while following through on a shot, his stick struck Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard in the right eye, nearly ending Berard's career.

"That affected me big-time," Hossa said. "Even though I knew it was a freakin' accident, I felt really bad and lost control of my game."

Hossa apologized to Berard, who accepted the apology and returned to the NHL two seasons later. He now plays for the New York Islanders.

The second time Hossa became a major story was in the summer of 2005, when he was traded from Ottawa to Atlanta for troubled forward Dany Heatley.

Heatley requested a trade so he could avoid constant reminders of a tragic automobile accident two years earlier, one that resulted in the death of his friend and teammate, Dan Snyder.

Hossa was stunned, because he'd signed a new contract with the Senators earlier in the day and had no inkling they were looking to trade him. Last week, in recounting the trade, a reporter wondered if Ottawa's general manager at the time was Marshall Johnston.

"No, Marshall wouldn't do that," Hossa fired back. "That was John Muckler. It was disappointing how he handled that, but you know what• It turned out well for both teams."

Still, Hossa learned a valuable lesson - that the NHL is a business, and he is a commodity. That's one reason he likes being in a position of power as a pending unrestricted free agent July 1.

He controls his next destination and can certainly include a no-trade clause in his next contract.

"Not many of us get this chance," Hossa said. "When you get it, you want to take advantage of it. It's like people working, you know• They should have the right to choose where they work. I have it now, so why not take advantage of it and do the best you can for yourself?"

Does that mean he will test the market, no matter what?

Not necessarily.

"I want to see how the chemistry is here and how I'm going to feel," Hossa said. "So far, it's been great. If you ask me later, I'm sure I can answer more."

Rest assured, he will be asked again.

Spring fever

Before broaching the sore subject of Hossa's playoff history, you wonder if he's tired of talking about it.

"No, no," he says, politely.

OK then, with only 13 goals and 35 points in 55 playoff games, does he burn to prove himself under the bright lights?

"Definitely, I'm looking forward to it," Hossa said. "I know I don't have great numbers, but when you look at the teams in Ottawa -- when we always lost in the first round -- nobody really had great numbers. It was disappointing."

Hossa then referenced the 2003 postseason, when the Senators fought back from a three-games-to-one deficit against New Jersey in the Eastern Conference final before losing a memorable Game 7, 3-2, on home ice.

Ottawa led the NHL in points that season and rode Hossa through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"It's not like I've always really, really struggled," he said. "I had a great run there."

Great might be stretching it. Hossa had five goals and 16 points in 18 playoff games, but he didn't score against New Jersey. He did assist on both goals in a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6. He did set up the tying goal early in the third period of Game 7 - a game in which he recorded a team-high seven shots.

But he did not score.

"I can tell you this," says Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun. "That year, he did everything in his power to try to get them to the next level. It's not like he didn't go down fighting."

Reviews were decidedly less flattering after Hossa had one point (a second assist), 10 shots and a minus-6 rating in the Rangers' first-round sweep of Atlanta last season.

That marked Hossa's third goal-less postseason. It couldn't have helped that in his early years he sometimes skated with center Alexei Yashin - a guy who didn't remind anyone of Steve Yzerman at crunch time (Yashin had 27 points in 48 career playoff games).

Hossa never was the clear-cut leading man in Ottawa, not even at his position. The team's No. 1 right winger usually was Daniel Alfredsson, the most popular player in Senators history.

And perhaps Alfredsson's career path can provide some inspiration, as it took him until last season, at age 34, to finally slay his playoff demons.

"I know my numbers haven't been great," Hossa said. "I'm looking for a better performance."

Others will be looking for that, too.

Namely, the organization that gave up some precious assets to get him.

Additional Information:

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