Hossa playing his part in Blackhawks' success
|Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks|
DETROIT -- Slovakia didn't offer much resistance to Mike Babcock's Canadian team at the 1997 IIHF World Junior Championship in a 7-2 loss in the quarterfinals.
Babcock's team went on to collect the gold medal, but when he returned to his full-time job, with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, there clearly was a player on that Slovakian team who made an impression on him.
It was a kid from small town in northeastern Slovakia named Marian Hossa.
"Obviously [Hossa] is a real good player. The first time I saw him was in '97 at the World Juniors," Babcock said. "I came back from the World Juniors and I told our GM we needed to get him. We weren't willing to pay the 50 grand to get him. Portland got him and he played there, won the Memorial Cup and beat us."
Hossa was selected fifth by Portland in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft the following year. Babcock's Spokane team had the eighth pick.
"I know I was going to play in the junior league, the WHL, and I wasn't sure where," Hossa said. "I heard some names, Portland and Spokane. I ended up with Portland, I think because there was a Slovakian coach back then and it would be a little easier for me, but I remember so many series against their team and also in the Memorial Cup."
And about Babcock's assertion of why he ended up in Portland?
"Well, I don't know the details to that," Hossa said with a laugh. "That’s the first thing -- [the media] just told me that. I just find out after so many years about that."
Hossa had 45 goals in 53 games for the Winterhawks during the 1997-98 WHL season. Portland finished first in the Western Division; Spokane finished second.
The two teams met in the conference finals of the WHL playoffs, and Hossa's Winterhawks prevailed in seven games. Portland and Spokane then met in the Memorial Cup, and again Hossa's club was victorious.
Three days later, Hossa and the Winterhawks lifted the Memorial Cup trophy -- in a tournament played at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
"Oh, definitely," Hossa said when asked if he remembered the Memorial Cup. "When you win something big like a junior title, I think was huge in Canada. Definitely, that memory stays with you. It was in Spokane, and they had that new building, so it was really nice."
Since then, Hossa has crafted a fantastic NHL career. He passed the 1,000-game plateau during the 2012-13 season and is 65 points shy of 1,000. He has scored 40 goals three times and has earned a reputation as one of the top two-way forwards in the League for his deft defensive play.
Babcock eventually did get his man -- Hossa signed with the Detroit Red Wings after losing to them in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I've been following him ever since," Babcock said of that initial viewing of Hossa. "He's just gotten better and better. He's obviously a great two-way player, can make plays, skilled, big body. He played real well for us with the Red Wings. He had to make a financial decision as you now have to. He's gone to a good team and plays real well with [Jonathan] Toews. He's a good player."
Those two seasons -- he was traded to Pittsburgh before the NHL Trade Deadline in 2008 then his season with the Red Wings -- at that point defined Hossa's career. He had reached the Stanley Cup Final twice and lost both times.
He was fantastic with the Penguins in the postseason: 12 goals and 26 points in 20 games. He was great at the start of the 2009 playoffs for Detroit, but a shoulder injury limited him in the Cup Final.
The numbers and the success up to that point didn't matter -- like the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s, he was saddled by getting so close but not winning.
"I believe every loss pushes you or moves you a little bit further," Hossa said. "You go through the tough times and that pushes you to be better. It is not just as a player, but also as a person. I believe that you learn from those losses and then when you win, you appreciate it more."
Hossa left Detroit for the Chicago Blackhawks, and the next season he was back in the Cup Final for a third consecutive time with a third team. Chicago prevailed against the Philadelphia Flyers, and Hossa's resume now forever will include the words "Stanley Cup champion."
Maybe things didn't work out in the postseason for him in Ottawa or Atlanta -- where he was a brilliant player -- then in those two years with Pittsburgh and Detroit, but he has found a home in Chicago.
Hossa's name doesn't have to be the only one on the marquee with the Blackhawks. Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are there too. Hossa still is a world-class player, though, and a huge reason the Blackhawks were a dominant team in the 2012-13 season.
"He doesn't get as much of the publicity," rookie teammate Brandon Saad said. "Maybe he goes a little under the radar, but I think opposing teams always know how dangerous he is, regardless of how much publicity he gets. He's been a huge part of our team and he's been leading the way so far."
Hossa has played most of this season on Chicago's top line with Toews and Saad. He's second on the team in the playoffs with four goals and third with seven points. Kane and Toews haven't scored a lot of goals; Hossa and Patrick Sharp (six) have carried the club in that department.
Saad is a Pittsburgh native and saw plenty of Hossa when he became a fan favorite in the Steel City -- then a villain the following season.
"Growing up, I was from Pittsburgh and I obviously watched him," Saad said. "Then he went to Detroit and you always want to watch the great players so he is someone I've definitely followed.
"You always knew he was a great two-way player, but playing with him you really get to see him go. He's so strong and so fast and strong on the puck. To be able to see it every day, to see how quick and how strong he is, it has been amazing for me to see."
Hossa is quite unpopular with the red-and-white clad faithful at Joe Louis Arena these days. He signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings to try to win the Cup, but it didn't work out, then signed a long-term pact with the rival Blackhawks.
"I think it was great," Hossa said of his time with the Red Wings. "I felt like we had a great season. We lost one game, the most important game, and it is still painful, but then the next year we won [in Chicago]."
As for the boos, well, he heard them again in Game 3. Every time Hossa carried the puck, the Red Wings fans reminded him of their displeasure.
"There is going to be boos. That's how it is," Hossa said before Game 3. "It was funny -- Patrick Kane told me he hopes he can experience something like that once."
Now the Blackhawks find themselves behind 2-1 in the best-of-7 series after a 3-1 loss in Game 3, with Game 4 at a sure-to-be hostile Joe Louis Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS2). After such a stunningly dominant regular season, this is the first true adversity this group of Blackhawks has faced.
"We know the expectations are high," Hossa said. "We won the Presidents' Trophy. Basically, lots of people say we are the favorite, and we know the expectation and lots of pressure. To tell you the truth, we just focus on another game. We try not to look far ahead.
"I believe that when you have a good chance and you have something special in the room, you try to work with that all the way. We'll see what happens, but we feel pretty strong. We just have to go game-by-game, because you don't know next year what can happen. Maybe some guys will sign somewhere else, and all of a sudden there is a different team, different pieces. We have to try and take advantage of what we have here now."