VANCOUVER – Marian Hossa owns a 12-year, $62.8-million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he’s seeking something he might prize even more: his first Olympic medal.
In fact, despite being just one of eight players in NHL history to score 40 or more goals with three different clubs, the 31-year-old Slovak winger hasn’t won a trophy or medal of consequence since capturing the 1998 Memorial Cup as a junior with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.
Hossa’s tales of Stanley Cup woe became legendary over the last two seasons. After being traded from Atlanta to Pittsburgh for the 2008 stretch run, he teamed up with Sidney Crosby during the playoffs and racked up 26 points in 20 games, but the Penguins lost to Detroit in the Stanley Cup final. Hossa then figured he’d have a better shot at winning the Cup with the Wings and signed a one-year deal in Motown as an unrestricted free agent. Unfortunately, the tables were turned in 2009, and Hossa’s Wings were edged out by the Penguins in a seven-game final.
So February’s Olympic tournament in Vancouver could be Hossa’s big chance to rewrite his history of personal success and team failures. A veteran of seven IIHF World Championships, he’s playing well after missing the first 22 games of the NHL season due to shoulder surgery. The question is whether his Slovaks, even with all their best players available, are deep enough to overcome the other top six international hockey powers. But optimism always reigns before the first puck is dropped.
“Everybody’s looking forward to it, and Vancouver is a great town to be hosting the Olympics,” Hossa told IIHF.com after playing with the Blackhawks in Vancouver. “We know we've got some key players who can do some damage, but we have to play as a team. If we do what we did in Turin in the opening round, we’ve got a good chance.”
At the 2006 Olympics, the Slovaks blew away their opponents in the first five games, including wins over Russia (5-3), the USA (2-1), and Sweden (3-0). Unfortunately, they came up short in the quarterfinal, falling 3-1 to their neighbouring rivals, the Czechs.
Hossa, remarkably, would finish fourth in tournament scoring with five goals and five assists, despite playing just six games. Everyone else in the top ten, including co-leaders Teemu Selänne and Saku Koivu of Finland (11 points apiece), appeared in eight. Including his Salt Lake City stint in 2002, Hossa has dazzled with nine career goals in eight Olympic games.
The 185-cm, 95-kg power forward is arguably Slovakia’s best all-around player. Just ask opposing blueliners who have the task of containing him when he’s bulling his way around the offensive zone, often controlling the puck with just one hand on his stick.
In addition to his size and strength, Hossa has superb hand-eye coordination. Recall the baseball-style goal he scored against Tampa Bay on December 13, catching a high pass from linemate Patrick Sharp, dropping the puck and whacking it in mid-air past 2006 Olympic MVP Antero Niittymäki. He’ll likely make magic on the top Slovak power play unit in Vancouver, with Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky manning the points and Marian Gaborik firing bullets up front. (And watch out for Hossa's younger brother Marcel, currently contending for the KHL goal-scoring title with Dinamo Riga.)
Hossa also backchecks with missionary zeal, a quality that Slovak forwards haven't always been known for. He’s among the NHL's top shorthanded threats. At the games, his defensive skills may give more leeway for aging veterans like Zigmund Palffy (37, Skalica) and Miroslav Satan (35, Boston Bruins) to cheat and look for offensive opportunities.
“For our country, it’s the last chance for one generation of players, playing together at the Olympics,” Hossa said of these and other older talents like Pavol Demitra and Jozef Stümpel. “After this Olympics, most of them will be retired or not playing any more for the national team.”
Hossa is young enough that he could suit up again at the 2014 and 2018 Games, especially with few new Slovak snipers coming up, apart from the likes of World Junior stars Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik. Yet the hockey life offers no guarantees.
The Slovaks traditionally have question marks in goal, but Hossa thinks that at least in a short tournament like the Olympics, that may not be an issue.
“We’ve got goalies that are doing really well, like Jaroslav Halak,” said Hossa of the Montreal netminder, who boasts one of the NHL’s best save percentages. “He’s in really good form right now. That’s huge. If he keeps playing like he is, we have a really good chance.”
Still, coach Jan Filc’s squad enters the 2010 Olympics as a longshot for gold, never having captured top spot at the Olympics before and only once at the Worlds (2002). There won’t be any easing into the schedule in Vancouver, either: Slovakia opens versus the Czechs on February 17, and faces Russia the next day.
“We’ll just try to go about our business quietly,” Hossa said. “There are top teams like Canada, Russia, the U.S., and Sweden, and our depth is not that strong. But in this tournament, it always comes down to one game. We’re comfortable with our team.”