VANCOUVER – Marian Hossa has never won an NHL scoring title, but the 32-year-old Slovak winger is right up there with the league’s top aces in the early stages of 2011-12.
“I try not to think about it,” said Hossa after his visiting Chicago Blackhawks thumped the archrival Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on November 17. “It’s just the beginning of the year, and I’m trying to help this team win some hockey games. When you’re playing with great players and you come to the right areas at the right times, good things happen.”
The veteran of 14 NHL seasons has benefited offensively from teaming up with two of the world’s top stars on different lines this year: Hawks captain and Canadian Olympic All-Star Jonathan Toews, and the USA’s Patrick Kane, who sealed his immortality with the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning goal versus Philadelphia.
“What those two have got in common is that they’re both world-class players,” Hossa emphasized. “That’s the number one thing. However, they’re a little bit different. Patrick Kane is more, I’d say, creative with the puck. He likes to go shake his shoulders and then go the other way. With him, you just try to get open and find a quiet spot. Jonathan Toews goes harder into the corners, going for the puck. With him, it’s more give and go.”
Regardless of which one he’s paired with, Hossa brings stellar two-way play and an unquestioned work ethic. And he looks fresher than he did last season.
Hossa, who captured his first Stanley Cup in 2010 after two notorious failed attempts with Pittsburgh (2008) and Detroit (2009), naturally had no desire to be eliminated in a heartbreaking Game Seven loss to Vancouver in the first round last year.
But in the big picture, the product of Stavra Lubovna had played a whopping 353 NHL games (regular season and playoffs) going back to 2007-08. Add to that his seven Olympic appearances in 2010 and five more IIHF World Championship games in his native Slovakia earlier this year, and you can see why the man’s body would benefit from a rest.
Top to bottom, the whole Hawks roster is thriving, making an early bid for top spot in the Western Conference. “It’s definitely nice to see,” said Hossa. “It feels like we’re rolling four lines and everybody’s energized in their roles. It just seems like the long summer break helped us.”
Coming into Vancouver, though, Hossa couldn’t help thinking about a tragedy that took place this summer: the September 7 plane crash that claimed the lives of 44 people, wiping out the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Former Slovak national team captain Pavol Demitra was among the victims. For anyone at Rogers Arena, known as Canada Hockey Place during the 2010 Olympics, it’s still hard to believe that the 36-year-old centre is gone after leading those Games in scoring with 10 points, as well as playing his final NHL games for the Canucks in 2009-10.
“First of all, he was one of my closest friends,” Hossa said of Demitra. “We roomed together at Olympics and World Championships. He was my neighbour. I miss him a lot. Just in memory, he’s always with me. I’ve put his number on my skates. It was just a big tragedy, what happened. But he’ll never be forgotten.”
Hossa values his family as well, and it’s no surprise that he’s been keeping tabs on the progress of his brother Marcel with his new KHL club for 2011-12, Spartak Moscow. The 30-year-old, who led the Russian elite circuit with 35 goals in 2009-10, is well off that pace this year.
“They’ve gotten off to a little bit of a slow start, both Marcel and the team,” said Hossa. “However, the national team break helped him. He scored a couple of goals for the national team in the first game [at the Deutschland Cup in Munich]. Anyway, he’s a shooter and he goes to the net hard. He’s going to get some goals. I’m not worried about him.”
Soliciting advice from Frantisek Hossa, the brothers’ father and former head coach of the Slovak national team from 2003 to 2006, is natural for the Blackhawks veteran. He hasn’t forgotten his roots despite possessing a $63-million contract that (at least theoretically) will keep him in the NHL through 2020-21.
“Definitely I keep talking to my dad during the season,” said Hossa. “He was visiting over here and saw a couple of our games. He likes what he’s seen so far, and we’re going to stay in touch.”
Hossa, who was limited to one goal and one assist during his World Championship stint on home ice in Bratislava this spring, doesn’t mince words when discussing Slovakia’s underwhelming tenth-place finish.
“It was a huge disappointment for the players on our team,” Hossa said. “We wanted to accomplish something, but it was really hard to play. It was our first experience playing at home, and we wanted to play for the fans at home. But there was lots of pressure and it was really tough. We didn’t play as well as we would have liked to. But now it’s behind us and it’s a new year.”
And what will become of Slovakia at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia?
“It’s going to be a little change,” Hossa admitted. “Lots of older players will be gone, retiring from the national team. We’re going to see more young players. But we’ll have to see what happens. We’ll need to advance to the Olympics first, and go from there.”