CHICAGO – So here Marian Hossa stands, once again, on the brink. Here he is, for the third time, on the cusp of immortality. Here he is, yet again, on the edge of unspeakable frustration. Wednesday night, in Philadelphia, Hossa will play a game with the Stanley Cup in the building. It will be the fourth time in three years.
Every child who puts on skates dreams of this, but no one concocts the nightmare of watching the Cup emerge twice from the dressing room only to float above the happy faces of the people who beat you. After losing the Cup in Pittsburgh to Detroit in 2008, then losing the Cup in Detroit to Pittsburgh in 2009, Hossa has earned himself two more chances this week with the Blackhawks. He is the first NHL player ever to be on the verge of a Cup win in three straight years with three different teams. He is, in one sense, incredibly lucky. Most hockey players – even professional hockey players – never see the Stanley Cup Finals at all. Hossa has played 18 Finals games, and counting, in three years.
But he has to know, on some level, Games 6 and 7 are two more chances to become the most tortured soul in Stanley Cup Finals history.
“The night before a Cup-clinching game,” says three-time Cup winner Brendan Shanahan, “is one of the greatest of all tests. It’s forcing yourself to relax. It’s OK to get up for a game…It’s falling asleep the night before that’s so hard.”
Having gone through this over and over again, Hossa looks both exhausted and possessed. He came out in Sunday’s Game 5 like a whirlwind – laying a crushing forecheck and setting up new linemate Jonathan Toews with a beautiful pass. The entire Blackhawks team played with extreme intensity on Sunday, but no one was more urgent than Hossa. That’s the lesson he’s learned in the hardest of ways.
“What I’ve learned the past two years is the momentum of the first shift is so important,” he said after Game 5, staring straight ahead as if Game 6 was a few feet in front of him. “The first goal is so important.”
Hossa knows this because all four nights he had a shot at winning the Cup, his teams came out a little bit flat. The Penguins, two years ago, were overwhelmed and outmatched. They were young. The Red Wings, last year, were flat-footed and beat up. They were old. Hossa, remarkably, was the perfect fit in both places. He was the steady veteran in Pittsburgh. He was the flashy goal-scorer in Detroit. He was exactly what both teams needed.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Hockey’s version of Job has always been the right person in the wrong place. He effectively ended Bryan Berard’s career in a freak accident in 2000, when one of his follow-throughs clipped the Maple Leafs star in the eye. Hossa was rattled, but handled it with quiet class, visiting Berard in the hospital and pledging deep contrition. A lesser man would have been spooked for life. Hossa soldiered on.
He found himself in another tough spot after the Cup loss in Pittsburgh. He was an unrestricted free agent, and turned down extra money in Edmonton and extra job security in Pittsburgh to go to Detroit on a one-year deal and try to win a Cup. Penguins fans hated him for it, but how many pro athletes turn down long-term wealth for a shot to win a title? Not many.
Hossa picked the wrong horse. But he didn’t bristle when asked if he had any regrets. He said he wanted to stay in Detroit. He wasn’t some end-of-career carpetbagger, trying to hop on a freight train to destiny. He wanted to win, and he wanted a home. That’s pretty much what every athlete wants.
Maybe now he’s found it. Standing outside the United Center before Game 5. a man named Pat Roach wore a Hossa jersey. It’s surprising how many No. 81s roam the concourse here, seeing that Hossa just joined the ’Hawks and he isn’t the flashy teen or the burly tough. It’s no small feat to be loved right away in Chicago after being loved right away in Detroit. Roach picked Hossa’s number because he sees him around a lot at Navy Pier. The two are basically neighbors there. Roach has even worked out with Hossa on occasion. “All he talks about,” Roach says, “is how much he loves Chicago.”
See, this isn’t some heroic journey from spoiled showboat to humbled graybeard. Hossa has been hard-working and appreciative his entire career. He’s 31 now, but he’s always been an old soul. “I have so much respect for him,” says teammate John Madden, one of the few Blackhawks with a ring. “Wow…he goes at it every shift.” So many older players wish they had another chance at youth, so they would be able to put more importance on every game. Hossa’s not like that. In his goal celebrations in these playoffs, with both fists upper-cutting the sky, he’s looked less like a millionaire posing and more like Andy Dufresne in the climactic scene of The Shawshank Redemption.
Hossa’s still in that prison – still whittling away. He’s not feeling sorry for himself; he’s working. Still, how does he get through the next two nights knowing the Cup will be in the building with him yet again? How does he remember he’s chasing the Cup when it must seem like the Cup is taunting him?
The reassuring thing – and the maddening thing – is that Hossa already knows how to do this. He knows how to be prepared, how to press, how to make the big play. He can only do what he’s always done and hope this time, finally, it works.
“This is going to be the toughest game,” said Hossa after Game 5. He means the toughest game of the series. He means the toughest game of the season. He means the toughest game of his life. Nobody has to tell Marian Hossa how close he is.
And nobody has to tell him how far away.