DETROIT – Last June, Marian Hossa(notes) played for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had 12 goals and 14 assists in the playoffs, a key to their run to the Stanley Cup Finals where they lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.
After the season Hossa was an unrestricted free agent. He was 29 years old and had already been in the NHL a decade. He'd made millions. His chief motivation was to win a Stanley Cup before heading home to his native Slovakia.
He could stay in Pittsburgh and be a star with a young, exciting franchise anchored by Sidney Crosby(notes). The Penguins offered him a long-term deal worth $35 million and the promise of a contender. Then the Edmonton Oilers offered more money, but a less likely path to the title.
The options were tantalizing. Yet Hossa chose neither. He turned down the big, big money and instead took the big, but not as big, one-year, $7 million offer from Detroit – the very team that had just defeated him.
"When I compared the two teams," Hossa said at the time of the Pens-Wings debate, "I felt like I would have a better chance to win the Cup in Detroit."
Well, Hossa is four wins from that elusive Cup; he and the Red Wings finished off Chicago with a 2-1 overtime victory Wednesday to secure the Western Conference championship in five games.
Waiting for him in the Stanley Cup Finals? Pittsburgh.
The Pens are eager for a rematch for the title and eager, perhaps, to show their former teammate that the best chance to win it all was right where he had been. The above quote will, no doubt, be beaten into every Pittsburgh player's head from now until Saturday"s Game 1 here at Joe Louis Arena.
"It is ironic," Hossa smiled Wednesday. "And it is the situation. Back-to-back finals, same teams and I switch teams. But right now I"m with this team and I"m trying to help this team win the Cup."
Hossa isn"t a big talker. He"s a quiet Eastern European still trying to master the nuances of the English language. He didn"t want to say much Wednesday in the victorious Red Wings locker room. He probably never wants to say much.
The original quote says it all though. His faith in Pittsburgh wasn"t strong. The man chose less money and less security to go with Detroit. The only reason is he viewed it as a superior franchise.
I felt like I would have a better chance to win the Cup in Detroit.
He can paint it anyway he wants, can say the nicest things about his old teammates and coaches, he can downplay the decision and shrug off the debate. He can drink an Iron City Beer. But the decision says it all.
He thought the championship grass was greener in Detroit and was willing to take less money to find out.
This wasn"t without merit, of course. Detroit is going for its 12th Stanley Cup and fifth since 1997. Pittsburgh hasn"t won one since Mario Lemieux was the star in the early '90s.
The Red Wings are a well-oiled winning machine, an endless parade of stars and role players who find ways to victory. There are no excuses. There are few slumps. The expectations are high, but no higher than the professionalism of the organization. While the NHL loves to market its stars – in this case Crosby – the Red Wings win because of their system, their front office, their attitude.
Still, all eyes are now on Hossa, everyone wondering if the Penguins will use him as extra motivation, although winning the Cup ought to be enough.
"Being in the Finals is the motivation," Hossa said. "Another chance."
Later, though, he added of the Pens, "obviously those guys are going to be hungry, they have experience from last year."
He knows this is going to be one of the big story lines heading into the Finals. Ironic situations tend to become big stories. Potential revenge is too. The NHL needs a hook and this one is tantalizing. He"s going to get asked repeatedly about it. So, too, will his old buddies in Pittsburgh.
"If he"s mentally tough, there will be no distraction," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "I don"t know why he"d let it be a distraction."
Working in Hossa"s favor is that he was a late-season acquisition for the Pens. He"d spent most of his career in Ottawa and Atlanta. It"s not like Pittsburgh was home. It"s not like he had forged long-term relationships. In just a single season he"s played three times as many games for Detroit.
Still, the choice was the choice. The quote is the quote. Everyone read it.
"With him coming in and saying that, it picked every guy up in the locker room," Samuelsson said.
Now comes the series of reckoning. Hossa gambled correctly on Detroit, he"s back in the Finals, the favored team for the Cup. But waiting is the scorned lover.
"Ironic," he repeated over and over, a big pack of television cameras surrounding him. He kept looking around, unsure of what to say until one of the Red Wings' public relations people ushered him off.
There was nothing to say. The talking is over. Marian Hossa has to show it now.