CHICAGO -- The days of strolling into the arena, throwing on his gear and heading straight to the ice are officially gone for Marian Hossa.
The star forward of the Chicago Blackhawks will turn 35 in January and is now dealing with a balky lower-back issue after a career filled with a variety of ailments, including shoulder surgery, a couple of knee injuries and a severe concussion.
Practices and games now come with plenty of prior stretching and other off-ice work that's become necessary to get his body ready.
"I was lucky I didn't have to do it until pretty much this year," Hossa said. "I started stretching a little more the past couple years. Now, because of the different injuries in the past, you've got to take care of your body a little bit better. That means you need to be here a little bit earlier and do all the little things to get you ready for the practices."
In other words, time is starting to catch up with Hossa's body -- primarily because of the abuse it has absorbed in the 16 NHL seasons before this one. Back when he was in his 20s, older players always told him how lucky he was and forewarned of a pending time when he'd be in their situation.
That time has arrived.
"I definitely remember that when I was a young guy," Hossa said, chuckling. "I just came to the dressing room and changed and went straight to the ice and felt good. That doesn't happen anymore. You need to stretch and do all those little things, just like the older guys said before."
The back problem, which caused numbness in his right foot during the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, is more concerning than most normal aches and pains. It was caused by a pinched nerve stemming from a disc problem that flared up during Game 2 against the Boston Bruins. He was a late scratch for Game 3 at TD Garden -- a 2-0 loss that put the Blackhawks behind 2-1 in the series -- but somehow returned to play the remaining three games.
While meeting with reporters to conclude the season a few days later, Hossa said that surgery was one of the options he might have to consider. Instead, he chose rest and rehab during the short offseason. At training camp, the back felt alright initially, but took a turn for the worse after he picked up his effort level during a scrimmage on the team's last day at the University of Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena.
He missed the entire preseason, but hasn't missed any of Chicago's first three games. Despite the possibility of dealing with the back issue all season, Hossa is still comfortable with his choice, which he discussed at length with Blackhawks team physician Dr. Michael Terry, an orthopedic surgeon.
"We talked about these things and surgery, for me, is the last thing [I'll choose]," he said. "That's the last option, because then you have to rehab a long time and you don't feel for a while like yourself. So, I try to avoid it … and I still believe that was a good decision."
His teammates and coaches hope it was too.
Hossa scored 17 goals with 14 assists in 40 games during the 2012-13 season after finishing with 29 goals and 48 assists in 81 games during the 2011-12 campaign. Manning the right wing on Chicago's second line, opposite star forward Patrick Sharp, Hossa still holds a huge role for the Blackhawks.
"It had to be a hard decision [not to get surgery], because he didn't have to make the decision just for his health, but for the club too," veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival said. "We're all hoping that he's going to be fine. It's a back, so you never know. It could be a tough injury, but so far he's doing well."
He's also doing the off-ice work religiously to help limber his body up before practices and games, just like the 35-year-old Rozsival, 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin and 36-year-old Michal Handzus, who centers Hossa's line.
"You have to get here early, you have to warm up, you have to do stuff that you didn't do when you were in your 20s. But that's what all the guys were saying to me when I was younger. ‘You're a lucky guy right now, but it's going to [catch up] to you.' And it always will," said Handzus, who needed offseason surgery to repair a broken wrist. "If you want to play in the NHL in your 30s, you've got to do more and take care of your body."
Hossa has already embraced it. He's in the fifth year of a 12-year contract reportedly worth $63 million and wants to hold up his end of the agreement. Whether the back issue slows his production or not, Hossa isn't dwelling on it.
"Slow me down by not playing in games?" he said. "I don't look at it that way. If that's going to happen, I'll let you know, but I try to stay positive. I look at myself and I'm going to be 35 years old, so I know there's going to be more injuries than when I was younger. I know I have to come a little early and do extra stuff to warm up, but I think at my age lots of guys do. Now, I just catch up to them."
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