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Respect, Class and Character

by Bob Verdi

M

arian Hossa and Doug Wilson, former Blackhawks and Hall of Famers forever, elegantly manned different positions during different eras. But they shared a common work ethic, each a commanding presence on the entire rink, with or without the puck. They were venerated by teammates, management, fans and opponents. Neither had a chip on his shoulder, all the better to create room for carrying cohorts through tough patches. They exuded respect, class and character. Both of them cherished a link to Stan Mikita, the soul of the franchise for two decades.

 

What separated Hossa, a power forward, and Wilson, a superior defenseman, was timing.

 

"He put us over the top… the last piece we needed," recalled Patrick Kane, who was 21 when Hossa joined the Blackhawks in 2010. As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. In the 2009 Final, he was with the Red Wings and they lost to the Penguins. Craving a championship, Hossa chose the Blackhawks, and the Blackhawks chose Hossa. The rest, as they say, really is history. Three June parades in six years.

 

"I learned more from losses than wins, but that was fun," said Hossa. "That's what I was missing. I took a picture of the Stanley Cup when I was a kid. Now I got to hold it, lift it."

 

Wilson was not as fortunate. He arrived in Chicago when hockey felt down and out, plenty of good sections available in the Stadium. But not for long. He quarterbacked the Blackhawks through a brilliant stretch during the 1980s before outstanding room only crowds. Alas, the revival coincided with Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty. No rings for Wilson, but no regrets.

 

"A special place and time in my journey," he said. "The Blackhawks, the city, that great old building."

 

Timing. It can be perfect too. There were Hossa and Wilson, years apart on the calendar, but only minutes between their speeches at November's induction in Toronto. Former Blackhawks, Hall of Famers forever.

Chicago's professional teams have signed their fair share of free agents, but Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 say Hossa was the most successful of all, ever. On New Year's Day, 2009, Hossa and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings visited the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in the Winter Classic. Daylight is an extraordinary deodorant, and the young, energetic Blackhawks were emerging from hibernation. Hossa saw a franchise on the rise. Six months later, he joined the Blackhawks for their journey to the top of the mountain.

 

"I'm surprised how quick they chose me," said Hossa, a first-ballot selection. "There are a lot of great names still waiting and they preferred me."

 

Hossa never earned an individual award, though he frequently fared well in voting for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. But if he was stunned by instant Hall induction, he is alone in that department.

 

"He was a complete hockey player," praised Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks' long-serving captain. "He had all the tools and used them all. He was a generational talent, kind of like that older, experienced guy who all of us young guys looked up to. He never seemed to get rattled or frustrated. He was the same calm guy every day with a great work ethic. A special teammate. I played on a line with him for a while. It was fun and easy to play with him. He supported you in every way. He was intense on the ice, but easy going off the ice. A great person and teammate. Total professional."

 

In Chicago, and wherever he played before, Hossa manifested a rare skillset complemented by a lunch bucket mindset. Ask any of the Blackhawks during his era and they all will say how they loved to be on his line. Hossa played without ego, and despite his lofty status within the room, he required zero maintenance. Ask Eddie Olczyk, the Blackhawks' and NHL's lead TV analyst, and he'll tell you that Hossa could have padded his statistics -- 525 goals, 609 assists -- were he not so selfless.

 

"Hoss probably could have scored 250 or 500 more points in his career if he chose to conserve more energy on the defensive side and err on the side of aggression," said Eddie O. "He could have easily added another 20 points a season if he was wired a different way. He comes to Chicago, and they win it all in 2010, then again in 2013 and 2015. He solidified everything. He was the guy who really brought it all together for the Blackhawks."

Indeed, opponents had almost no chance of separating the puck from Hossa, who protected it as if it were a family member. He was a rock on skates as unofficial chairman of the boards, adept at cradling the puck with one hand on his stick while shielding the puck with his other hand. Tough to teach that, tougher to learn that. But after being selected by the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 1997 draft as a prospective sniper, Hossa rapidly absorbed the joy of patrolling the entire rink.

 

"I got hooked on the NHL as a kid watching Wayne Gretzky on TV in the middle of the night back home," said Hossa, referencing his childhood in what is now Slovakia. "But we also got the Bulls and Michael Jordan winning all those titles. He not only beat the other teams by making baskets, he beat you any way he could. I liked the way he came back to play defense on the court. Whatever it took to win it, he did it.

 

"Hockey can be like that. Some nights, the bounces aren't going your way, or you might not feel like you have the legs. Scoring goals or passing for an assist is fun, but so is the other part of the game. Stripping the puck from a guy on the other team can be as important as playing offense in some situations, and that's fun, too. Takeaways are nice. You can get as much satisfaction and contribute to your team, by taking the puck away in your end as you can by making a play in their end."

 

Hossa's speech on his landmark night included a mention of "the biggest goal of my career." In Game 5 of the 2010 Conference Quarterfinals against the Nashville Predators at the United Center, Hossa scored in overtime to afford the Blackhawks a 5-4 triumph and a 3-2 series lead. Hossa had just served the "longest five minutes in my life" for a major penalty.

 

As Hossa spoke, wife Jana with daughters Zoja and Mia looked on in the front row. He thanked Blackhawks' Chairman Rocky Wirtz, acknowledged the presence in Toronto of CEO Danny Wirtz, President of Business Operations Jaime Faulkner and Kyle Davidson, interim general manager. By name, Hossa then expressed appreciation for coaches, trainers, doctors and equipment staffers whom he befriended with the Blackhawks. He failed to salute ushers at the United Center, probably because inductees were asked to keep it reasonably brief at the podium.

 

Mikita, born in Czechoslovakia, debuted for the Blackhawks in 1958, eons before globalization enriched the NHL; Peter Stastny was a second native Hall of Famer; now Hossa, after 19 years of NHL consistency, including a remarkable 205 playoff games.

 

"Three of us… this is a huge deal back home," he said. Hossa was a huge deal in Chicago, too.

Trying to draw Wilson into any discussion of why it took so long for the Hall to call is a waste of time. Rather, he takes the high road, where there's always less traffic.

 

"(Wife) Kathy, the rock of our family, and I have four children and six grandchildren," he said. "The grandchildren are all so young. If this had happened before, I would never have been able to share it with them. For me to be considered, even mentioned in this category, is beyond any of the dreams I might have had when I started playing this game. I was not expecting this. I'm probably more excited for my family and a kaleidoscope of people who have been so good to me and supported me. It's a privilege to play in this league around so many good people.

 

"It's humbling. I never really thought about the Hall of Fame, to be honest about it. When you come into the NHL, that's not what you think about. You think about staying in the moment. This just came out of left field. In Chicago, Stan Mikita was like my second father after my real father, Doug, passed away too young. He was 52. I wish they were still with us. I check into the old Bismarck Hotel when I was 19, I look over and my roommate is Stan Mikita. I'm thinking, 'this can't be real.'

 

"Stan had this saying: 'You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.' I had so much support along the way. Starting with my coach in juniors with the Ottawa 67s, in my hometown, Brian Kilrea. Then so many people in Chicago. Keith Magnuson was always there for me, as a teammate and mentor. I wish he was with us now. Same with Tony Esposito. He always had time for me, giving me advice, showing me the way. How to be a pro. How to prepare.

 

"I was also fortunate to have an older brother like Murray, probably the best big brother you could ever have. He won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and shared a lot of experiences with me. So I have him as support, and then I get to hang out with Stan Mikita. Incredible. He would do anything to help me along. Well, almost anything. Stan ate his steaks raw. So, no, he never cooked for me."

Way back when Denis Savard was drafted by the Blackhawks as the third overall draft choice in 1980, then team President Bill Wirtz volunteered that this flying Frenchman "saved our franchise." But Savard would be the first to convey that he did not re-fill all those Stadium seats by himself. On the Blackhawks' blue line was Wilson, a sthenic first-round selection in 1977. The incomparable Bobby Orr, who joined the Blackhawks the previous year as a player before moving to the front office, was a witness.

 

"I watched him as a kid with so much talent who matured into a great player and became part of lifting the Blackhawks out of a difficult time," said Orr. "He was a big part of the Blackhawks' revival during the 1980s, when the building was packed again. He was a special player, a terrific defenseman. And he was a great team guy, a leader in his own way. Then there's the other side. Doug off the ice, as an ambassador for the game, contributing to hockey, beside all his numbers."

 

Ah, the numbers. Always without a helmet, Wilson registered 225 goals and 554 assists with the Blackhawks. No defenseman in franchise history has produced more than he. Nobody is even close, not Duncan Keith, not Pierre Pilote. Wilson booked 39 goals in 1981-82, when he won the Norris Trophy. Only two defensemen in NHL history have scored more in one season, Paul Coffey and Orr. Wilson retired in 1993, yet he still ranks within the top 15 defensemen all-time in the NHL for points. Savard accepted many a Wilson pass, on the tape, through traffic. But that's only about half the story.

 

"As great as he was offensively, Willy was just as good in his end," said Savard, a Blackhawks' Hall of Fame ambassador. "I can count the times he got caught on one hand. The statistics tell you how unbelievable he was with the puck, but he was just as good without it."

 

Esposito, a 1988 Hall of Fame inductee, had a front row perch as goalie for the Blackhawks.

 

"Doug was the best defenseman I ever played with," said Esposito upon hearing of Wilson's selection to the Hall in June 2020. "I loved playing behind Doug. He was strong and steady and smart. He never got us into trouble, and if he was a step behind on rare occasion, he was so fast and quick that he would be right there when it counted. And he didn't take any guff. Look at his penalty minutes (830 career). He was gifted offensively, yes, but he wasn't just out there skating around, looking for points. And what a shot! Heavy, accurate, a rocket. And he played in every situation. Even strength, penalty kill, power play. Complete player. He and Bob Murray were our top pair for quite a while, and they were terrific."

 

In 1991, Wilson became the first captain of the expansion San Jose Sharks. Since 2003, Wilson has been their highly successful general manager. Before Wilson's induction as a player, Savard theorized that Wilson could enter the Hall as a Builder, along with Arthur and Bill Wirtz, among several Blackhawk executives.

 

"Maybe one reason Willy had to wait so long is that he never won a Stanley Cup," Savard went on. "I don't understand that. When he was playing, he was right there with the best at his position, along with Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque. For a while when we were together in Chicago, we felt we had the second-best team in the league. But we were up against Gretzky and the Oilers. At any one time, they could put six future Hall of Famers on the ice."

 

Make that seven. In Wilson's Class of 2020, waiting to address the gathering at November's induction ceremony, was Kevin Lowe, who won five Cups with the Oilers in seven years while the Blackhawks challenged. There's that timing thing again.

 

This story originally appeared in the 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks Yearbook. To view the full Yearbook, click here.