Chicago Blackhawks veteran Marian Hossa is a role model in the locker room, where younger teammates revere him.
"It means I'm older," Hossa said. "I'm just glad I can still play."
His consistency at both ends of the ice helps make the Blackhawks perennial Stanley Cup contenders. The 35-year-old Hossa passed the 1,100-game mark this season. On a team led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Hossa is one of the NHL's best defensive forwards.
"He just flies on the backcheck. There's a lot of guys that skate a lot faster going forward than they do coming back to their own end, and he's not that way," Kane said. "He's so good at stripping the puck. He's also good in these one-on-one battles where more often than not you're going to see him coming away with the puck.
"He doesn't seem to get any older, either. He seems to get better and better each year."
This is Hossa's 16th full NHL season and he remains a key cog for the Blackhawks, who have won the Cup twice in the past five years and visit the Washington Capitals on Thursday in the Winter Classic. Hossa is averaging 0.64 points a game, the lowest since his rookie year with the Ottawa Senators, but his two-way game is responsible for preventing more than a few goals against.
Teammates past and present marvel at what Hossa can do in the defensive zone and without the puck.
"He's got that powerful stride that gets him back in the play easily," said former Blackhawks forward Jeremy Morin, who's now with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "And he can take the puck off your stick with ease. He's so strong on the stick and it's always in the right position. He can steal pucks with the best in the league, for sure."
That, Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad said, is how Hossa turns defence into offence. In 1,127 games, Hossa has 472 goals and 547 assists.
Hossa is 76th on the all-time points list, ahead of Hockey Hall of Famers Pat LaFontaine, Lanny McDonald and Maurice Richard. He's 52nd in goals, ahead of LaFontaine, Doug Gilmour and Pavel Bure, and third among active players.
His career numbers are similar to former Senators teammate Daniel Alfredsson, who retired earlier this month after putting up 426 goals and 682 assists in 1,178 games. But Hossa may be one of the most underrated players in the NHL.
"Maybe I would have more numbers but maybe some other teams wouldn't want me," Hossa said. "There's an advantage and disadvantage with that. Obviously, I'm happy how the outcome played out."
Hossa has two Stanley Cup rings and appeared in the final two other times. A five-time all-star, the Slovak winger with four Olympic appearances has a case for the Hall of Fame, even if it's not easy to quantify.
"I know (from) being around him and still dominating like he does, I think it's his 17th year, he's always been a great player," Saad said. "There's so many little things the guy does, it's incredible."
Hossa still has six seasons left on his contract at a cap hit of $5.2 million, so he likely has plenty of time before the Hall of Fame question even comes up.
Hossa has been fortunate to avoid injuries throughout most of his career. The fewest games he played in a full season was 57 in 2009-10.
Hossa gets some practices off because of his age and experience, but that doesn't seem to detract from his play. Coach Joel Quenneville calls him a "great pro" and a player who reinforces what the staff wants out of the team.
"Defensively and offensively, he's got a great thought process," Quenneville said. "Game in, game out, you use him in all situations. He's a very useful player."
Before joining Chicago, Hossa was more than just a useful player for the Senators, Atlanta Thrashers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
"We definitely know how special of a player he is, whether he gets the recognition or not," Saad said. "It's pretty surreal to see a guy like that still playing and still doing as well as he's doing."