Marian Hossa is as close to a living legend as the Chicago Blackhawks have in their dressing-room. Younger teammates are eager to call him special and revere him as a role model.
"It means I'm older," Hossa said. "I'm just glad I can still play."
Hossa can still play, and his consistency at both ends of the ice is a piece of what makes the Blackhawks perennial Stanley Cup contenders. He's 35 now and this season passed the 1,100-game mark, but on a team led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Hossa keeps things together as 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 now and as a result is considered a borderline Hall of Famer at best.
"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 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, 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. "I'm not sure exactly the reason, but 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 US$5.275 million, so he likely has plenty of time before the Hall of Fame question even comes up. Judging from his assessment of 1,000 career points that he has been "lucky," Hossa probably isn't all that worried about it.
Truth be told, 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. Despite all that, it's possible he's still under-appreciated.
But not by the Blackhawks.
"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."
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