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Hossa plays part on star-studded cast

by Larry Wigge
He was just sitting there alone at his locker with a twinkle in his eyes and a big smile on his face, drinking in all of the excitement around him.

For Marian Hossa, the NHL's big free-agent last summer, seeing his Detroit Red Wings gain a 6-4 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 was sort of the first big-game feeling he's had in Detroit. And even though he had 3 assists and five shots and was plus-1 for the game, Hossa is just fine without all the hype of having to be the leading man anymore.

The trio of assists in the Winter Classic gave Hossa 37 points in 37 games this season, second on the Red Wings to Pavel Datsyuk's 42 points. Those are still leading-man numbers, but Hossa is like the movie star who chooses to play a role with a great cast of characters like in "The Magnificent Seven" or "The Dirty Dozen," "Poseidon Adventure" or "Wild Bunch." It's all about blending in -- about being part of a championship group after nine seasons combined in Ottawa, Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

Hossa shocked the hockey world when he signed a one-year, $7.45 million contract with the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings on July 1. He could have gotten more years and more money elsewhere, but decided Detroit offered the best chance for a Stanley Cup.

Hossa is already a 300-goal scorer -- having come into this season with 299 career goals while averaging better than 33 goals during the last nine seasons. He's durable, having missed 22 games in that time span. And even if some questioned his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, he more than answered any doubters about his playoff abilities last spring, with 12 goals and 26 points in 20 games. That ranked third in the NHL behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg.

"Some people say I took a gamble, and maybe I did (by signing with Detroit for just one year, instead of taking a big long-term contract somewhere else.) But this is everything I thought it would be so far. It's everything I wanted," Hossa said. "I'm 29 and the way I look at it, there are four or five years in your prime and my goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Coming to Detroit to a team that can go all the way, this is the kind of situation I've always hoped for."

General managers who have the vision of a champion truly look at building a team like it's an orchestra, where you've got a horn section, drums, violins and that leader out there directing the whole group in beautiful harmony. In Detroit, that's exactly what you have. No one player bigger than the team. And Hossa is proving that there are leading men who can also follow the group, can show the character of wanting to be different -- wanting to be part of the whole.

Hossa told me he has long admired the Red Wings' European puck-possession style, especially playing in front of a mobile, puck-moving defense, getting fed a steady diet of crisp outlet passes from Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart -- the whole cast of characters that make Detroit go.

"It's the best group in the League," Hossa said. "I had the chance to play against them last season and I know how hard it is. They are good defensively, but they can also move the puck as quick as anybody.

"More than that, I look at this as a learning curve. Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg. They've all got great experience at winning, and I'm learning from them. I know expectations are high in Detroit, but those expectations also help you to raise your game to an extremely high level, especially when you are competing with great players. So far, it's been a great ride, we're winning games and that's what's important."

Fitting in? That's an understatement, according to Lidstrom, the Wings' captain.

"He's a very skilled player with the puck, real strong skater, really quick, good at going hard to the net, but the main reason he has fit in with this group so seamlessly is because he works so hard coming back in his own end, too, stripping players from pucks, similar to what Pavel does," Lidstrom said. "We pride ourselves in being a hard-working team. I think that's where he really fits in as well."

For those who may not know all the money that this power forward with a powerful craving to win it all left on the bargaining table last July 1, that he turned down upward of $80 million for one shot at a title with the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.

The options he had included re-signing with the Penguins, for whom he had just finished two wins short of the Cup. Pittsburgh reportedly offered to pay him $35 million over five years. The Montreal Canadiens, the Eastern Conference regular-season champs, as well as the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers also made similar lucrative multiyear offers. And get this -- the Edmonton Oilers reportedly were ready to give Hossa more than $80 million over nine seasons.

Though Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland had talked to Ritch Winter, Hossa's agent, there was little he could do because of his salary-cap numbers particularly those beyond this season trying to fit so many great players under the cap.

A few moments before the Winter Classic, Holland was talking about his team, his potential free agents for this July, which include Zetterberg, Hossa and Johan Franzen and how, in an economy where picking and unloading stocks is like rolling the dice at a casino. But in today's hockey world, it's all about now. Then, he laughed and said, "All I know, Marian Hossa paid us a big compliment by wanting to be with our team."

Red Wings goaltender Ty Conklin played in Pittsburgh with Hossa last season and said of Hossa, "He's a down-to-earth guy. A very modest guy and a hard worker. Those kind of guys fit into any locker room. For the Wings, he's been one of the top players on the ice every night."

"We knew he was good, but especially his skating and his shot stands out," said Tomas Holmstrom. "He's another weapon for us. He's got a sick shot and his first couple of strides -- he's got to be the fastest guy in the league. A great fit."

In last year's Final, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock kept seeing Hossa in the middle of the good things the Penguins did against his team. So he knows how difficult it is for opposing coaches to try to contain him.

"He's just so talented, and he works so hard," Babcock said. "He's good without the puck. When I look at him I see a guy who is so big, and so strong. That's the difference with our other skilled players ... the size. If you are trying to stop him, you've got to be asking, 'What are we going to do with him?' "

The conflict, the drama, the obstacle for Hossa and the Red Wings is, of course, there are no guarantees -- even in Detroit.
But this story is bottom-lined by the commitment from a star player, who some skeptics considered a selfish individual star, to finally get some team rewards, something that hasn't happened for Marian since he was playing junior hockey in Portland and won the Memorial Cup when he was 17.

"You miss that feeling and you want to get it back," Hossa said very seriously. "At first I thought winning was easy. You just do it. But ..."

The seriousness of the conversation turned that twinkle back in Marian's eyes as he continued his thought saying wistfully, "I can imagine going all the way -- that would be something amazing. I was really close last year and hopefully I'll get a chance to win it all this year. This is the most experienced team I've ever been on. I know there are no guarantees, but I have a great feeling about this team."

One more look around the winning locker room. One more smile before Marian Hossa walked away.

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