AFEW HOURS intothe NHL free-agent season on July 1, Marian Hossa, the exceptionally talented29-year-old winger and cream of this year's free-agent crop, had some options.The Penguins, for whom he had just completed a luminous postseason that endedtwo wins short of the Stanley Cup, had offered to pay him $35 million over fiveyears. The Canadiens, the Eastern Conference regular-season champs, had alsopresented a lucrative multiyear deal, as had the Wild and the Rangers. TheOilers were ready to give Hossa more than $80 million over nine seasons. "Ithought about it all for a while, and then I called my agent," says Hossa,who was coming off a three-year, $18 million contract and was at his home inwestern Slovakia. "I told him, 'Let's go with the Red Wings.'"
Cup championDetroit had made an offer, too—though, hamstrung by salary-cap issuessurrounding its star-laden roster, it was essentially a rhetorical one, wellbelow the deals that might have kept Hossas in tall cotton for generations."Sure, Hossa was on our wish list," says Red Wings coach Mike Babcock."In our fantasyland." General manager Ken Holland acknowledges he was"stunned" when, upon answering his cellphone on the morning of July 2,he heard Rich Winter, Hossa's representative, say he wanted to work somethingout. A few hours later Hossa was bound for Detroit. The terms: one year, $7.45million, the same salary, but expressly no more, than what Red Wings captainNicklas Lidstrom earns.
"Hossa beinghere is a compliment to us; it's an honor," says Holland. "This was allhim. He's here because he was determined to be a Red Wing."
Indeed, asHossa's impending free agency loomed, he wrote a list of qualities he sought inhis next employer. He wanted a respected, stable organization (Detroit, anOriginal Six franchise, has had largely the same management team since theearly 1990s); he hoped to be around outstanding veteran players he could learnfrom ("like Lidstrom and [Chris] Chelios," Hossa says of Detroit'sfuture Hall of Fame defensemen); and he thought it might be nice to have aSlovakian pal on the team (Wings third-liner Tomas Kopecky lives minutes fromHossa back home; "When we'd work out together," says Kopecky, "I'dsay to him, 'Come to Detroit! Come!'"). But of all his criteria, Hossasays, one superseded the rest: "I wanted to win the Stanley Cup."
HOSSA GREW up inTrencin, a city of some 55,000 people that was founded in the valley of theRiver Vah at the beginning of the second millennium. A fortified Roman castle,dating to the 11th century, remains perched on a cliff overlooking the city.The hockey's good there. Hossa's father, Frantisek, played in the Czechoslovakleague and later coached the Slovakian national team in the 2006 Olympics. Heput Marian and his younger son, Marcel, on skates shortly after they couldstand. As Marian's mother, Marika, has said, "Hockey always came first,before everything else." (Marcel, an NHL forward for the past six seasons,is now playing in Russia.)
Competition iskeen in Trencin, a region that has also yielded current NHL stars Zdeno Charaand Marian Gaborik, among others. Young players dream of winning the SlovakExtraliga title—the championship of the country's top professional league—whichMarian Hossa did at age 17 with HC Dukla Trencin. Yet even in his medieval citythe NHL's chalice has a hold. "It was raining the day I had the Stanley Cupin the square [in nearby Bratislava]," says Kopecky, who drank locally madetripe soup from it. "Really raining, with thunder. And there were still3,000 people there. I know Marian wants to bring that feeling hometoo."
Hossa says thatsince winning the Extraliga title, being drafted at No. 12 by Ottawa in 1997and winning the Memorial Cup with the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks, he has had"a big hole" in his career. His six-plus seasons with Ottawa andtwo-plus with Atlanta before being dealt to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline onFeb. 26, produced four NHL All-Star Game appearances, 299 goals and 648 points,but only the one trip to the finals, last spring. "At first I thoughtwinning was easy; you just do it," says Hossa. "You don't realize howhard that is, and how much you want that feeling—of your teammates being allaround you, and you're with them and you've won this trophy—until you've had itand then you don't."
FOR ALL theriches that were to be lavished upon him, his compelling statistics and theimmensity of his skills, Hossa is still viewed by some league evaluators as acomplementary star, a rung below the league's elite. His gifts areunquestioned: great speed, formidable strength (he's thickly built at 6'1"and 210 pounds) and a release so quick and deceptive that Babcock describes itsimply by letting out a low whistle. Yet Hossa could never elevate the loaded,usually favored Senators in the playoffs, and his only exceptionalpostseason—his 26 points in 20 games for Pittsburgh last spring included theovertime goal that eliminated the Rangers in the second round—came while he wasplaying on Sidney Crosby's wing.
In choosingDetroit, Hossa spurned not only a bigger payday but also a Penguins team thatincludes Crosby—the captain ran into Hossa after the season and asked him tostay—22-year-old scoring star Evgeni Malkin and enough other young talent that,even without Hossa, could keep Pittsburgh in contention for years. Instead,Hossa joins the NHL's deepest team and, with Pavel Datsyuk and HenrikZetterberg, gives the Red Wings three of the league's top forwards.
Other playershave accepted less in recent years to play for Detroit. Lidstrom's contractputs him several million short of what he could earn under the league'ssingle-player cap, at once freeing funds for other stars and imposing a valuesystem. Forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary and defenseman Brad Stuart haveall sacrificed pay to be on a winning team that plays an appealing,high-energy, puck-possession style. Still, none of those players were resistingthe lure of tens of millions (or the courting by Crosby); Hossa's doing so mayhelp him, as a 20-minute-a-game player, ease into a veteran and exceptionallyclose-knit locker room. "Of course guys notice what he was willing to do tobe here," says defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "Does it make us quicker towelcome him? Maybe it does."
What Hossa lefton the table may still await him—next year, after all, he will be a free agentagain—yet he knows well that in a moment an NHL future can become a past.During a game in March 2000 Hossa, following through on a missed shot, caughtMaple Leafs star defenseman Bryan Berard in the right eye, blinding him. Theincident haunts Hossa still. Berard returned to the NHL one season later, buthe is a marginal player who makes a fraction of what he might have earned."I know [the contract] is a gamble," said Hossa in the Red Wings'dressing room last month, symbolically knocking wood with a rap to hisforehead. "The first thing my father said when I told him about [thecontract] was, 'Why so short?' But I made the right decision. I've known thatsince I lay in bed that night."
Now Hossa liesdown each night in Royal Oak, a chic suburb of Detroit, where his girlfriend,Jana Ferova, a student in Slovakia, often visits. On Sept. 18, the morningafter Hossa's first night in his new place, Red Wings players were having avoluntary skate at Joe Louis Arena. Hossa was about to leave his apartment whenhe stopped. "I had to go back and look up the address on the Internet. ThenI put it into my navigation system," he said that morning, laughing. "Iwas not going to get lost. I really wanted to be here."
"Of course guys notice what he was willing to doto be here," says Kronwall. "Does it make us quicker to WELCOME HIM?Maybe it does."
Photograph by Peter Gregoire
BANNER YEAR? With his speed, strength and quick release, Hossa, 29, has put up big numbers but reached only one finals.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO
UNDER THEIR WING By joining the NHL's most experienced team, Hossa figures he can still learn from the likes of Chelios.