<
>

Marian Hossa's journey to 500 goals included several almosts -- and then he hit the jackpot

The little restaurant in Trencin, Slovakia, is long gone, but Marshall Johnston remembers it fondly. It was the typical Slovakian joint -- good food, better beer.

Johnston would hang out between practices near the local rink and it was there he remembers noticing Marian Hossa for the first time.

Johnston knew Marian's dad, Frantisek, well. Frantisek was the coach of some kids Johnston was scouting in those days as the director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators.

Johnston liked Frantisek. In him, he saw a solid former hockey player. He saw a really good coach and someone he knew was providing a strong support system for his boys. All of those things matter to a scout.

So he started to notice when Frantisek's son Marian would get out of school in the afternoon and make the walk past the restaurant, over to the local rink. He'd watch him practice. It was his first exposure to the future NHL star, a player he tracked closely from there.

By the time Marian Hossa was eligible to be drafted in 1997, Johnston knew he had to have him.

"Marshall Johnston fell in love with Marian," said New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero, who was in the Senators organization at the time.

It was a love nearly every other scout or coach who got to know Hossa well in the next two decades would replicate.

In 1997, the Senators were picking No. 12 overall in the first round. Pierre Gauthier was the Ottawa GM at the time and conducted reconnaissance work among his colleagues in the NHL. On the eve of the draft, he was convinced Hossa would be available.

"Marshall said, 'Pierre, if he's there at 12, I'm going to fall right out of my f------ chair,'" Shero said.

Hossa was there.

Johnston and the Senators got their man, the best pick in the 1997 draft. Years of scouting and hard work paid off. The hard part was over -- landing a franchise-changing talent in Hossa outside the top 10.

Keeping him? That turned out to be the real problem for the Senators and a number of other teams over the course of Hossa's NHL career.

On Tuesday, Hossa scored the 500th goal of his career, slipping a power-play goal through the legs of Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth. The career milestone is an opportunity to again appreciate just how good Hossa has been for the Chicago Blackhawks, how monumental a part of their Stanley Cup dynasty he has been since signing there in 2009.

"I never thought I would one day play 1,000 games or reach 500 goals or get to 1,000 points. That was something I never thought about. If somebody would tell me that, I would say, 'Yeah, right. You're crazy.'"
Marian Hossa

It's another reminder of just how much this NHL journey has exceeded the expectations of the kid from Slovakia who was just trying to make it to the NHL and latch on as long as possible.

"I never thought I would one day play 1,000 games or reach 500 goals or get to 1,000 points," Hossa said during a phone conversation before he hit the milestone. "That was something I never thought about. If somebody would tell me that, I would say, 'Yeah, right. You're crazy.'"

And yet, here we are.

Hossa has three Stanley Cup rings and has played in over 1,200 games. He's the 44th person in NHL history to reach 500 goals.

He has also become one of the best what-if stories of his generation.

The Blackhawks are the beneficiary of Hossa picking Chicago as the place where he wanted to spend the majority of his career when he signed a 12-year contract with the Blackhawks on July 2, 2009.

But before Chicago, there were four other organizations that had him for a tantalizingly short period of time and couldn't hang on.

Starting with Ottawa.

Hossa's focus early on in his career was scoring goals. He wasn't quite the two-way workhorse he is today, although for a 40-goal scorer he was still pretty darn responsible.

"I was strictly offensive in Ottawa," he said. "But Jacques Martin liked to play a defensive style, so I had to learn while still focusing on offense."

With the Senators, Hossa had four 30-goal seasons and scored a career-high 45 goals as a 24-year-old in 2002-03. He was part of a young group in Ottawa that included Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara, Mike Fisher and Martin Havlat and looked like it was becoming an NHL powerhouse.

In 2005, Hossa signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Senators to avoid arbitration, but it was more than the Senators were willing to pay. Shortly after signing the deal, he was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers.

"If the number wasn't going to be manageable for us because we were a budget team, we had to look at moving him," said Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who handled that arbitration case as a young assistant GM in Ottawa. "I wouldn't characterize the negotiations as contentious, but they were getting up there from an affordability viewpoint. That's when you have to look at the other option."

The most appealing other option was a trade to an Atlanta team that was honoring a trade request from its young star Dany Heatley.

"When I talked to Marian, he was shocked," said Don Waddell, the Thrashers GM at the time. "Absolutely shocked. He wasn't mad at us. He was disappointed with how it went down with Ottawa."

Hossa had just bought a house in a city in which he thought he'd be trying to win Stanley Cups for the next several years. And the repercussions of that decision still haunt Ottawa.

What if the Senators kept Hossa? What if Hossa then convinced Chara to stay? How many Stanley Cups would have ended up in Ottawa?

For Hossa, it was on to his next challenge.

That next challenge was playing on a developing Thrashers team while rounding out his game beyond that of a goal-scoring winger. Hossa credits the coaching of Bob Hartley in further developing his defensive game, one that got to be so good that the late Brad McCrimmon observed at the time that Hossa had become the best player in the NHL from one goal line to the other.

"In Atlanta, Bob Hartley was demanding," Hossa said. "If you played well, he'd play you 25 minutes as a forward. I tried to play more both ways and he played so many minutes out of me. That definitely helped me mature."

In his second season with the Thrashers, Hossa scored 43 goals. He averaged 21:41 of ice time per game, a total that would have led all forwards last season by a full minute. Most impressively, he got the former expansion team into the playoffs for the first and only time in Thrashers history.

The next season, the organization thought it had a contract extension in place with Hossa and his then-agent. It was a five-year deal that would have eventually stretched right into the franchise's existence in Winnipeg.

Then came a call to Waddell from Ritch Winter, Hossa's new agent. You don't bring in a new agent to finalize a deal at the verge of completion, so the handwriting was on the wall: For the first time in his career, Hossa was going to test unrestricted free agency. For the second time, he was going to be traded.

"Worst thing I had to do was trade Marian Hossa," Waddell said.

And it nearly didn't happen.

At the 2008 trade deadline, the Thrashers were playing in Montreal and a deal was close that would have sent Hossa to the Montreal Canadiens. But in the final hours, it died -- and Shero, the Pittsburgh Penguins GM at the time, got a call that changed the complexion of their trade deadline.

Shero estimates that the call from Waddell came with about an hour left before the deadline expired, and the two sides started banging out the details.

With about five minutes left to consummate the deal, Shero had another GM on hold with a softer deal he was ready to do as a backup. He had Waddell on the main line and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux on his cell phone to get him to sign off on a blockbuster that would send Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick to Atlanta for Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.

"I told Mario. 'It's a risk. He could leave,'" Shero said in pitching the deal to his owner. "He said, 'I'm a risk-taker.'"

The deal was done. The fortunes of a few franchises altered. Does Montreal make it past the semifinals with Hossa on that team? Does the future of the Thrashers franchise change if Hossa stays and the team enjoys more success?

More what-ifs.

For Hossa, it was on to his next challenge.

Hossa and the young Penguins surprised the Eastern Conference by finding their way to the Stanley Cup finals that spring against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. Hossa had 26 points in 20 playoff games, providing a veteran presence for a young forward group that featured 20-year-old Sidney Crosby and 21-year-old Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins didn't win the Cup -- they stretched the Red Wings to six games -- but they found the guy they wanted on the wing of their two star centers for the next decade.

"[He's one] of best teammates I ever played with," Malkin said. "He's a very good guy. He speaks a little Russian. He understands. He's a top player. He works every shift. We all wanted him to stay."

Shero wanted him, too. Bad enough that he asked Crosby to do a little recruiting when he found out the two were vacationing at the same place in the Bahamas.

When the recruiting session was done, Crosby thought he had Hossa. There was a five-year deal on the table worth $7 million per season.

"I was looking forward to playing with him again," Crosby told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that summer. "It was just a matter of how long was he going to sign for."

What if they did? Would they have more Stanley Cups than the ones they earned in 2009 and 2016? Would it be Crosby and Hossa with three Cups instead of Jonathan Toews and Hossa? Would Shero and Dan Bylsma still be running the show in Pittsburgh?

For Hossa, it was on to the next challenge.

He had rounded out his game in Atlanta. He had played for a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. Now, he wanted to learn how to win from an organization that had done more of it during that time than any other.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland was pumping gas at the start of free agency in 2008 when he saw Winter's name appear on his cell phone. He was standing near a sign that warned against cell phone use, so he ducked down and answered.

"I have the deal of the century for you," Holland remembers Winter saying. "Marian Hossa wants to be a Wing."

And he wanted to do it on a one-year deal. The only hang-up was that the salary was higher than Nicklas Lidstrom was earning, so Holland wanted to make sure it was fine with his captain. Winter told Holland to hold off on calling Lidstrom.

Thirty minutes later, Winter called Holland again.

"Ken, I have a better deal for you," Winter said. "He doesn't want to make more than Nick Lidstrom."

Holland shakes his head in retelling the story.

"He was negotiating down," Holland said, laughing.

The best free agent on the market just fell out of the sky to the defending Stanley Cup champs. From the outside, it looked like a player trying to cherry-pick a Stanley Cup. Winter said that wasn't the case at all.

"Going to Detroit and playing with Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg -- learning, seeing the way they prepare, that was the cake," Winter said. "That's what he went to eat. The icing would have been winning the Cup."

Hossa, as we know now, fell just short in a seven-game thriller against the Penguins team he had left.

After the loss in the finals, Holland met with Red Wings owners Mike Ilitch to see if he had the stomach for one more lifetime contract to join Zetterberg and Johan Franzen's long-term deals. Ilitch signed off on the idea and in June, the Red Wings offered Hossa a 12-year contract worth around $4.5 million per season.

Hossa declined.

"He wanted the ability to look around. I said, 'You know what? You gave me a hell of a deal, I have to return the favor,'" Holland said.

He gave Hossa and Winter permission to start talking to other teams.

What if Hossa agrees to that deal? Do the Red Wings win another Cup before Lidstrom retires, or even after?

For Hossa, it was on to the next challenge.

He had been impressed with the talented, young Blackhawks that the Red Wings faced in the Western Conference finals that year, and then-Chicago GM Dale Tallon was the first to call.

"They gave me this offer and there was really strong potential. I just loved the organization. Original Six team and a great city," Hossa said.

Hossa was considering another offer as seriously -- one from the Tampa Bay Lightning. They had a kid named Steven Stamkos, who looked like he had potential. They had just drafted a 6-foot-6 Swede named Victor Hedman, who also looked like the real deal. It wasn't an easy call.

What if Tampa's ownership situation at the time hadn't scared Hossa off? Would Stamkos have a Stanley Cup on his résumé?

For Hossa, Chicago ultimately was too good to pass up.

His moving from team to team was over.

"He didn't take that decision very lightly and I appreciated that from him," Tallon said. "We felt that he was the guy who would put us over the top because of his ability and because of his professionalism and his passion. And he was a world-class person. Not only a great player but a world-class person."

After digging an 0-2 hole in Stanley Cup finals appearances, Hossa is now 3-2. He has taken all that he learned along the way and helped Chicago become the dominant team of its era. Along the way, he has earned the respect of those around the league, including some, like Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who have Hossa memories they would probably like to forget.

"Marian Hossa is the ultimate pro," Trotz said. "He doesn't get enough respect. He's one of the most complete players. For him to score 500 goals, as a coach who saw him play 17 years close and personal in big moments, big moments that have hurt us, he has been one of the most complete players under the radar for a long, long time. There's no flash in his game. Just a ton of substance."

There are no what-ifs for Hossa in Chicago, only a long line of accomplishments. At 37, he has three Stanley Cups and 149 points in 201 playoff games. He has 500 regular-season goals. One day, he'll find a home in the Hall of Fame.

It just took finding the right place to make it happen, a place that will be forever changed by the decisions that shaped Hossa's career. A place in which he has left a legacy that goes beyond a milestone.

"It's not about how many goals he scores," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. "It's how he plays the game. Hopefully these guys will take it in and pass it down."