Former Winter Hawk Marian Hossa makes big impression on NHL

Marian Hossa had to miss what would have been his third straight NHL All-Star Game appearance last month in St. Paul, Minn. The Ottawa star right wing had taken a puck to the noggin in the Senators' previous game, opening a gash that required nine stitches to close.

Hossa elected to sit out the All-Star Game to heal.

Does it mean the end of a modeling career?

'I think it will help it,' Hossa jokes. 'The girls seem to like the scar.'

That Hossa can kid around in English Ñ he now also can converse in French in addition to his native Slovakian Ñ indicates how far he's come from his time as a junior with the Winter Hawks during the 1997-98 season.

Hossa's English was limited during that unforgettable season in Portland, but his game spoke volumes as he helped the Hawks to the Memorial Cup championship.

Now Hossa, 25, is becoming one of hockey's true great players.

The 6-1, 210-pound Hossa leads Ottawa with 29 goals and 70 points, ranking seventh in the NHL in scoring and ninth in goals scored. He is a major reason the Senators (35-17-9), in a heated battle with Toronto and Boston for the Northeast Division title, have steadily improved their lot as a contender for the Stanley Cup in the past five years.

Last season, he led the Senators with 45 goals and 80 points and is nearing his fourth straight 30-goal season.

Some observers believe he's capable of much more.

'People ask me about scoring 50 goals, about leading the league in scoring,' Hossa says. 'That would be nice, but it is something I try not to think about. You go out, play hard, do what you can to help your team win, and those things will come naturally.'

The Winter Hawks have never had a more natural goal-scorer at his size than Hossa, who played with the likes of Todd Robinson, Brenden Morrow, Andrew Ference, Joey Tetarenko and Brent Belecki to field a team that ruled all of junior hockey in 1998.

'We have had players who come close in scoring ability, but they were smaller Ñ Randy Heath and Ken Yaremchuk and Ray Ferraro,' says Portland General Manager Ken Hodge. 'Up (in the NHL), the game is a little bit difficult for the small man to play. Marian was good-sized then Ñ his legs were always massive Ñ and has built himself up into a tremendous physical specimen.

'I remember he came back to watch his brother (Marcel) play one time, and just the change in his physical presence was staggering. There was an aura about him. You could feel it and see it, the work he put in to make himself strong and fast.'

Hossa's junior career ended on a bittersweet note Ñ with a serious knee injury that kept him on the bench during the latter stages of the Hawks' 4-3 overtime victory over Guelph in the Memorial Cup final. Those at the scene in Spokane will never forget the tears Ñ perhaps out of both joy and disappointment Ñ shed by Hossa as he was carried around the ice by celebrating teammates.

Many experts anointed the Senators as potential champions this year, which worked against them, Hossa contends.

'When opponents came to the arena, they were ready for us every night,' he says. 'We lost quite a few games early. We had to learn how to deal with that. After December, we turned things around and started playing like we can.'

Hossa retains the natural modesty he had during his days in Portland. Asked how his season is going, he pauses.

'It is tough to talk about myself,' he says. 'My goal is to play the team game, play both ends of the ice and try to help us win. We have a team that is capable of winning the (Stanley Cup) title. The immediate goal is to win the division; then we will see.'

With the collective-bargaining agreement set to expire in September and negotiations stalled, a potential lockout of NHL players looms for next season. A report by the league indicates that teams lost $273 million last season and that 19 of the 30 teams lost money.

'That is what they say,' Hossa says. 'I'm going to leave that on them. I understand what is going on. I am concerned about the possibility of a lockout. We all are. We will be prepared for it if it comes. If we don't have a season, I will play somewhere in Europe next year. I won't go without hockey.'

Hossa retains warm memories of his season in Portland.

'Can I say hi to some people in your paper?' he asks. He mentions Rich and Linda Donaldson, his billets during his season with the Hawks. And coach Mike Williamson and trainer Innes Mackey.

'I was sent down to Portland by Ottawa early that season, and I was disappointed at first,' Hossa says. 'It turned out to be a great year. It prepared me beautifully for the National Hockey League. I don't mean just hockey Ñ my language, my lifestyle. É I learned how to live and play the system.

'Everything came easy when I went to Ottawa. It made my transition so much easier. I am very thankful for my time in Portland.'

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