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posted: 3/3/2013 5:30 AM

Verdi: Like Sandberg & Payton, Hossa now Chicago icon

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  • Marian Hossa is a consummate professional who gives his all on every shift and represents the Blackhawks and his sport with distinction, according to Bob Verdi.

      Marian Hossa is a consummate professional who gives his all on every shift and represents the Blackhawks and his sport with distinction, according to Bob Verdi.
    Associated Press

  • Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks  Bob Verdi, Blackhawks historian

      Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks Bob Verdi, Blackhawks historian

 
By Bob Verdi
Special to the Daily Herald

Editor's note: As part of an alliance with the Blackhawks, the Daily Herald will offer occasional features by Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's official website.

Professional.

Marian Hossa gives his all on every shift, but we need not dig that deep for a word to define him, on and off the ice. The man is a professional who represents the Blackhawks and his sport with distinction.

Hossa will play his 1,000th National Hockey League game Sunday in Detroit, a national telecast that will leave him no place to hide. He possesses Hall of Fame credentials, yet eschews the trappings of celebrity. His wardrobe is from the pages of GQ and you would kill to drive even one of his used cars, but otherwise Hossa is so understated that Blackhawks vice president and general manager Stan Bowman praises the veteran winger as a "grinder" -- a label rarely worn by the truly gifted, but appropriate in Hossa's case.

"I like to fly under the radar, but it's a tremendous honor to reach that milestone," Hossa said Friday night after a 200th-consecutive United Center sellout watched the amazing Blackhawks beat Columbus 4-3 in overtime to extend their NHL-record start of 21 games (18-0-3) without a regulation loss. "You have to be a little bit lucky to hit 1,000. I hope I can add to that by playing a few more years."

In the pantheon of Chicago athletes exhibiting special talent without requiring special treatment, Hossa is similar to Walter Payton and Ryne Sandberg. Both were geniuses at what they did, both were exceptional teammates, both regarded adulation as an occupational hazard. They competed to win, not to attract attention, and their humility was as endearing as their touchdowns and home runs.

But Payton was a Bear and Sandberg a Cub forever, or so it seemed. Chicago's own, year after year. Hossa joined the Blackhawks, his fifth NHL stop, in 2009 as a free agent. Yet he is treated like royalty, as if he were a homegrown prodigy who matured before our very eyes. When Hossa's name is announced at the United Center, he receives no less than the thunder accorded Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. Then there was last Monday night, when Hossa scored the overtime winner against Edmonton.

Summoned to the boards as the game's First Star for a word with Susannah Collins of Comcast SportsNet, Hossa paused during the interview to discern what the fuss was about. It was about him. "HOS-SA!! HOS-SA!!" Thousands of fans chanted, and he looked up, smiling bashfully.

"Unbelievable," he said later. But it is all true. Chicago is wild about the Blackhawks, and Hossa contributes mightily to the frenzy factor as a beloved component of a likable group.

A certain dignity is so ingrained in Hossa's DNA that it appears even during a crisis. In the playoffs last April, Hossa was assaulted by Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes. Hossa was wheeled from the United Center on horizontal hold, severely concussed. When cleared to go to his Chicago residence, Hossa spent several days in and out of bed, waking up and nodding off, avoiding daylight. He was a mess, to such an extent that he spoke about being thankful that wife Jana was by his side. In fact, she was home in Slovakia. He would not be allowed to join her and their baby daughter Mia for several weeks.

During that time, as Hossa improved gradually, his mind wandered to natural apprehensions about whether he could play again, whether he would suffer long-term as so many others have in his situation, whether he could live life to the fullest as a father and husband. Also, during that time, Torres reached out. Hossa could have vented, privately or publicly. Instead, Hossa went high road. At least Torres, a serial offender, apologized. Some guys, concluded Hossa, might not have. That was good, he said.

"My head is clear," declared Hossa before the Blackhawks opened an abbreviated training camp in January. During one practice, he was bumped by Brandon Bollig, got back up and continued drills. That was good, too. Were it not for the lockout, Hossa would have been held out for the start of the regular season. He was not healthy until November. But when the NHL impasse was resolved, Hossa reported in terrific shape, anxious to "be myself again ... to play hockey, and not careful hockey."

Hossa cites another Chicago icon, Michael Jordan, as an inspiration. In his youth, Hossa watched the Bulls at odd hours when he could find them on TV. Jordan famously did whatever it took to win, and that meant evolving over time. Michael the shooter could adapt to a post presence when necessary. And if his jumper wasn't falling, he would torment you on defense.

Likewise, Hossa is multi-dimensional. He plays the entire rink, no job too dirty or small, and he protects the puck as if it is the last one he will ever cradle. His shootout numbers aren't staggering. Perhaps he feels odd gliding in alone on net, without a checker hanging on him. Hossa claims he is not a superstar, but he is alone there, too. He is a virtuoso who craves the red light instead of the limelight.

No ego, no baggage, no agenda. A professional.

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