A big part of the appeal of the 2010 Blackhawks, a big part of why they so bewitched a fan base both new and young, and old and embittered, was their youth. It was how loose they seemed, on and off the ice. How much fun they seemed be having. How cocky and carefree they seemed in the face of the unmatched pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But Marian Hossa was not young. Nor was he that loose. And he sure as hell wasn’t carefree. Not after escaping Atlanta and getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Final with the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. Not after joining the Red Wings the following season, mercenary style, and getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Final again, only to lose by one goal in Game 7 to those same Penguins.
The next offseason, he chose the up-and-coming Blackhawks as his next spot, hoping to end his nomadic life by signing a ludicrous 12-year contract that dropped to a measly $1-million salary by the end. It was a contract nobody expected him to finish, because back then, before the 2013 lockout, you could sign deals like that.
Being around the youthful Blackhawks rejuvenated Hossa, but at 31 years old, with all those 40-goal seasons in the rear-view mirror, the big Slovak started to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Or worse, that he was a jinx.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel that pressure that year,” Hossa says. “When you’ve been on a couple different teams and you’re playing in the finals three times in a row, those voices are always in your head. ‘What if this doesn’t happen again? What if I never get back?’”
Of course, Hossa went on to win a few Stanley Cups, and become a Chicago icon in his own right. But at the time, he was certainly in a different mindset than most of his teammates, who could afford to be flippant about a playoff run in their early 20s.
“We weren’t thinking too far ahead,” Ben Eager says. “I was thinking if we didn’t win, we’d just have to get rid of Hossa. He was one of my favorite players growing up, but three years in a row? He’s a jinx! Get rid of him.”
That pressure building up in Hossa’s mind came to a head during Game 5 of the Blackhawks’ first-round matchup with the Nashville Predators. With the series tied 2-2, the Blackhawks built up a 3-1 lead on goals by Andrew Ladd, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Tomas Kopecky, with Hossa setting up his countryman on the latter. Then the bottom fell out.
Joel Ward’s shorthanded goal late in the second period gave the Predators new life. Then Martin Erat scored early in the third to tie the game, then again with 8:21 left to give Nashville a 4-3 lead. The United Center, filled with so many fans — some Cup-starved and grizzled veterans, some new adoptees who had just been turned on to the sport — sounded like a morgue. Shortly before Erat had picked Denis Grebeshkov’s pass out of his skates and beaten Antti Niemi with a quick wrister to give Nashville the lead, Pekka Rinne had robbed Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp on a power play. Frustration was mounting. Particularly on Hossa.
And moments after coming up empty on a chance of his own, with time ticking down on the crucial and pivotal game, Hossa chased down Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis for a loose puck deep in the Predators’ zone. Hossa just wanted to go in hard on the forecheck and get the puck back. He wound up shoving Hamhuis in the side and sending him hard into the boards at full speed. The five-minute major for boarding was an easy call, met only with a dismissive wave by a fuming Joel Quenneville on the bench.
Hossa trudged off to the penalty box, thinking, What have I done?
‘‘I tried to forecheck and do everything I could to get the puck back, but I hit the guy in a tough spot,’’ Hossa says. ‘‘I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ Usually I don’t take those types of penalties. And in a crucial game like this? You work so hard to try and create something, and then you do something like that. I couldn’t believe it.’’
With 63 seconds left, shorthanded, against one of the best trapping teams in the league, the game appeared over. And with it, possibly the series. And with that, possibly Hossa’s sanity.
‘‘You’re writing it off,’’ Troy Brouwer admits.
But every championship has a turning point. An obstacle to overcome. An unlikely victory. In 2013, it was Brent Seabrook entering the penalty box and patting a full-tilt Jonathan Toews on the head and telling him it’d all be OK before the Blackhawks rattled off three straight wins to erase a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit. In 2015, it was Toews breaking Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen’s brain with two late goals to force overtime in Game 5 — a game that was a loss in the short term but a huge win in the long run.
In 2010? It came with their best penalty killer, Hossa, in the box. And with Kane, who had played 10 measly minutes of shorthanded time all season, on the ice. Lingering. Looming. Lurking.
‘‘I don’t know if he played a single minute on the PK all year long, and he’s just hanging out by the red line, waiting for a breakaway pass,’’ Brouwer says with a laugh.
It never came. But when the Blackhawks managed to enter the zone, Kane did what he does best, which is find open ice. With the play all to one side, Kane slid toward Rinne’s blind side, stick on the ice, praying for the puck to come his way. Seabrook fed Toews for a quick shot, and the rebound came toward Kane and Ward on the right side of the crease. Kane got there first, sweeping in a backhander with 13.6 seconds left.
Kane wheeled around and raced down the ice in celebration, firing off windmill fist pumps as Sharp hugged him. The crowd at the United Center spontaneously burst to life, the sounds of The Fratellis’ ‘‘Chelsea Dagger’’ reverberating throughout the cavernous arena. And all by his lonesome in the penalty box, Hossa looked like the littlest kid on the team, jumping up and down like a madman as a mix of relief and joy washed over him.
‘‘It was a weird place to be, celebrating in the penalty box,’’ Hossa says. ‘‘But it was exciting.’’
The next day, some of Hossa’s teammates got their hands on a video clip of his solo celebration. They couldn’t stop watching it.
‘‘He’s jumping up and down and banging on the glass, all by himself,’’ Brouwer says. ‘‘It was absolutely hilarious.’’
The overtime intermission — the Blackhawks walked down the tunnel to a standing ovation as Gene Honda announced Kane’s goal over the public-address system — was the first time the modern-day, unflappable, unkillable Blackhawks mentality really showed itself.
There wasn’t any premature celebration. There wasn’t a whole lot of backslapping and fist-bumping. Oh, there was the usual Seabrook chatter—the ‘‘Here we go, Red!’’ and the ‘‘Come on now, boys!’’ that tend to spill out of him before games and in big moments. Toews might have had a few words. But in what would become the Blackhawks’ hallmark, it was a pretty mellow place. Party away from the rink, all business at the rink.
‘‘It’s all about riding those highs and lows and trying to stay even-keeled,’’ says Brent Sopel, one of the more veteran players on the team. ‘‘We just sat there and talked about our strategy. We still had four minutes of penalty kill ahead of us to start overtime.
‘‘Our PK had been phenomenal — I was enjoying taking Shea Weber shots off every part of my body. We were comfortable and confident that we could get through that penalty kill, then we’d just go from there. Never at any point did we get too high and never at any point did we get too low. It was a real asset of that team.’’
During those 18 tense minutes, Toews’ thoughts turned to what might be going on in the other dressing room, just a few feet down the hall.
‘‘When the other team ties it up like that, your heart sinks and you feel like you really let a huge opportunity slip,’’ Toews says. ‘‘You’re just trying to move on. But it’s a completely different feeling when you’re the one who ties it up. You get that second chance and you have that feeling of destiny. You just know you’re going to pull it off. So you just keep that positive chatter going and keep everyone in that right frame of mind. Someone’s going to be the hero. Make that play and make it you.’’
And that hero, fittingly, turned out to be Hossa.
The Blackhawks finished off the kill, and Hossa stepped out of the box and drifted immediately toward Rinne’s right side — the same spot from which Kane scored the equalizer, only on the other end of the rink. Sopel fired a shot from the far point, and the deflection came right to Hossa, who smacked it in for the game-winner. Hossa did a rock-star power slide from his knees, twirling as he pumped both fists in jubilation.
Just like that, Hossa was off the hook. Just like that, the Blackhawks had a 3-2 series lead. Just like that, the Blackhawks were on their way to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
“Every team has one of those moments where it’s going to go one way or the other,” Andrew Ladd says. “You get past that piece of adversity and your confidence goes through the roof. Being down, being in the box with no time remaining in the game, we didn’t think we really had much of a shot to even get an opportunity to tie it. Ninety-nine times out of 100, you’re not scoring shorthanded with a minute left in a playoff game to take the game to overtime. But we did it.”
It was an absurd, unthinkable, impossible victory. Hossa knew it. He felt it. But the rest of the guys? Hey, no big deal.
“Everyone always wonders how we did so well that first year,” Brouwer says. “It was sheer dumb confidence. We didn’t know any better. Us young guys, I don’t think we knew the magnitude of what was going on at the time. We’re just going out there having fun, playing hockey. I remember after we got through that series, Kris Versteeg and his girlfriend, and Colin Fraser and his girlfriend came over to my house. We were sitting there around the dinner table, I’m 24, Fraz is 25, Steeger is 23 — and we’re just openly talking about how there’s nobody that’s going to beat us. You’re not supposed to think things like that, let alone say them out loud. But that was the feeling throughout the entire team. Nobody was going to beat us. It was that dumb confidence. We knew early on that we were going to win the Stanley Cup.”
These days, the Blackhawks basically are the Red Wings — the multi-time champions, the crafty veterans, the indomitable intimidators. Tried and tested. Older guys with families who enjoy a quiet night at home even more than a wild night on the road. In his late 30s with two little girls at home, Hossa fits in nicely.
But being around — and being bailed out — by all those young guys? It might just have added years upon years to Hossa’s career.
“In Detroit the year before, you go to the wives room and there are so many families and kids running around,” Hossa says. “All of a sudden you go to the wives room in Chicago and it’s just girlfriends, nobody else. It was like a junior team, basically. The guys talked about different things than the older guys in Detroit did, and they went out all the time. It was fun to be part of such an experienced group in Detroit, but it was really fun to be with that young group in Chicago.”
And it turns out, no, Hossa was not a jinx.
“If I had never won, if it never happened, then I’d live with it,” Hossa says. “But I didn’t want to think about what-ifs too much. I just tried to focus on that moment during that playoff, and I think that helped me. And when [Kane] scored that big goal to win the Cup in Philadelphia, I’m never going to forget that moment. Best moment in my hockey career.”